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North Dakota's Ties to the Most Popular Norwegian American Novel

Posted 5/16/17 (Tue)

Tomorrow is the 17th of May, which in Norwegian is Syttende Mai -- Norwegian Independence Day. Having been in Oslo for this national celebration once, I can still see in my mind the colorful traditional clothing and the long parade passing in front of the Palace. Norwegian flags are flying everywhere and are held by most everyone who is out and about that day.

It is a day to celebrate for anybody who has Norwegian ancestry.  That should be many of us in North Dakota, because our state has the highest percentage of residents with Norwegian ancestry.  And when you are 97 percent Norwegian, as the results of my recent Ancestry DNA test indicated, it's nearly a mandate!

A book known as the most popular Norwegian-American novel has ties to North Dakota and my family.  It is The Cotter's Son -- or Husmannsgutten in Norwegian.  It was written by H.A. Foss, an immigrant to America in 1877, who wrote several novels in America in the Norwegian language.  When published in 1884, The Cotter's Son was an instant sensation among Norwegian immigrants in America. It also became widely read in Norway, with 16 editions published. 

H.A. Foss eventually moved to Minot, North Dakota, where he lived to the end of his life and is buried.  My great-uncle Joel Winkjer read the book as a young boy growing up in Garfield, Minnesota. When he retired from a long career as a dairy specialist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the 1950s, he decided to translate the book into English "to keep his mind sharp." I remember reading it as a third grader when it was first published.  In 1998, my husband and I re-published the book so a greater number of people could enjoy the adversities and adventures in Norway and America of Ole Haugen, the poor cotter's son and Marie Hovland, the rich farmer's daughter.  

All who read it, young or old, will learn more about their Scandinavian heritage and better understand Norwegian immigration to America.  They will also understand why this book has been called by literary critics as "the most popular Norwegian-American novel."

By Andrea Winkjer Collin  


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