Book Report: Read about famous Norwegians known by few this week
Eric Dregni, a professor at Concordia University-St. Paul has a deft touch when it comes to titles. One that attracted me a while back was "In Cod We Trust," a light-hearted account of visiting relatives in Norway and explaining customs he and his wife discovered there.
Now he's out with a somewhat scary title, "Vikings in the Attic" (University of Minnesota Press, $22.95), in which he characterizes Midwestern Scandinavianism and some of the peculiar marks they have made on our culture and some memorable markers as well.
Peculiar? Collecting silver spoons, shots of turpentine for the common cold, and a deep love of rhubarb pie. (Rhubarb grows well in cold climate.)
And let's not forget about that great big twine ball.
Memorable? Immigrants who lived on the prairies in sod huts, but managed to send their kids to college; giving birth to the co-op movement; and founding the Farmer-Labor party.
Dregni is especially good when it comes to tracking down important Scandinavians and telling this reader more than he knew about them before picking up his new book.
Like violinist Ole Bull, whom Dregni calls a "Nordic Paganini;" Gutzon Borglum, carver of Mount Rushmore; novelists Vilhelm Moberg and Ole Rolvaag, as well as poet Carl Sandburg; aviator Charles Lindbergh, Jr. and his politician father Sr.
Then there's Thorstein Veblen, Carleton professor, "...a magnificent misfit, who coined the term 'conspicuous consumption' and got fired from lots of teaching jobs, even taught at the University of Missouri, where he described Columbia "a woodpecker hole of a town in a rotten stump called Missouri." (He ended up co-founding The New School of Social Research.)
Also Joel Hagglund. Who's that? None other than Joe Hill, the Swedish migrant worker, who was shot by order of the governor of Utah. (Where else?)
And, of course, John Hanson. Hanson was the first president of the United States when he became president of the Congress of the Confederation. (George Washington voted for him).
There's lots of fun in this book and interesting details attested to by Dregni's voluminous footnotes of sources cited. He can't resist poking fun at lutefisk, which he calls "fish soaked in drain cleaner," but he wouldn't be the first Scandophile to commit this bit of exaggeration.
"Pretend the World," by Kathryn Kysar (Holy Cow! Press, $15) is a fine new book of verse by the editor of a book I reviewed years ago, "Riding Shotgun: Women Write About Their Mothers."
Kysar lives in St. Paul and writes about a wide variety of subjects, serious and not-so.
Here's a short one that made me laugh out loud, "Eating Sushi with Robert Bly and Sam Hamill:"
It took seventy-eight years to make this moment:
the cantankerous farm boy turned cantankerous poet
sitting in the large Saturday night sushi restaurant,
saki in small blue cups, tucked in a corner table, talk politics and poetry.
When the plates come, we find he has ordered beef, the only food he knew.
He asked for the brown stuff, poured too much soy in his bowl, but Sam shows him
how to chop the wasabi into the soy with sticks, dip the sushi into the sauce
that bites, stings, and barks. He tasted it all, forced the ginger flower
on to his tongue and said, "All I know is that it's not Norwegian."
Dave Wood is a past vice president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Phone him at 715-426-9554.