From the fjords of Vestlandet to the plains of the Midwest, thousands of Norwegian immigrants bid farewell to their family, home and country and set sail across the Atlantic in pursuit of promise, land and the American dream.
Gloria Koll’s grandmother was one such immigrant, a tenacious woman strong of mind, heart and body. Leaving all she had known and loved behind, she set forth in 1885 unaccompanied, with but a few belongings, to pioneer her future in the United States’ Dakota Territory.
Growing up, Koll recalls being rapt as her father related her tales and those of his own childhood to Koll and her siblings.
It is these stories, and the people who lived them, that form the backbone of Koll’s latest novel, “Skipping Stones: A Story of Finding Home.”
She began penning the novel as her father Ludvik aged into his 80s and she recognized that these stories would be lost if not recorded.
The book is a medley of fact and fiction, with real-life family tales and historical references interspersed with supplements from Koll’s imagination. Kari, the principle character, is based on Karin, Koll’s grandmother.
It spans from 1885-1945, from the era of Scandinavian mass migration through WWII, and focuses on the intertwining lives of Scandinavian pioneer families in a small farm town.
Koll has given several readings of the book, both on Whidbey and in the surrounding area, including a recent presentation at the Nordic Heritage Museum in Ballard.
Often, Koll said attendees approach her afterward to share their own family stories, many of which are similar to her own and that of Kari.
As a part of the presentations, Koll also incorporates traditional Scandinavian music, and wears a bunad. The bunad is characteristic to the specific region of Norway from which her family came, Koll explained, and was made by one of her Norwegian relatives.
Koll said in part, the book was also a result of her desire to delve into learning more about her heritage. She often wondered, she said, what certain traits of hers stemmed from her ancestral culture and lineage.
After graduating from Pacific Lutheran University, both she and her husband Bill—whose grandparents had also immigrated from Norway and Finland—made their first trip to the region. They visited once again when their children were young.
“As I met my relatives over there it felt very much like a revelation,” she said. “ ‘These are my people; they act like this; they look like this; this is the kind of food they eat.’ It was a real sense of being rooted in that culture.”
On one occasion, Koll had the opportunity to visit Norway and the farm her grandmother had grown up on.
“It was quite emotional for me, to think that she came from this little farm from a family of many children, and set out on her own, by herself, to go to the Dakota Territory,” she said. “I thought what a brave young woman she was.”
Her grandmother had been in her mid to late 20s when she departed home, though Koll said some attendees at her readings recall their own ancestors emigrating at ages as young as 16.
Though the Scandinavian countries are prosperous today, it wasn’t so at the time, Koll said. By Norwegian law, the eldest son would inherit the family property, forcing other siblings to make their own way.
Though Karin was the eldest of her siblings, she could not have had the opportunity to own land in her home country at the time, Koll said. The U.S., however, had recently opened the prairie states to settlers. Those who were willing to pour their blood and sweat in the hard work of homesteading were promised ownership of their plots.
In the book, Kari’s favorite English words are “work,” “land” and “lucky,” exemplifying her determination and faith in the reward hard work could bring her.
Koll has long been inspired by the stories of real-life women. Several years ago, she co-authored a book entitled “Daughters Arise! A Christian Retreat Resource for Girls Approaching Womanhood,” which explored the concept of women mentoring younger women through the coming of age period in a meaningful and dignified way.
Preceding the book, Koll and her cohorts led a series of such retreats for young women on and around Whidbey.
Of her latest venture, Koll said she hopes audiences will become as rapt with the story as she was listening to her father’s.
“I hope they start to love the characters and enjoy watching them as they work out their lives and their relationships,” she said. “I hope the characters become alive to them.”