Must-read social history of pre-emigration life in Norway

Between Rocks and Hard Places by Ann Urness Gesme is a social history of the Norwegian farmers who made up the bulk of emigrants to America. Focusing on the Norwegian period of their lives makes this book uniquely informative and valuable, since there are already many good books about the American period. Ten out of twelve chapters concern aspects of life in Norway, such as the church, courting and marriage, education, and trading and markets. The remaining two chapters concern the circumstances that led to emigration and the founding of Norwegian communities in America.

The amount of detail put forth about little-discussed but very interesting subjects is extremely valuable to the researcher and historian. For example, the chapter on farms and farming discusses ownership and transfer of farms (including the legal environment), the various buildings found on a farm and their typical arrangements, crops and crop failures, and the division of labor on a farm. 

This book adds a great amount of context to our understanding of our immigrant ancestors’ lives, yet it is surprisingly not at all dry or dense. Gesme finds interesting things to discuss about almost every subject. I was very surprised to read in her descriptions of illegitimate childbearing that the occurrence was really quite frequent, and in many regions  it didn’t have a significant negative social stigma – in fact, for a prospective husband, it was a welcome confirmation of the woman’s fertility! Another related curiosity is how the customs of hospitality dictated that travelers be accommodated overnight – usually in the servant’s shared beds in the barn. It was not uncommon for male travelers to “sleep” in the female servants’ bed, and, unsurprisingly, new farm hands would arrive in 9 months. (Gesme doesn’t discuss how often this scenario involved rape, which I suspect was a big problem.)

If you are researching your relatives in Norway, this book is a must-read, full of valuable, practical, and interesting information. In fact, before I knew of this book’s existence I had planned to write a similar one – Ann Urness Gesme saved me the trouble. 

A hundred-year old book attempts a similar survey organized by gender and societal role. Home Life in Norway by H. K. Daniels, 1911, is republished as a free e-book. The scope is a bit more broad than Gesme’s book and is not limited to farm life.

Buy Between Rocks and Hard Places on Amazon.com or from the Vesterheim.

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