Leaving Home

I’m in Decorah, Iowa this week, doing research at Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum. Vesterheim features a spectacular collection of artifacts. I’ve blogged before about their alebowls, and about my experiences taking rosemaling classes.

With so many tangible objects to grab attention, it would be easy to overlook a black-and-white exhibit panel. Yet this one captures my attention each time I visit.

Poignant words.

I began learning about and thinking about the immigrant experience while working at Old World Wisconsin. Later I considered the topic more broadly while scripting Cultural Horizons for public television. Questions of cultural identity have played a role in many of my books (including Trouble at Fort La Pointe, Betrayal at Cross Creek, The Runaway FriendHighland Fling, and Old World Murder).  The theme obviously resonates with me.

Immigrant letters sent back to loved ones in Europe provide some insight into the experience of 18th- and 19th-century arrivals in their new homes. More rare—at least for me—are written records of how people felt as they prepared to say good-by. Paintings of tearful farewells convey well  just how wrenching those departures from loved ones were.

Halvor Langslet’s farewell, though, was about saying good-bye to a place. He evidently felt a need to actually write something down—and not on paper, but on a building. I imagine that felt a bit more permanent.

I watched some kids experience the museum recently—kids who are well wired, able to Skype with distant cousins and use their phones to do almost anything. And that’s OK…but I’m glad that museums like Vesterheim continue to collect and share such rare reminders of what our ancestors experienced.

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5 Responses to “Leaving Home”

  1. Arletta Dawdy's Blog Says:

    I wonder how many such messages were left in place over the many years of immigration to the US? In diaries, in carvings, in scratches and penned poems/letters. I wonder if my great-grandparents left any such when they left Wales? Have you ever opened a wall to find old calendars or newpapers in them? It is a treat even if we’re not sure what the leaver wanted to convey.

    Thanks for your thoughtful piece, Kathleen.

  2. Pam De Voe Says:

    This is wonderful. I’m so glad you are giving life to these immigrants and their sentiments through your novels.

  3. Kathleen Ernst Says:

    If one man’s words were saved, how many more people left similar sentiments behind that are now lost? It’s so compelling to ponder…

  4. Eunice Boeve Says:

    Thanks for sharing that man’s words of goodbye. Really, really neat that they survived until someone could record them. I’m a transplant to Kansas from Montana and feel some of that same tug to go back to my childhood home. The house and out buildings are gone, but that’s not what I miss. What I miss are those 40 acres of creek, hills, and trees and all that they contained.

  5. Kathleen Ernst Says:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Eunie. That sense of place provides such a strong tug, doesn’t it?

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