Editor’s note: Arland Fiske passed away June 16, but as a tribute to him, The Pilot-Independent will continue to print his column for the next couple of months.
He was only 55 when he died in 1931. But the boy from the island of Donna near the Arctic Circle had become world famous.
Ole Edvart Rolvaag was born April 22, 1876. Six generations of the family had lived on this rocky, windswept and treeless island.
Fishing was the main business of the community, but Ole’s father was also a good carpenter and did some small farming. They grew barley, rye, and potatoes and he raised a few cattle and sheep.
The chief interest of the Rolvaag family, however, was literary. By age 6, everyone was expected to start reading. This did not come easy for Ole.
Formal education began at age 7. The only road to the schoolhouse 7 miles away was a rough path. School ended with confirmation at age 14. Then Ole was off to apprentice with a fishing captain.
Fortunately, Ole did learn how to read well, but it was the storytelling during the long winter nights that stirred his imagination. When he read “The Last of the Mohicans,” a story about life in the New World, a new idea began to take root in his mind.
After a terrible sea storm off the Lofoten Islands, where many sailors were drowned, Ole resolved to go to America. An uncle at Elk Point, S.D., sent him a ticket. His employer offered to buy him a sleek new fishing boat if he would forget about America. Ole stuck to his plans.
After working on his uncle’s farm in South Dakota, Ole decided that milking cows and cleaning barns was not the job for him. After all, that was women’s work in Norway.
A pastor encouraged him to get an education. At age 23, Ole entered Augustana Academy at Canton, S.D. He graduated in two years with honors. There he met Jennie Marie Berdahl, the daughter of a pioneer family, who later became his wife. It was from her relatives that he received much of the information about pioneer life.
In the autumn of 1901, Ole began his studies at St. Olaf College in Northfield. He did so well that Pres. Kildahl wanted him to become a pastor. But Ole decided he would be a teacher and a position was offered him at St.Olaf where he remained the rest of his life.
During the summer of 1904, he taught parochial (religious) school at Bisbee and Churches Ferry in North Dakota
At St. Olaf, Rolvaag had a double career as a professor and a writer. He was always a close friend of students in need. It was during these years that he wrote his most famous book, “Giants in the Earth.”
His tragic hero, Per Hansa, is immortal to all that have read this novel. It was a Book of the Month selection in 1927. “Peder Victorious” and “Their Father’s God” completed the trilogy. He considered his book, “The Boat of Longing,” his best work.
Though he was of modest stature and suffering from heart problems in later life, it was pride and will power that propelled the boy from the windswept island of the North to become a “giant.” On the St. Olaf campus, the library memorializes this professor who has given us the most vivid description of immigrant life among the Norwegians on the Dakota prairies.
One of my good friends, Richard Waag of Billings, Mont., visited the island of Donna to trace his family history. His father was a first cousin to Rolvaag. He looked up his Rolvaag relatives.
Many people called “giants” are misfits in society. Rolvaag, however, was known by his friends as one who loved life and loved people. Besides the novels he wrote, he was one of the founders of the Norwegian-American Historical Association located in the Rolvaag Library on the campus of St. Olaf College.
Recently, the American Historical Review has described this organization as “The most active historical society among the immigrant groups in the United States.” He has added much to our appreciation for living.
Next time: “T.F. Gullixson, As I Remember Him”