Ole Halverson, born in 1930 in southwestern Wisconsin—in that lush region of river valleys and forested ridges known as the Wisconsin Alps—has never seen the native land of his forebears. Nevertheless, the heart of Norway beats within his works. Halverson still resides in the farmhouse where he was born, midway between Eau Claire and Prairie du Chien, on rich farmland that is home to some 100,000 Norwegian-Americans, most of them with ancestral roots in Gudbrandsdal, Norway.
Unlike the vast majority of Norwegian immigrants to the United States, Halverson’s parents railed against assimilation from the moment they landed at the St. Paul/Minneapolis Airport in 1921. Then newlyweds, Halvor and Lena had come to America to pursue farming on a larger scale than they found easily possible in Gudbrandsdal. They embraced the rolling hills of Wisconsin, the rich loam and mechanized equipment that New Gudbrandsdal offered, but they eschewed the adopted tongue of their fellow immigrants. Thus, their ninth child Ole—born and schooled at home—did not learn to speak English until he was sixteen. Today he writes exclusively in Norwegian, approving only official translations into English by youngest sister Ethel.
From his seminal work “Knut Brye”—the eponymous epic poem about the well-known sawmill foreman who provided shelter in the 1860s for newcomers to Wisconsin’s Ramsrud Hills—to his 2005 published collection Bad Axe, Coon Prairie, Viroqua, Halverson gives new voice to the childhood tales he heard of the early Norwegian-American experience. His “Uffda,” translated into eighty-five languages to date, recalls the devastation wrought by millions of grasshoppers in western Minnesota on June 12, 1873, and is, arguably, his best-known work. On the other hand, Halverson’s tribute to his parents’ enduring marriage, the naive “et kyss for de” (“a kiss for you”)—found scribbled on the back of a seed order form—is listed in numerous publications as “the most quoted love poem in the modern Norwegian language.”
In “The Garden of the Herrnhutters,” Halverson draws on the memoirs of A. M. Iverson*, pastor to a company of emigrants from Stavanger who settled in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in the mid-1800s. This group, members of the Congregation of Brothers, sought to live in the countryside, away from the temptations of city living. A wealthy and well-educated benefactor, Nils Otto Tank, came to Milwaukee in 1850 to furnish them land and help them establish a colony. The settlement would be built on the model of Herrnhut—a village established by the organizer of the Church of the Brotherhood, Count Zinzendorf, in the mountains of Saxony. (Tank had undergone a religious conversion as a young man when he was injured and subsequently stayed in a private home in Herrnhut.) Nils Otto purchased land for the settlement in what today is Green Bay, then a small pioneer settlement. Forty-two adults were among the group that moved to the land to build the new village, which was named Ephraim, meaning “the highly fertile.” The colonists cleared the heavily forested land and built the structures in a process memorialized in “Denne Hagen av Herrnhuters.”
Halvorson writes in blank verse, which lends itself well to the combination of lilting cadences and stark images that infuse his work.
* Pastor Iverson’s memoirs are considered a wealth of information about the early days of Norwegian pioneers in America.