During the last season of Hell On Wheels (spoiler alert!!), in which the Swede (played by Canadian actor Christopher Heyerdahl who, when called a Swede, always replied, “I am from Norway”) was hanged, I was happily immersed in Karen Swensson’s Conversations Loosely Translated, a book in which a brilliant author is able to evoke (literally) the ghosts of her Norwegian forebears. Swensson has done a fabulous job and the ghosts are among the most amenable and interesting of any I have met in book pages or on Halloween.
What floored me is that her method works. Any writer worth their salt knows the tingle of joy when discovering another writer trying to carry off something difficult that SUCCEEDS. It is like a permission slip to all of us: “See? If you learn to write as well as Swensson, you too will be doing flips in the air and walking on foam.”
I can just imagine what inspired her. After all, Swensson’s American roots are in Wisconsin, in the farmhouse that burned down taking the lives of many including her own mother. The farmhouse was built in 1845. You can read on Amazon about the chain of events that made Swensson look backwards to the past.
Watching Hell on Wheels while reading Swensson’s book brought the vivid American past into a swirling reality. But I do not think it is just Hell on Wheels fans who will appreciate what Swensson has done in Conversations Loosely Translated–Ancestry.com users and other family tree researchers will love the way she makes the ghosts interact with the writer.
Thus the “conversations” are with these Norwegian phantoms. Even though Swensson tells the reader exactly what she is doing, it all feels real. I really felt the ghosts were there. No doubt that is because Swensson remembers to add descriptive details and weaves story patterns into the book.
I liked reading about great, great grandfather Ole relate how the Norwegian settlers arrived penniless and had to be taken in by Norwegians living in sod houses dug out in the Koshkonong area. Since the the Hell on Wheel‘s Swede’s accent was always heavy, he must have come over as a teen and had quite a few dinners with gophers digging through the wall to join him and the other Norwegians.
Swensson is a good researcher. History buffs will enjoy reading about the Norwegian ship that avoided Spanish pirates by doubling back to Europe for a day and a half, only to make a U turn to get back on track for the New World!