When I was back in Minnesota visiting family this June, my sister gave me The Vanishing Immigrants by Arthur Norlen. Our grandparents were Swedish immigrants like the author and emigrated from the same province, Varmland, a little less than twenty years before him. However, as Norlen points out, those years made a big difference in the immigrant experience.
Norlen did not settle in Minnesota like my grandparents, but instead went to Montana, Idaho and Washington. Besides earning a living, he was hoping to find his uncles who had immigrated years earlier. One of his purposes in writing this book was to under why so many immigrants effectively vanished in time, not writing back to family in Sweden to let them know they are okay.
Norlen came to America when labor was struggling, not just for power and recognition, but even with the concept of labor. There was the I.W.W. whose radical agenda frightened the owners. The polar opposite were the company unions like the 4L that were fronts to delegitimize other unions. Organizing campaigns were happening in the Butte mines of Montana and the lead and silver mines of Idaho and the logging tracts of Washington and Idaho. Norlen’s sympathies lie with the unions.
Reading his experiences makes me think of my uncle who was just seven years older than him, also an immigrant from Varmland and a logger who joined the I.W.W. when he worked in the Washington logging camps. He, too, hopped a few trains as he looked for work from Minnesota to Idaho and Washington. In Norlen’s stories, I hear echoes of my uncle.
Of course I loved this book, even though the writing is uneven and the final chapter is just a weird, weird, weird addition tacked on for no good reason. Perhaps Norlen had some strange impulse to prove that he, too, can write a cliched romantic sex scene. Given the tone of the rest of the book, it was just wrong. My enjoyment came from interest in the topic, in learning about farming in Varmland, in the immigrant experience and connecting it to my own family’s experience.
The book is out of print, though there are used copies available here and there. It was published in 1976 and suffers from age just a bit. The copy my sister gave me was full of clippings about the book. There were also a lot of letters to the editor and op-eds written by Norlen and a couple other people. All were members of Idaho Citizens Network, which is now known as ICAN, Idaho Community Action Network. Having spent a short time working for Idaho Citizens Network in the nineties, that was a strange and wonderful coincidence. It created this strange, irrational personal connection that made me love the book even more.