Scandinavian heritage

It would be difficult to live in our small corner of New York state without soon learning how strongly our way of life has been shaped by the history and culture of the Scandinavian countries.

Recently, the Norden Clubs of Jamestown have requested their members to write up memories of their families’ lives in Scandinavia, and often of their journey from Northern Europe to Chautauqua County, and their lives in North America, even if some of it happened outside our immediate area.

This week, I’d like to feature a review of the resulting book: “Our Scandinavian Heritage.”

The stories were collected and edited by Barbara Ann Hillman Jones, who grew up in Jamestown and who now lives in Indiana. If I’ve counted correctly, there are 110 stories in the book, told by 66 of our friends and neighbors. Some are several pages in length, while others are only a few paragraphs.

There are more than stories about how grandmother or great-grandmother earned the passage money to come to America, although there certainly are many such stories. There are examinations of Scandinavian values. There are recipes and menus for typical Scandinavian fare. There are explanations of holiday customs, there are love stories, there are war stories, there are histories of famous Scandinavians and much more.

Especially if you are directly part of the Scandinavian heritage of our area I certainly recommend the book to you, but even if you just live in the community and are influenced by the Scandinavian foods which are often served, especially at holidays, or you enjoy the various Scandinavian singing and dancing organizations, or you admire the homemade architectural elements and the beautiful furniture and needlework which are to be found here, the book is easy and pleasant reading, and well worth your attention.

There are various definitions of “Scandinavian” to be found. The most literal would be something coming from one of the two countries which are located on the Scandinavian Peninsula in Northern Europe. Those would be Norway and Sweden. Other definitions would include Denmark, which borders Germany, and most of its land is located on the Jutland Peninsula. The Danish language is very similar to Norwegian and Swedish, and I’m told that someone who knows only one of the languages can generally understand someone who is speaking one of the others.

All three countries have been ruled at times in their past, by one or another of the others, and there are several essays about what treaty or what inter-marriage of royalty caused one to become a possession of another.

Still other definitions of Scandinavia include Finland, which borders giant Russia, which from time to time has risen up and swallowed the land of the Finns for centuries at time only to eventually have the small, independent-minded nation separate itself once more. Many of the people of Finland bear a strong physical resemblance to Norwegians and Swedes, being generally tall and having mostly blue eyes and pale skin; yet I’m told their language is quite different. I remember once, when my son and I were eating in a restaurant in Hungary, hearing people at a neighboring table exclaiming that their ancestors were Finns, and they could make out many words on the Hungarian menu based on their knowledge of Finnish.

The book in question takes the broadest definition of all, of the word “Scandinavian,” and includes all of those four countries, plus Iceland, which was colonized by Norwegians and is now an independent nation, and Greenland, the world’s largest island, which was colonized by Icelanders and currently is a possession of Denmark’s, although in 2008 the population of Greenland voted to weaken, but not break, their ties to Denmark.

Norway and Sweden have a significant minority of Lapps, especially in their northern reaches, while Iceland and Greenland have Inuit minorities.

Fortunately, Jones hasn’t tried to make the stories into carbon copies of her own favored styles of writing. Some of the 66 story tellers enjoy complex sentences, while others write in a simpler style and still others read as though they were originally written in another language – usually Swedish – and have been translated into English with the original syntax still preserved. The result is a sense of many different voices speaking to the reader.

When one begins reading the book, one finds quickly that one knows the houses and public buildings in our community which are being discussed. One has met the writers or their relatives; one recognizes the industries where these people earned their living, etc. But as one reads further, the stories begin to overlap, and you get a sense of how the members of our community are interlaced in their history and experiences. You also get the opportunity to compare the relative ease with which new members of our community were welcomed and can compare it to the violence and the destruction which sometimes occurred in other locations.

One cannot but be impressed by the close ties which still remain between residents of our community and increasingly distant relatives who remain in Scandinavia.

The book focuses on the positive areas of the relationship. Its stories of young women in their mid-teens who crossed the ocean on ships, completely alone, and found jobs and safe and affordable places to live in our area. There must have been the occasional drunken wife beater or the misbehaving daughter, but they haven’t found their way into the volume.

“Our Scandinavian Heritage” has 313 pages in paperbound edition, and there is also a hardbound edition and an electronic version. The book sells for $29.99 in hardcover, $19.99 in paperbound edition and $3.99 to read the book electronically.

It was printed by the Xlibris imprint, dated October of 2012. Find it with ISBN number 978-1-4691-9617-6. You can purchase a copy through the Xlibris website, www.Xlibris.com, or through Amazon.com. The editor has a website at which you can read more about the book or purchase a copy at www.phalanxassociatesinc.com.

The last I heard, local sites were being sought as a place to purchase the book, but as of this writing, I have not been told of any. You can phone Yvonne Thorstenson McNallie, who wrote two of the book’s entries, at 664-2977 to inquire about purchasing a copy locally.

I consulted the online catalog of the Chautauqua-Cattaraugus Library System and found there are copies available to borrow from Patterson Library in Westfield, and one labeled “for future use” from the Falconer Public Library.

Owning a copy can let you come vastly closer to knowing and understanding your community.

EDWARD ALBEE

Since our locally created book doesn’t fill up the entire column, let’s take a look at some other books which might be of interest to you.

Mel Gussow, whose byline has often been seen on theater-based features and reviews in the New York Times and other high-prestige publications, has written a biography of contemporary playwright Edward Albee. The full title is “Edward Albee: A Singular Journey.”

If you’re like me, you yearn to know how the lives of the great artists of the world have differed from those of ordinary folks. What has happened in a person’s life which enables him to produce plays such as “The Zoo Story,” “A Delicate Balance,” and of course, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” while others struggle to ink out a list of groceries to buy or errands to run?

Albee, who will be 85 years old in about a month, has a gift for laying bare elements of contemporary lives, so that they can be appreciated and understood. I don’t recommend his plays for someone who is undergoing a bout of depression because he doesn’t buy into the salesman’s stories about ourselves. Instead, he sees the possible pitfalls, the choices which people can make which can destroy our self-respect and our drive to make our lives better, and he has a rare gift for showing them on stage so clearly that even the most stubborn sufferer from self-deceit must recognize the truth and the danger of what he sees.

Gussow has done extremely accurate and well-documented research, but he doesn’t stop with that. A man who has worked all his life with professional actors, producers and other theatrical figures, Gussow knows the people who have worked with Albee’s writings. He knows which actors and directors have gotten away with getting the playwright to change words or add scenes or eliminate speeches, and which elements of his writings were of core importance to him and which simply helped make sense out of the action on stage.

I’ve seen most of Albee’s creations on stage, at least once, but reading this book made me hunger to see them all again. Elements which were once puzzling seem vastly clearer, once one has read the book.

Just as one example, a number of Albee’s plays contain elements regarding a baby who may be real and who may be a figment of one or more characters’ imaginations. In his masterpiece, “Virginia Woolf,” the principal characters are named George and Martha, named for the famous father of our country and his wife. The two have a son who is probably imaginary, although they talk about him and react to him as though he is real.

Gussow tells us that Albee was adopted at the age of two weeks by a wealthy New York City theater owner and manager and his third wife, a dedicated socialite who devoted her life to knowing who could be assigned to sit next to whom at the luncheon table and what shades of what colors were appropriate to be worn after 6 p.m. One gets the feeling that both his parents wanted to be parents, but neither cared much for their child, or even especially thought about him. He should wear the right clothes and go to the right schools, and not distract them from what was really important in life to them. Clearly, he was his own imaginary baby.

The style is easy to read. The language is clear and lucid. It’s very easy to get caught up in the writing and to want to read on and on.

If the reader doesn’t love serious theater, and if he doesn’t understand the role of theater in understanding the world, this isn’t the book for him. Learning of the struggles of an artist to steer between the demands of an enormous talent with a clear view of the world and its lackings, and the demands of ticket sales and union contracts and all the demands of the real world, are deeply challenging and exciting to the reader.

“Edward Albee: A Singular Journey” was published by the Applause Imprint, with a copyright date of 2001. It is marked for sale at $16.95 in paperbound edition. Find it with ISBN number 1-55783-447-4.

AND FURTHERMORE

Those who love live theater and films know that there are certain actors whose names almost guarantee a performance worth seeing. One of those rare few is Dame Judi Dench.

Few, if any, actors can order up the roles he or she wishes to perform, so they are to a very great extent, dependent upon others to decide to produce a certain play or film, and to choose the actor, however popular or famous, to attempt a certain role.

In 1998, author John Miller wrote a formal, annotated biography of the actor, which she declared to be definitive and excellent. In 2010, she wrote “And Furthermore,” to sort of fill in the blanks between Miller’s facts. This is not to say the reader gets to know much of her personal life. Rather, she discusses some of her many roles and how she felt about them.

Dench has the word “Dame” in front of her name. That is an honorary title, given by the Queen of Great Britain, similar to a knighthood for a man. Born in 1934 – her 79th birthday will come in a few days – she made her first professional performance in 1957, with Britain’s prestigious Old Vic Theatre Company. She claims she intends to work until she can no longer do so, and she would be happy to “drop in the traces,” if that should happen.

She has portrayed all the great heroines of classical drama to enormous praise at some of the world’s finest venues and has had six Oscar nominations, including one win for “Shakespeare in Love,” as well as dozens of other acting awards. Yet she recounts in her book that until she played “M,” the officer who orders James Bond off on his many missions, she was largely unknown by the great unwashed public. At a talk-back following the debut of one of her films, she was asked by a member of the audience whether she ever got to do any serious acting. “Oh, now and then,” she replied.

While the book contains a great many of her feelings and memories, you won’t find much gossip. She was married to classical actor Michael Williams until his death from cancer at age 65, and they had one daughter named “Tara Cressida Williams,” but whom everyone including Dench herself calls Finty. Williams was Roman Catholic, and his wife is a Quaker, but she writes only lovingly and mostly professionally about him and their daughter. If there have been quarrels or other disruptions, she chooses to keep that to herself.

So if you want to learn how an Oscar winner finds out she has been nominated, or what one goes through at the ceremony, or how a very short, blondish woman deals with an assignment to play a tall statuesque brunette or elements of an actor’s life such as that, this is just the book for you. I had a great deal of fun with it, and found it difficult to put down.

“And Furthermore” was published by St. Martin’s Press, in 2010. It has 243 pages in hard-bound edition and is marked for sale at $26.99. Find it with ISBN number 978-0-312-65906-6.

I have another locally written book which just arrived in yesterday’s mail, and I’ll be tackling it and sharing it with you as soon as I’ve read and researched it. As I’m always telling you, life is a banquet. Why should you be one of those poor sons of guns who starves for a lack of embracing that richness?