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Ole Edvart Rølvaag (Rølvåg in modern Norwegian, Rolvaag in English orthography) (April 22, 1876 - November 5, 1931) was a Norwegian-American novelist and professor who became well known for his writings regarding the Norwegian American immigrant experience. Ole Rolvaag is most frequently associated with Giants in the Earth, his award-winning, epic novel of Norwegian immigrant homesteaders in Dakota Territory.
Rølvaag was born in the family's cottage in a small fishing village on the island of Dønna, in the far southern district of Nordland county, Norway. Dønna, one of the largest islands on the northern coast of Norway, is situated about five miles from the Arctic Circle. He was born with the name Ole Edvart Pedersen, one of seven children of Peder Benjamin Jakobsen and Ellerine Pedersdatter Vaag. The settlement where he was born had no official name, but was referred to as Rølvaag, the name of a narrow bay on the northwestern point of the island where the fishermen kept their boats. At 14 years of age Rølvaag joined his father and brothers in the Lofoten fishing grounds. Rølvaag lived there until he was 20 years of age, and the impressions he received during the days of his childhood and his young manhood endured with him throughout his life.
An uncle who had emigrated to America sent him a ticket in the summer of 1896, and he traveled to Union County, South Dakota to work as a farmhand. He settled in Elk Point, South Dakota, working as a farmhand until 1898. With the help of his pastor, Rølvaag enrolled in Augustana Academy in Canton, South Dakota where he graduated in 1901. He earned a bachelor's degree from St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota in 1905, and a master's degree from the same institution in 1910. He also had studied for some time at the University of Oslo.
Rolvaag died November 5th, 1931 in Northfield, MN.
In 1908 he became a United States citizen and married Jennie Marie Berdahl, the daughter of Andrew James Berdahl and Karen Oline Otterness. They had four children: Olaf, Ella, Karl and Paul. Their son, Karl Fritjof Rolvaag, served as the 31st Governor of Minnesota.
In 1906, Rølvaag was recruited as a professor by St. Olaf College president John N. Kildahl. Rølvaag was made head of the Norwegian Department at St. Olaf College in 1916. In 1925, Ole E. Rolvaag became the first secretary and archivist of Norwegian-American Historical Association. He would hold both positions for the remainder of his life. Rølvaag was knighted in the Order of St. Olav by the King Haakon VII in 1926.
Ole Rølvaag wrote in the Norwegian language, however his novels have a distinct American flavor and theme. Rolvaag was deeply influenced by earlier American writers who, writing in the Norwegian language, had faithfully portrayed the experiences of so many Norwegian immigrant pioneers. In this he was strongly influenced by Hans Andersen Foss and Peer Stromme, both of whom had written novels which provided realistic aspects of the homesteader’s experience. The Emigrants by Norwegian author Johan Bojer, which was first published in 1925, follows many of these same themes. Rølvaag in turn provided an equally strong influence on future Scandinavian writers. Rølvaag attracted a number of gifted young Norwegian-Americans to St. Olaf College, among them Einar Haugen. Written decades later, Vilhelm Moberg's novels would depict the experience of Swedish-American immigrants.
Rølvaag's authorship and scholarship focused primarily on the pioneer experience on the Dakota plains in the 1870s. His most famous book is Giants in the Earth (Norwegian: Verdens Grøde), which is part of a trilogy. The classic story of a Norwegian pioneer family's struggles with the land and the elements of the Dakota Territory as they try to make a new life in America. The book was based partly upon his personal experiences as a settler and as well of the experiences of his wife’s family who had been immigrant homesteaders. The novel powerfully and realistically treats the lives and trials of Norwegian pioneers in the Midwest, emphasizing their battles with snow storms, locusts, poverty and hunger. The book also vividly portrays the trials of loneliness, separation from family and longing for the old country, the difficulty of fitting into a new culture, and the estrangement of immigrant children who grew up in the new land.
Written in Norwegian and stemming from a rich old-world literary tradition, the book equally reads as a deeply and vitally American novel. It provides a dramatic contrast between Per Hansa, the natural pioneer who sees promise flooding the wind swept plains, and his wife Beret, who hungers for the home ways and in whose heart the terror of loneliness gathers, penetrates to the deeper reality of life lived on the American frontier.
The following three books form a trilogy: