Sunday, November 23, 2014

Review: OLEANNA by Julie K. Rose

OLEANNA, by Julie K. Rose, is a ghost story—not a heart-thumping tale of dreadful specters, but a poignant exploration of the hold past events and decisions can have on a person’s present course, of the strength with which regret and guilt can prevent an individual from truly living.

It is 1905 and sisters Oleanna and Elisabeth Tollefsdatter live on a beautiful but secluded farm deep in the fjordland of western Norway. With their parents and sisters dead and their brothers departed for America, the women expect to live a simple life, alone with their memories. Oleanna dreams of following her brothers, but feels tied to the homestead and unmarried Elisabeth, raising a young son on her own. Questions regarding her parents' unhappy marriage and the deaths of her mother and youngest sister in a boating accident haunt Oleanna. She finds comfort in the companionship of the mysterious artist Anders, who battles ghosts of his own. Despite his feelings for her, Anders becomes caught up in the political change sweeping Norway as the country declares independence from Sweden. When he abandons her to work for the cause and Elisabeth unexpectedly marries, Oleanna finds herself free to join her brothers across the ocean. But can she leave her beloved farm and its memories behind? What sort of life remains for her if she stays? Does she truly have a choice, as suffragettes assure her she does?

OLEANNA opens up a world little known to American readers. This quiet novel paints in vivid color the deep valleys and sparkling lakes, verdant fields and towering pine forests of the Norwegian countryside, as well as the medieval buildings, busy wharves and bustling crowds of Bergen. The author’s deep familiarity with Norwegian culture reveals itself in the details of food, clothing, interior design, arts and crafts, and farming practice with which she constructs the novel’s convincing milieu. Capturing a traditional society on the verge of modernization, Rose sets the industrialization and sophistication of the city in stark contrast to the time-honored traditions of rural life. She sketches the political situation with a deftness that grounds the reader without cluttering the story. With brutal honesty, she explores a situation modern Americans seldom face: the splintering of families through emigration. She exposes the difficulties involved in reaching a decision to emigrate and examines the conflicting emotions experienced by all involved. Rather than romanticizing the situation, Rose reveals the heavy toll emigration often took on families, especially on the individuals who remained behind.

photo credit: Peter Schmidt
What I appreciated most about this novel is the way Oleanna’s personal situation reflects that of her nation. Just as Norway stands on the threshold of an independent future, Oleanna must choose between the safety of the past and the exhilarating though uncertain promise of what might be. The key word is “choose”— trials and joys and the example of others teach Oleanna that the ghosts of the past can determine her future only if she allows them to. Just as Norway reaches out with confident enthusiasm to grasp an independent, modern existence, Oleanna must shed her guilt and hesitation and embrace a future that is hers for the making. With great sensitivity and insight, OLEANNA celebrates the courage needed to escape the comfortable company of ghosts and find one’s place in the world.

Please return tomorrow to read an interview with Julie K. Rose about the writing of OLEANNA.

Of Norwegian ancestry, Julie K. Rose writes both historic and contemporary fiction. You can learn more about Julie and her work at her website. She frequently discusses topics of Norwegian culture and history on her blog.

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