Oleanna Tollefsdatter Myklebost, the protagonist, was the author's great-great-aunt, and the novel takes her life as inspiration. As it opens, she is in her late twenties. Her parents are dead, as are two of her sisters. Seeing no future for himself in Norway, her brother John has followed another brother to the Dakotas to start a new life there. Oleanna's only companions on her family's tiny farm in the Sunnfjord region of western Norway are her remaining sister, beautiful Elisabeth, whose fun-loving nature is tempered by the burden of their heavy responsibilities, and Elisabeth's active young son.
While Oleanna sees it as her duty to nurture the memories of her lost family members, she also finds herself drawn to her neighbor, Anders Samuelsson, who has a restless streak that attracts her. Despite his promises not to abandon her like others have, she isn't able to trust him fully. Her stubbornness, loneliness, and strength appear vividly on the page, as does Norway's gorgeous and isolated fjord country. The year 1905 is a pivotal time in Norway's history, and Oleanna incorporates how its break from Sweden instilled a sense of independence and pride in its people. Rumors of these changes eventually reach rural western Norway, and they inspire the novel's characters to rethink their place in the world.
I'm always interested in reading historical novels set in unfamiliar places, so after Julie's guest post about her novel appeared here last year, I asked if she'd like to do an interview. Oleanna is a wonderful book; I found myself captured by the richly described setting as well as Oleanna's internal struggle to decide where she really belongs.
What was it like to write a novel based on members of your family?
A little terrifying, to be honest! I was too young to remember meeting John, and I never met Elisabeth and Oleanna, but my mom did, and the impression I got from her was of two women who were talented and tough, as well as gentle and kind. They were the inspiration, and their spirits were the core of these characters, but ultimately the characters became their own people. Throughout the writing of the book, and now that it's out in the world, I've really wanted to do right by them.
Did you know from the beginning that you wanted to set Oleanna in 1905?
Actually, no. The characters came to me first, and then I fudged their ages (and John's emigration date) by a year or two in order to take advantage of the obvious dramatic possibilities of the separation of Norway and Sweden in 1905.
Last year, you wrote a wonderful guest post for this site that talked about the strong sense of place that historical novels can provide. Oleanna definitely makes the majesty of Norway's fjordland come alive, with the clear blue water of Lake Jølster, the mountains in the background, and the quiet isolation of the sisters' farm. In your author's note, you mention that you visited Norway in 2004. How much did this influence your decision to set a novel there?
It didn’t determine or decide the setting, but did it influence the strength of the visuals and the tone. Oleanna was always going to be set in Norway, because that's where they lived, and that's where our family mythology centered. I started writing Oleanna in 2006, so the trip was definitely fresh in my mind, and the feelings the place evoked were still very present in my heart. It's an absolutely magnificent country, such an incredible blend of the dramatic and the bucolic.
Plus, you read that the mountain villages and fjord communities are remote and isolated, and you say, "Yes, yes, remote and isolated." But seeing it in person, and seeing how remote and isolated it can be today, gives you just a glimpse of what it was like even 100 years ago. I'm so grateful that I was able to visit, because understanding the landscape is crucial to understanding Oleanna and her family.
It sounds like you'd had the idea for Oleanna in mind for some time. At what point did you decide that it was a novel that had to be written? What convinced you?
The idea for the book came to me very suddenly, in November 2006, with the image of Oleanna outside the saeter's cabin, her long blond hair being whipped by the wind. I'd never seen a photo of my great-great-aunt Oleanna (except in advanced age) so this was a surprise, to say the least. I won't say it was a mystical kind of visitation, but...well. She just appeared, and I couldn't turn my back on her. I'd never considered writing a book about them before, but the thought train had started, and I couldn't get off: why were Oleanna and Elisabeth still living together, alone on the farm, in the 1960s? Why did they never leave Norway? Why did John leave Norway? What were their lives like? What was it like to be left behind? I just couldn't shake them, and so over the course of five years, many drafts, and a lot of coffee, the book came to life.
Oleanna's sister Elisabeth gives their brother John a beautiful hand-decorated trunk before he leaves for America. Was this based on an heirloom from your family's history? What about the country's folk traditions inspires you?
Sadly, no, it's not based on a family heirloom, but on the trunks I saw at the Norsk Folkemuseum in Oslo and the Vesterheim's excellent online collection. The folk arts of Norway inspire me because they're beautiful, and something about their immediacy really speaks to me. They don't seem to strive for perfection, but for honest expression and emotion. I also love them because they represent a nearly unbroken line of tradition extending back over one thousand years, and that appeals to the history geek in me.
Elisabeth is a single mother who, in the beginning, resists the urge to marry. How typical is she for the time and place?
She's not typical, but not unheard of. Sexual mores in the lonely, isolated countryside were a bit more liberal, so the fact that she had sex was not unusual. In fact, the saeter (a farm's summer mountain meadows) was engrained in Norwegian consciousness as an erotic symbol, a place of trysts and a liminal place where the regular world touches the supernatural.*
The fact that she kept the baby once she got pregnant, and did not marry, was definitely more unusual. I think given the fact that she was lost in the middle of the pack of Myklebost children, she grew up with an unconventional and more liberal-minded mother, and the terrible losses she and Oleanna suffered, led her to cling to that which gave her some measure of peace, but also allowed her to be defiant in the face of the whims of fate.
* Dr. Ellen Rees, University of Oslo: "Domesticated Wilderness in Two Norwegian Children's Classics" (Scandinavian Studies; Spring 2011)
With your first sentence, you talk of how Oleanna was "beset by ghosts," referring to her inability to set aside her grief for her lost family members. The otherworldly has a gentle yet haunting presence in the novel, such as the flowers blooming out of season in the woods at her mother's gravesite, and Oleanna imagines seeing her late mother and sisters when she's ill with fever. Aside from these brief hints and glimpses, the novel reads as mainstream historical fiction. How did you decide how much of the fantastic to weave into the story?
The fantastic elements emerged very naturally from the story itself. Folk beliefs were still very much a part of life into the early 20th century, but there was a tension with the coming of the modern world into the mountains. I didn't want to put a spotlight on those beliefs, but fantastic elements in the book can be read as a nod to the times and beliefs passing away. They're also suggestive of Oleanna's mindset after so much loss.
What part of the research or writing process did you enjoy the most?
The research was such a joy, because it made sense of the stories and traditions that I had learned from my mom and grandmother. I particularly loved delving into the folk arts, and learning about the women's suffrage movement.
The writing process was difficult. I wrote (and edited, and rewrote) another novel, and made a start on two others, while I was writing Oleanna. The themes and characters were very close to the bone, and I needed to take breaks to get my brain recalibrated and come back with fresh eyes.
The three Myklebost siblings in Oleanna are very different. Did you relate more easily to any of them?
I could definitely relate to all three of them in different ways, but Oleanna is the character I can relate to most, which is probably why it took so darn long to write this novel.
Can you give any examples of how Oleanna's character developed or changed during the writing process -- or did you have her personality solidified in your mind early on?
It was a real journey, getting to know Oleanna and trying to understand her choices. The basic core of her personality was set from the start, as were her challenges and struggles, but what she ultimately did with them was something we discovered together. I tried always to put myself in her shoes, in her milieu, and not judge her choices or impose my mindset on her. It's sometimes a tough thing to do as a writer, especially with a character with whom you feel so strong a connection.
Julie K. Rose is an author of historical and mainstream fiction with a touch of the fantastic. She is a longtime member of the Historical Novel Society and a former reviewer for the Historical Novels Review. She lives in the Bay Area and loves reading (especially Patrick O'Brian), watching episodes of Doctor Who, and enjoying the amazing natural beauty of Northern California. Oleanna, short-listed in the 2011 Faulkner-Wisdom literary competition, is her second novel. It was published in January ($20.00 pb / $5.99 on Kindle, 341pp).