Literature / The Emigrants

For where you go I go with you.

A novel suite by Swedish author Vilhelm Moberg, considered among the finest pieces of Swedish literature. The books have been translated into more than twenty languages, including English. The series consists of four books:

  • The Emigrants
  • The Immigrants (also published in English under the title Unto a Good Land)
  • The Settlers
  • The Last Letter Home

The suite tells the story of a group of people who became the first in their parish to move from Sweden to the United States during the mid-19th century. They emigrate for a variety of reasons; some to find gold and become rich, some to avoid religious persecution, some to get away from stigmas that follow them in their home parish. But the main focus in the books lies on a family that emigrates to escape poverty.

Karl Oskar and Kristina are a young married couple with an ever growing family who cannot make do on what little farm land they own. Their debt keeps growing, their crops keep failing and their situation keeps getting more desperate. Karl Oskar is very eager to move to America where they can farm as much land as they want and prosper from their hard work but Kristina doesn't want to go. She doesn't want to subject their children to the risks involved, pointing out that they don't know for sure what will happen in America or if they will even get any farm land there. She also reminds her husband that if they move they leave behind everything and everyone and will never get to see their parents, siblings and friends again. But when their oldest child dies from starvation Kristina agrees to move. Coming with them is Karl Oskar's brother Robert, his friend Arvid, Kristina's uncle Danjel and his family, the former town whore Ulrika and her daughter Elin, and Karl Oskar and Kristina's neighbour Jonas Petter.

The four books chronicle the group's journey across the Atlantic, their travels across America until they find a place they can settle down and how they build a new community in the New Land. The large cast of characters allows Moberg to explore several different versions of the dream of the New Land, such as Robert's pursuit of gold and Danjel's desire to freely practice his religious beliefs, but the heart and focus of the story stays with Karl Oskar and Kristina. Karl Oskar loves his new home and all the opportunities it brings, the perfect example of a happy immigrant. Kristina on the other hand never grows to like America and spends her life longing back to Sweden, the perfect example of an unhappy immigrant.

The series has a lot of gut-wrenching moments, with many tragedies befalling the various characters. It gives an honest portrayal of life in the mid-19th century and lets you get to know the characters really well. It is also very funny at times, with some witty dialogue and a character who loves to tell dirty stories. And the love story between Karl Oskar and Kristina is one of the simplest yet most captivating ones ever put on paper.

Two film adaptations were made, one in 1971 (The Emigrants) and one in 1972 (The New Land). The films are in Swedish, starring Max von Sydow as Karl Oskar, Liv Ullmann as Kristina (earned her an Academy Award nomination), Monica Zetterlund as Ulrika and several high ranking Swedish actors in the supporting cast. The films, both directed by Jan Troell, are generally considered among the finest in Swedish film making. For tropes found in the 1971 film The Emigrants, see below. For tropes found in The New Land, see its work page.

In 1995 a stage musical based on the books premiered, titled Kristina från Duvemåla (the English translation is simply known as Kristina), written by Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson of ABBA. The show became a huge success and made stars out of Helen Sjöholm (Kristina) and Peter Jöback (Robert), the former so beloved in the role that she was the only Swedish cast member in the concert version of the English translation (reprising her role as Kristina). The English translation premiered in concert in 2009, getting mixed reviews both from fans of the original and from reviewers who had never seen the show before.

The books provide examples of:

  • Adult Fear: Kristina and Karl Oskar lose one child to starvation and almost lose another when she walks off in a crowd. They also come close to losing a son in a snowstorm.
  • The Alcoholic: Anders Månsson.
  • Always Identical Twins: Subverted almost to the point of Big-Lipped Alligator Moment. Kristina gives birth to fraternal twins but the boy only lives for about the week and is never brought up again, except for when Kristina at one point wonders if she's having twins again. The surviving twin, Märta, doesn't seem to be aware, or care, that she had a twin brother.
  • An Immigrant's Tale
  • Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking: From the cover of the English translation of "The Settlers":
    Together they survive blizzards, grasshopper plagues, wildcat speculation in currency, and self-righteous neighbors.
  • Babies Make Everything Better: One of the most realistic depictions of how while this trope isn't exactly true your children can still be a source of great joy. Especially prominent in the chapters that deal with the birth of Danjel, Karl Oskar and Kristina's first child to be born in America.
  • Bestiality Is Depraved: Arvid is plagued by false rumors that he had sex with a cow and this why he chooses to emigrate.
  • Bolt of Divine Retribution: Karl Oskar, frustrated by the heat and lack of rain which is ruining the crops for the second year in a row, tosses hay towards the sky and tells God that since he took last year's harvest he might as well take this too. A while later lightning strikes the old field house where they store the harvested hay... Kristina flat-out tells him that the lightning and subsequent fire was God's punishment.
  • Break the Cutie: Kristina.
  • Can't Have Sex, Ever: Karl Oskar and Kristina in the fourth book. They learn from the doctor that she will not survive another birth or miscarriage and have no reliable means of birth control other than not having sex at all.
  • Chaste Hero: Robert.
  • Converting for Love: Ulrika converts to Baptism in order to marry Pastor Jackson.
    • Arguably Inga-Lena. When Danjel believes himself to be enlightened and righteous he tells his wife they cannot have sex anymore since they are not married in the eyes of God when she is not enlightened. Eventually she basically pretends to have been "enlightened" also and to share his beliefs and they once again live as husband and wife.
  • Daddy's Girl: Anna.
  • Death by Childbirth: Kristina. Though it's a miscarriage that kills her, not a birth.
  • Determinator: Ulrika. She's determined to get a better life for herself and determined not to let her daughter suffer because Ulrika used to be a prostitute.
    • Robert in his quest for gold.
    • Danjel with his faith.
  • Determined Homesteader: Karl Oskar and, to a degree, Danjel.
  • Determined Homesteader's Children: Karl Oskar and Kristina have eight of them.
  • Dream Sequence: What happened to Arvid and Robert on the California trail is told through Robert's dreams.
  • Dying Alone: Robert dies all alone.
    • As does Fina Kajsa whom Karl Oskar finds dead in a potato field. Following this her son Anders apparently drowned himself.
  • Ear Ache: Robert suffers from chronic pain in his ear after being hit by his master in Sweden.
  • Embarrassing Nickname: Arvid is called the Bull at Nybacken after rumors spread that he's had sex with a cow.
  • Epilogue Letter: The story ends with the last letter home, written by a friend of the family to inform the relatives in Sweden about the death of Karl Oskar.
  • Fourth Date Marriage: Karl Oskar and Kristina. They only meet a few times over the course of about two years before he proposes to her.
  • Funetik Aksent: Used heavily. Especially when characters begin to mix English with their Swedish.
  • Give Me a Sign: Having gone through seven pregnancies Kristina does not feel she can handle an eighth. She prays to God to spare her and when she realizes she's with child again she begins to doubt that God really exists. She prays to God to give her a sign of his existence and when she miscarries and nearly dies in the process she takes it as Him giving her a sign as well as chastising her. The sequence when she prays to God for him to exist became a Show Stopper in the musical.
  • Gold Fever: Robert gets a dose of this.
  • Good Parents: Karl Oskar and Kristina.
    • Ulrika.
  • Good Shepherd: Pastor Jackson and Pastor Törner
  • Grave-Marking Scene: Karl Oskar frequently visits Kristina's grave.
  • Happily Married: Many of the couples in the books (though far from all), but Karl Oskar and Kristina especially.
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: Robert and Arvid.
  • Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Ulrika from Västergöhl. Kristina hates her at first for being a dirty prostitute who went off the straight and narrow but during their journey across America she begins to see the kindness and warmth in Ulrika. The two end up becoming best friends.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: It is hard to see Vicar Brusander as anything but a pompous Well-Intentioned Extremist for his prosecution of Danjel's religious movement. Nevertheless though, he still makes a few good points in his speech to Karl Oskar against emigration. Many people back then did leave Europe for America to escape the laws of their native countries, or only because they heard fanciful stories about how much better everything was over there. And how exactly would Europe survive, if all young people would go to America and leave their old parents at home?
  • Loads and Loads of Characters
  • Mama Bear: Ulrika.
  • The Modest Orgasm: While Kristina very much enjoys her sex life she doesn't feel it's proper to let Karl Oskar know just how much.
  • No Pregger Sex: Surprisingly averted. Kristina is pregnant with her fifth child when they emigrate and she laments being surrounded by other people at all times during her pregnancy since this is usually the only time she can relax and fully enjoy sex (not having to worry about getting pregnant when she already is pregnant).
  • Odd Name Out: Moberg originally wrote it as a trilogy but his editors decided the third book was too long and split it up into two. Therefore the naming pattern of the first three books is broken and we have The Emigrants, The Immigrants, The Settlers and The Last Letter to Sweden.
  • Ooh, Me Accent's Slipping: In-story; Kristina berates Karl Oskar for gradually inserting more and more English words and idioms into his Swedish.
  • Orphan's Ordeal: Ulrika was orphaned at four and sold at an auction.
  • Overcome Their Differences: Kristina and Ulrika. When they leave Sweden they are bitter enemies. By the time they settle down in Minnesota they have overcome their differences and become best friends.
  • The Pioneer: Karl Oskar.
  • Please Don't Leave Me: Karl Oskar to Kristina, twice.
  • The Promised Land: As it often was in those days, America is treated as a near-mythical promised land for the poor and outcast. They do indeed find their promised land, but the price is very high, and Kristina never stops longing for her home in Sweden...
  • Running Gag: Jonas Petter loves to tell stories, the dirtier the better, but there is one he never seems to get to tell. A story about a farmer who paid a soldier to produce an heir for him. He starts telling the story countless time over several years and doesn't get to actually tell it until the later half of the last book.
  • Settling the Frontier: Claiming new land and building a new life in the wilds of Minnesota.
  • Sexless Marriage: Danjel and Inga Lena for a while after he believes he has become righteous. Not until she too says she's been reborn in Christ does he agree to have sex with her again.
    • Also Kristina and Karl Oskar when they learn another pregnancy would kill her.
  • Smite Me, O Mighty Smiter!: Karl Oskar is angry over how the drought is ruining their crops when the previous year too much rain ruined them. He takes a handful of hay and throws it to the sky, telling God to take it all while he's at it. Then thunder strikes their barn and what little they had been able to harvest is lost.
  • Survivor Guilt: Robert following the death of Arvid on the California trail.
  • Swing Low, Sweet Harriet: Kristina loves to sit on her swing. She and Karl Oskar first met while she was recuperating after having fallen off her swing and hurt her knee.
  • Thirsty Desert: Arvid and Robert experience this.
  • Tragic Bromance: Arvid and Robert.
  • Unwanted Spouse: Brita-Stafva, Jonas Petter's wife. To the point where the only reason he emigrates is to get away from her.
  • Wound That Will Not Heal: The boxing Robert takes to the ear ends up paining him for the rest of his life.
  • You Can't Go Home Again: Kristina points out to Karl Oskar before they move that if they emigrate they will never get to see their home parish again, nor their friends and family. In America Kristina is terribly homesick and it doesn't get better that she knows she can never return to where she feels her real home is.
    • Karl-Oskar, for most of his life in America, is a happy settler. When he grows old, though (and is widowed and also unable to work after an accident) he manages to get his hands on a map of his old Swedish socken (approximately parish). He spends his idle and lonely hours tracing out the paths he used to walk there in his youth.

The 1971 film The Emigrants provide examples of:

  • Determined Homesteader's Children: Seven out of eight children Karl Oskar and Kristina have appear in the film. The child that doesn't appear was Märta's twin brother who died shortly after birth and whose name was never stated in the books.
  • Ear Ache: Robert suffers from chronic pain in his ear and tinnitus, having been boxed over the ear by his master at Nybacken.
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: Robert and Arvid.
  • Not Even Bothering with the Accent: The characters are from Småland in Sweden, an area with several distinctive accents. Director Jan Troell left it up to the actors to decide if they wanted to use accent or not. Some did and some didn't.
  • Scenery Porn

The Musical provides examples of:

  • Adaptation-Induced Plot Hole: Interestingly enough not by way of adapting the books into musical but by the musical itself being shortened for the 2015 production. The show has a running time of roughly four hours after having been trimmed down so you understand why they chose to cut some parts out. However the parts they cut sometimes cause leaps in the story. For instance with the song "Ljusa kvällar om våren" ("Bright Spring Evenings") they cut Kristina's second verse in which she begs God to bring her back to Sweden. Then Karl Oskar tells her that if she wants God to move her back to Sweden he will reach out his hand and keep her with him, prompting Kristina to reply: "So you heard what I prayed for?". Even though she no longer prayed for that.
  • Bilingual Bonus: The songs A Sunday in Battery Park and To Think That Men Like Him Can Exist in the Swedish.
  • B.S.O.D. Song: You Have To Be There.
  • Character Title: The musical puts its main focus on Kristina.
  • Dark Reprise: The reprise of Down to the Sea.
  • Death by Childbirth: How it ends. Except it's a miscarriage not a birth.
  • Death Song: Robert gets one, as does Kristina.
  • Determinator: Ulrika in her song Never.
  • Epic Rocking: You Have To Be There. Written at the last minute when Benny Andersson felt they needed one more song and it became one of the two biggest hits from the show. It's the song Kristina sings when she begins to doubt that God even exists, having spent her entire life relying on God to pull her through. The most poignant line from the original, "You must exist, you must, so how can you then abandon me?" sadly does not make it to the English version. The song does an amazing job of describing what faith means to those who believe, especially considering that Björn Ulvaeus who wrote the lyrics is an atheist.
  • Grief Song: Gold Can Turn To Sand.
  • Irrelevant Act Opener: Overlords, or Emperors and Kings as it's called in the English translation.
  • "I Want" Song: Down to the Sea.
  • Lost in Translation: Unfortunately, most of the beauty and magic of the Swedish original.
  • Meaningful Name: Kristina from Duvemåla. Kristina was born on Duvemåla farm so the title can refer to where she was originally from. Karl Oskar names their home in America New Duvemåla to make her feel more at home, so it can also refer to where she ended up living. Either way it's an interesting choice of title since the book mostly talks about Korpamoen, Karl Oskar's home farm where they live when they get married. Their new home is rarely mentioned by name.
  • Mundane Made Awesome: The musical has an entire song devoted to a stove, hailing it as "a blessing from the Angel of Christmas".
  • Overcome Their Differences: Kristina and Ulrika have a song about it.
  • Swing Low, Sweet Harriet: Opens with Kristina on her swing. When the show ends her swing is lowered down on stage while Karl Oskar cries over her dead body.