American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

THE BOAT OF LONGING (1921 as Lsngselens Baat; Eng. trans. 1933). The fourth novel of Norwegian American Ole Edvart Rolvaag (1876-1931) and his personal favorite, The Boat of Longing preceded Rolvaag’s better- known tale of immigrant life on the midwestern plains, Giants in the Earth: A Saga of the Prairie (1927). Fellow sailor and friend Lincoln Colcord* assisted Rolvaag with the translation of this later masterpiece into English.

The Boat ofLonging is a melancholy tale framed with ocean crossings and infused with prose poems about the sea. It follows a Scandinavian legend about a phantom boat that foretells death and signifies a deep, painful longing for something unattainable in this life. Protagonist Nils Vaag, as had Rolvaag, spends twenty years eking out a meager existence on Lofoten Island, Norway, following the family tradition of fishing, before his own dreams and disenchantment with the provincialism of his homeland lure him to America. When his family rescues a wild and enigmatic shipwrecked* Dutch girl, Nils falls in love with her. His parents become increasingly disturbed by the couple’s growing attachment, and they contrive to have the girl sent home in an ineffectual ploy to hold on to Nils. At the same time as the boat on which she departs eludes Nils’ frantic rowing attempts to gain her back, his nets swell mysteriously with a bounteous catch of herring.

Amid the squalor Nils finds in the slums of Minneapolis, his violin repeatedly offers him solace, particularly when he plays a folk melody called “The Boat of Longing.” After his letters back to Norway cease, his desperate father, Jo, crosses the ocean to find him, only to be turned back at Ellis Island for lack of supporting documents. Heartbroken, Jo allows himself to believe an unconvincing story from a fellow steerage passenger that she has seen Nils, and he offers this slim delusion to his wife upon his return home. One sunset, his son seems to glide in a golden vision on the waters ahead of him, and Jo rows after it; neither he nor any trace of his boat is seen again. He has followed the phantom Boat of Longing, even as Nils had pursued the woman who had enchanted him.

Jill B. Gidmark