Dr. Kim Östman provides us with this review of a new novel written in Danish.
Ebbe Larsen, Rejsen til Zion: En dokumentarisk roman om danskere på rejse ad Mormon-sporet (Gjern: Hovedland, 2017). Hardcover with dust jacket, 183 pages. DKK 249.95. ISBN 978-87-7070-587-5.
Reviewed by Kim Östman, Turku, Finland
Denmark was Mormonism’s point of entry into Scandinavia and a major source of Mormon emigrants to Utah in the nineteenth century. This flow of people began in the 1850s when transatlantic sailing ships and oxen-pulled wagons on North American overland trails were the main methods of travel. It then continued into the more modern era of steamships and railways, eventually diminishing into a trickle.
Ebbe Larsen’s Danish-language novel Rejsen til Zion (the full title translates into ”The Journey to Zion: A Documentary Novel about Danes Travelling on the Mormon Trail”) depicts the early emigration experience in the 1850s and 1860s. The story is not only about events on the trail, but rather about the life-changing totality that the experience represents: conversion to a new religion and leaving family behind, emigration to a foreign country in dangerous and arduous circumstances, and trying to cope with settling into a strange new ”promised land” with a new language.
Larsen himself is a retired Danish television media professional who has written documentary-based historical novels on other topics previously. He feels that U.S. history is to an extent also Danish history, and wants to resurrect a largely forgotten part of that history through Rejsen til Zion.
Rejsen til Zion is historical fiction: real Danish emigrants inspire a narrative that draws from research into primary sources such as diaries. However, Larsen also uses artistic license to craft dialogue, events, and feelings that accompany them. As it relates to the Mormons, the genre was popularized especially by Gerald N. Lund’s nine-part The Work and the Glory series. Ebbe Larsen’s book is significant in that it represents one of the first such works written in Danish.
The main character is the fictional Ane-Marie, a 20+ Danish woman who marries her farmer employer’s non-inheriting son Niels Pedersen and begins a married life fraught with hardship and poverty. In the midst of this hardship, new hope is offered to the couple by a missionary who happens to meet them in town. He explains that he has found happiness; the couple eventually decides to convert to the new faith that promises a better life in America.
The reader is offered a close view into what it may have been like to leave your land of origin and set course on a perilous journey that lasted almost a year, reaching over sea and land. The persons described during the story are used to provide a window into fluctuating feelings of hope and despair, and of faith and doubt. The new home of the emigrants in Spanish Fork, Utah, is full of surprises, both as to its environs and as to the changes it brings about in its settlers’ personalities.
The North American overland journey west, as described by Larsen, is based on a particular actual journey of Mormon emigrants. His description of the events draws from the diaries left behind by some participating in that emigrant company, or another of a similar nature. The book is illustrated throughout with beautiful paintings by William Henry Jackson, depicting scenes from the westward trek.
The narrative and dialogue are punctuated by excerpts from Ane-Marie’s journal, which is fictional but based on similar emigrant journals of the time. The journal becomes a central element of Larsen’s book: a key outlet in which Ane-Marie confides at times of both joy and despair. This trust is disliked by some of her brothers and sisters in her tight-knit social group of faith, who call the diary ”a curse” and would instead prefer that she speak with real individuals about her deepest thoughts.
While Ane-Marie at times expresses happiness for her experiences in the new world, she also grows increasingly anxious about her doubts, especially the growing chasm between herself and her husband Niels. The latter source of anxiety reaches its climax when Niels, contrary to his earlier promises, marries the English convert Mary as a second wife. Ane-Marie’s relationship to Mary fluctuates throughout the novel, varying between best friend and worst foe.
The book ends with a chapter on notes. It describes the sources that Larsen consulted regarding the various real-life persons, events, and localities discussed in the story. Scholarship-level accuracy is naturally not expected of such notes in a novel. However, it would still have been helpful to provide more exact references, for example to journals housed at the Church History Library in Salt Lake City, instead of generic references to “www.lds.org/churchhistory”. I am not a native reader of Danish, but I still detected numerous mistakes related to punctuation and spelling throughout the book, which reflects substandard editing.
As a whole, Larsen’s Rejsen til Zion is a useful and easily readable novel that illuminates the powerful lived experience of religion and emigration. It reminds the creators and consumers of historical scholarship, such as myself, how important it is to work with primary sources created by individuals. Those sources illuminate real people, sometimes even their innermost feelings and thoughts. Such primary sources breathe life into the crucial but nonetheless abstract concepts utilized by synthesizing scholarship.
Editor’s note: I know about one other novel published in Danish, Jørgen W Schmidt, Mormonpigen Eva : en dansk minoritetspige i Danmark (Eva the Mormon Girl). Lynge: Forlaget Moroni, 1982. A self-published contemporary novel in about a Mormon high school girl, a didactic novel of conversations about Mormonism. Reviewed by George S. Tate in December 1983 AML Newsletter. Schmidt is known for his fine scholarly study of the emigration of Danish Mormons, O, Du Zion i Vest: Den Danske Mormon-emigration 1850-1900, published in Copenhagen in 1965.