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The Old Scout
How the Norse Stay On Course
July 17, 2007

This week I am traveling around the part of Norway you see in the travel brochures — the fjords with picturesque villages on the shores, forested mountains with thousand-foot waterfalls coursing down the precipices, old wooden fishing boats anchored in the harbor, old churches. An American walks around and wonders, "Where are the auto salvage yards, the strip malls, the golden arches?" This is a country that believes in zoning and government regulation. Government trolls will not allow you to open up a Mr. Donut drive-in unless you disguise it as a shop.

This morning we visited a village whose name cannot be printed in an American newspaper because it contains a vowel we don't have — the A with a tiny O over it — a village of 300 that is visited by 250,000 cruise ship visitors a year. It's as if Minneapolis were to be visited every summer by The Chinese People. The proportion of 250,000 visitors to 300 residents means that all the villagers are in retail. They sell a lot of Norwegian sweaters. Floridians and Californians come on a cruise ship in July and expect to find summer and they find chilly days and a light drizzle and they get cold and need to wrap themselves in wool. The sale of sweaters enables the villagers to lock up after Christmas and spend January, February and March in Florida or California.

Ancient burial mounds here tell us something about the Vikings. For one thing, when a chieftain died, his people killed a slave woman to go along with him to the afterlife. They asked for volunteers and since the lives of slave women were hard, there were some who were willing to take their chances on entering paradise. We also learn that the Vikings were expert woodworkers, which was how they were able to discover America 400 years before Columbus. They knew how to join wood and make ships that would stand up to the North Atlantic. And when St. Olaf converted them to Christianity in the 11th century and they swung away from Odin and Freja and Thor and the skaldic sagas and took up the epistles of St. Paul, they gave up domination by force and learned the art of passive aggression.

In Moorhead, Minnesota, you'll find a fine replica of an 11th century Norwegian stave church, which looks a little odd there with few trees and no mountains. And that's how the Norwegian emigrants felt who wound up on the prairie. The sky was too big and they had to learn to walk on level ground. But life was hard in Norway. The Black Plague had killed off half the country in the 14th century and made it defenseless, and so Norway fell under the woolen fist of Danish oppression until Denmark chose the wrong side in the Napoleonic wars and was forced by Britain to give Norway to Sweden, and between the Danes and the Swedes they managed to give Norway a national inferiority complex that lasted even beyond national independence in 1905. In these little villages along the fjords, people wearied of vertical agriculture and began emigrating to the Midwest back when it was a primitive frontier.

A Norwegian hates to admit a mistake, however, so the emigrants wrote glowing letters back to Norway, which lured even more Norwegians to the Midwest, so they missed out on the great Norwegian oil and gas bonanza of the past 50 years. Our oil profits go to robber barons who give it to their wastrel children to subsidize lives of insane narcissism, but Norwegian oil profits go mostly to the Norwegian people and subsidize the little villages and the roads and rails needed to connect them — Norwegians are in favor of provincialism — and also go to the largest pension fund in Europe, $300 billion, which is forecast to more than double in the next 10 years.

American Norwegians live in little prairie towns where health care is the main industry because everybody's old and their main asset is their home, which isn't worth what it was because the town is shrinking because old people have a tendency to die. Their ancestors took a wrong turn. They had no idea America would fall into the hands of a failed oilman who would waste the country's pension money on a war for oil while Norway, the world's most peaceful country, enjoys a very sensible prosperity. They've voted twice to stay out of the European Union. Why mess with success?

© 2007 by Garrison Keillor. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, INC.



From the Desk of Garrison Keillor

Garrison Keillor
Photo by Cheryl Walsh Bellville


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