On the Viking Trail: Travels in Scandinavian America [NOOK Book]


When his father developed Alzheimer’s disease, Don Lago realized that the stories and traditions of his Swedish ancestors would be lost along with the rest of his father’s memories. Haunted by this inevitable tragedy, Lago set out to fight back against forgetting by researching and reclaiming his long-lost Scandinavian roots.

Beginning his quest with a visit to his ancestral home of Gränna, Sweden, Lago explores all facets of Scandinavian America—Swedish, Danish, Finnish, ...

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On the Viking Trail: Travels in Scandinavian America

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When his father developed Alzheimer’s disease, Don Lago realized that the stories and traditions of his Swedish ancestors would be lost along with the rest of his father’s memories. Haunted by this inevitable tragedy, Lago set out to fight back against forgetting by researching and reclaiming his long-lost Scandinavian roots.

Beginning his quest with a visit to his ancestral home of Gränna, Sweden, Lago explores all facets of Scandinavian America—Swedish, Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, and Icelandic—along the way. He encounters Icelanders living in the Utah desert, a Titanic victim buried beneath a gigantic Swedish coffee pot in Iowa, an Arkansas town named after the famous Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind, a real-life Legoland in southern California, and other unique remnants of America’s Scandinavian past. Visits to Sigurd Olson’s legendary cabin on the banks of Burntside Lake in the Boundary Waters of Minnesota and Carl Sandburg’s birthplace in Galesburg, Illinois, further provide Lago with an acute sense of the Scandinavian values that so greatly influenced, and continue to influence, American society.

More than just a travel memoir, On the Viking Trail places Scandinavian immigrants and their history within the wider sweep of American culture. Lago’s perceptive eye and amusing tales remind readers of all ethnic backgrounds that to truly appreciate America one must never forget its immigrant past.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Prompted by his father's Alzheimer's disease, Lago was inspired to track down his long-lost Scandinavian roots and thereby preserve a sense of his heritage. In this, his first full-length work (he has previously contributed articles to the Smithsonian and Science Digest), he reports on his travels throughout the United States and Scandinavia to explore Scandinavian influence on American politics, society, and culture. There are profiles of icons like Charles Lindbergh and Jenny Lind, prominent Scandinavians such as Wallace Stegner and the architect Eliel Saarinen, and public figures, including politician Walter Mondale and journalist Eric Sevareid. Less famous Scandinavians are also included: Gunnar Widforss, a Grand Canyon landscape painter; Robert Asp, builder of a replica of a Viking ship, which he sailed through the Great Lakes and across the Atlantic to Norway; and other colorful figures. Lago's ethnic pride is heartfelt, but he tends to make generalizations and some fairly fantastic claims with few or no supporting facts (e.g., that Mark Twain's novels had a Scandinavian influence or that Target Corporation's practice of supporting local charitable organizations is directly related to its company headquarters' location in Minnesota, "the most Scandinavian of states"). This lapse in scholarly discipline may not matter to his target audience, however. For public libraries where there is a strong interest in Scandinavian American history.-Rita Simmons, Sterling Heights P.L., MI Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
From the Publisher

“Family memoir, chronicle of exemplary Nordic Americans, immigration history, travel guide, rumination on ethnicity, and a good deal more, On the Viking Trail is an erudite, witty, affecting read—as bracing as a cup of strong coffee or a swallow of aquavit.”—James P. Leary, professor of folklore and Scandinavian studies, University of Wisconsin, and author of So Ole Says to Lena: Folk Humor of the Upper Midwest

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781587294839
  • Publisher: University of Iowa Press
  • Publication date: 4/1/2004
  • Series: NONE Series
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 288
  • File size: 2 MB

Meet the Author

Don Lago has been a political activist, book reviewer, kayaking instructor, researcher, and author. His essays on nature, science, and history have appeared in numerous magazines and journals, including Orion, Astronomy, Sky and Telescope, Smithsonian, Science Digest, and the Antioch Review. He currently lives in a cabin nestled in the pine forest outside Flagstaff, Arizona.

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Read an Excerpt

On the Viking Trail Travels in Scandinavian America
By Don Lago
University of Iowa Press Copyright © 2004 University of Iowa Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-87745-892-0

Chapter One The Swedish Prayer

I wasn't much interested in my Scandinavian roots until my father developed Alzheimer's disease, and I discovered the importance of memory and the cost of forgetting.

One hundred and five years after my great-grandfather left Sweden for America, my father arrived in the Swedish town that for him and his father had been merely a name: Gränna. My great-grandfather hadn't maintained contact with anyone there, and as far as my father knew, we had no family left there. But my father had always been interested in history, and he hoped that merely by walking down the street that had been home for his grandfather, he could acquire a better sense of family history. He looked at the main street and thought Gränna was a pleasant town. Then he looked more specifically at the names of the shops. He was startled by the sign over the door of one shop. It was our name: Lago. He walked to the door and looked inside. It was a clothing and tailor's shop. His grandfather had been a tailor. He looked at the man inside. The man looked familiar. My father stepped inside and introduced himself as a Lago from America. The shop owner was astounded. He introduced himself as a Lago from Sweden. The Lagos in Gränna had long known that in 1869 a Lago had left for America, but they had never heard from him again. For all they knew he had perished soon afterward and left only a grave. Now, a century of silence and forgetting had come to an end.

For people from many nations, immigrating to America was often an act of forgetting. Some wanted to forget their personal past. Some wanted to forget their society, where they were peasants without hope of ever being anything more than peasants. Even if they only wanted to be farmers like their fathers before them, they needed to forget a homeland where they had little chance of acquiring land or homes of their own. Some wanted to forget a church or a government that had mistreated them. Perhaps they didn't want to forget their parents, friends, and childhood homes, but preserving sanity in a strange new land required them to forget even good memories. This act of forgetting was passed on to the immigrants' children. The children often heard very little about the old homeland. They were discouraged from learning their parents' language. They were pushed to be completely American and proud of it. The forgetting of history in favor of a self-created ideal future became part of American psychology and public policy. When, in the second half of the twentieth century, America became responsible for the Old World, our forgetting of history did not always serve us well.

Not everyone could forget. My great-grandfather, August Lago, had sailed for America with his older brother, Israel. Israel later decided to return to Sweden. This was not unusual; about one fifth of the Swedes who immigrated to America eventually returned home. Many never intended to stay in America, wanting only to earn enough money to buy land back home. Others were disillusioned to find not streets paved with gold but years of challenges. Others became homesick.

One cure for homesickness was to persuade those you missed to join you in America. One reason my great-grandfather immigrated was a woman he had known in Gränna, Gustava Carlson, who had immigrated the year before. He headed straight for the Indiana town where Gustava had settled and married her a few months later. Gustava was one of nine siblings, eight of whom followed one another to America. When their mother missed her children, she too immigrated.

In her old age, Gustava followed her son to Oklahoma, where she spent her last years living in his house with his three sons, one of whom was my father. Thus for several years my father lived with a grandmother who had been born in Sweden and could still speak Swedish. He heard some of her stories and could identify with Sweden not as history but as home. My grandfather, who never saw Sweden, encouraged his sons to remember Sweden. He gave my father, on his seventh birthday, a 182-page book about Sweden. It was published by the Swedish American Steamship Line, no doubt intended to encourage Swedish Americans to visit the old homeland. Among other things, the book mentions a promising new institution called the Nobel Prize, and it has a graph showing that as of 1914, Stockholm had more telephones per capita than London, Paris, or Berlin. At the dinner table every night, Gustava or her son repeated a prayer in Swedish.

On the wall of my father's nursing home room, in 1995, I placed photos of his parents and of Gränna. Sometimes I took down these photos and held them before my father and explained them. I pointed out the main street of Gränna and the shop with our name over the door. I reminded him that he had gone there many years ago and been delighted to meet our relatives, that from church records and a local genealogist he had learned a lot about our family history. The Lagos had been the tailors in Gränna since 1795, but in America our family had become teachers. I told him that his father was a teacher and he was a teacher and his brother Nils was a history teacher and Nils's children were teachers. For a time my father could remember visiting Sweden, but eventually he showed no more recognition of it. Then he could no longer recognize his parents. As his memory failed, I tried to serve as his memory for him, but I realized that in one respect I couldn't do this. In one realm I had no memories to share. My father held the very last personal memories of our Swedish past. I had never heard his grandmother's stories of Sweden. I was the first person in the history of our family to grow up never hearing a word of Swedish. For centuries, this had been the only language we had known. Perhaps our Viking ancestors had orally passed sagas from one generation to the next. But somehow memory had failed, and I had received nothing. Memories of places that had been important to our family, of houses and streets and lakes and cemeteries, were all ending with me. The customs we had followed and the festivals we had celebrated-all was lost. As I mourned my father's relentless loss of memory and feared the day when he would no longer remember me, I saw how crucially human identity depends on memory, and I realized that I too was a sufferer of memory loss.

I often helped my father eat, giving him instructions on what to do with a fork or a sandwich. If I'd been able, I would have recited the Swedish prayer before each meal. Childhood memories are the last to be lost by an Alzheimer's victim, so perhaps the Swedish prayer would have offered my father some comfort, some orientation amidst the constant bewilderment. But I couldn't recite the prayer. My grandfather's picture stared mutely from the wall. I sat mutely, unable to find the comforting words that in some form had graced Swedish dinner tables for centuries.

When my grandfather was in his eighties, my uncle tried to prevent the Swedish prayer from being lost. He set up a tape recorder and had my grandfather recite the Swedish prayer into it. When my grandfather was taken to the hospital to die in 1964, he refused to lie down on the stretcher but rode sitting up, reading a book, refusing to let go of the power of words. In 1964 young people all over the world couldn't get enough of four lads from Liverpool who had given a lively British style to the music white Americans had learned from African Americans. My twelve-year-old cousin Marilyn wanted to record the Beatles off the radio, so she set up the tape recorder. The next time my uncle tried to listen to the Swedish prayer, he was shocked to discover that the tape held only the Beatles. The Swedish prayer was gone forever.

I regret listing the Beatles as a force of cultural obliteration, for I enjoyed them as much as anyone. In 1966, when I was ten years old, my father took me to see the Beatles at the new riverfront stadium in St. Louis right next to the new Gateway Arch. Notice that I said see the Beatles and not hear. You couldn't hear a word they sang above the screams of tens of thousands of kids. At the time I thought this was a bit of a gyp, but, considering how the Beatles drowned out our Swedish prayer, I suppose it was only fair that they knew what it felt like to be drowned out. Apparently, the Beatles were quite tired of being drowned out, for a few days later they gave their final public concert.

Looming above the stadium was the arch, a ghostly silver glow in the night. The previous year, the president of the United States had dedicated the arch to Thomas Jefferson and his Louisiana Purchase. The arch symbolized the role of St. Louis as the gateway to the West. Through St. Louis millions of immigrants had funneled, moving ever more irreversibly away from their European birthplaces. Anywhere but in America it might have been unacceptable that a monument to an important national theme should be designed by an architect born in another country, but it was only appropriate that the monument to the great American migration was designed by an immigrant. Eero Saarinen was born in Finland and at age twelve moved to Michigan with his father, a prominent architect. Eero Saarinen's design for a monument to the Louisiana Purchase was selected over many more traditional proposals, such as classical temples and statue-laden pediments. Both visually and as an engineering feat, Saarinen's arch was breathtakingly original.

Most visitors to the arch see it as a gateway, but I see something more. I grew up in a house that had some Scandinavian furniture. To Scandinavian designers, nothing is as beautiful as the pure, natural geometry of wood. An Italian furniture maker might feel compelled to carve the wood into ornaments, and an Englishman might need to cover the wood with patterned cloth. But Scandinavians, who are everywhere surrounded by forests, are delighted to invite the forest indoors to embrace them with its strong graceful curves. To me, the Gateway Arch is unmistakably a piece of Scandinavian furniture, even though it's made of stainless steel. Many of Saarinen's other buildings display the same respect for organic geometry. In fact, one of his buildings, a chapel on a college campus, is only two blocks away from where I was born in Columbia, Missouri, and it too is an exercise in geometry and natural materials. Saarinen might have been tempted to build the arch out of wood if it had been possible. His affinity for Scandinavian furniture is evident in the furniture he designed, which helped define the organic design style of the 1960s.

The Gateway Arch immediately became one of the world's most recognizable pieces of architecture, as grand and inevitable as the pyramids, the Parthenon, and the Eiffel Tower. Of twentieth-century architectural works, only the Sydney Opera House has inspired comparable fascination. Interestingly, it was Saarinen, serving on the committee considering over 200 designs for a Sydney opera house, who convinced the committee to select the design of a fellow Scandinavian architect, the Dane Jørn Utzon. The arch and the opera house, though entirely different in purpose, are very similar in inspiration, both soaring tributes to pure natural geometry.

If the Gateway Arch symbolizes the dispersal of Americans from their roots, St. Louis also provides the symbol of our reuniting with our roots, and this symbol too is the work of a Scandinavian American. In 1926 a daring young pilot who had been flying a mail route between St. Louis and Chicago approached some St. Louis businessmen with the idea of building a plane that could fly from New York to Paris. He convinced them that he had both the right plane design and the ability to fly it. The businessmen were eager to promote St. Louis as a national aviation center, and thus the Spirit of Saint Louis was born. The pilot, Charles Lindbergh, came from a family with a history of daring. His grandfather August had been a member of the Swedish Parliament, where he was an outspoken liberal reformer. Desiring a quieter life, August and his family immigrated to Minnesota. August's son became an equally outspoken member of the U.S. Congress in 1906, leading the Progressive attack on oligarchs and opposing U.S. entry into World War I. While Congressman Lindbergh was delivering campaign speeches, his son and driver, Charles, seemed more interested in tinkering with their car's engine.

Charles Lindbergh's landing in Paris in 1927 was more than just a triumph of courage and technology. It was the bridging of two worlds that had seemed separate. Even if Americans cheered Lindbergh out of an ingrained worship of pioneering heroes, it was hard not to notice that he had pioneered in the wrong direction, back to the homelands from which Americans supposedly had severed all loyalties. Perhaps some of the cheering was for roots that were not so forgotten after all. At the least, the Spirit of Saint Louis started an era in which millions of Americans could easily go looking for their roots. Ironically, Lindbergh didn't seem to learn the meaning of his own flight, as he followed his father's precedent and opposed U.S. entry into World War II on the grounds that America was a world apart.

In the summer of 1932, a dusty Model A Ford pulled up in front of the Lindbergh family home in Little Falls, Minnesota, and from the car stepped my grandparents, my father, then fourteen years old, and his two brothers. Charles Lindbergh had recently donated his boyhood home to the state of Minnesota, which opened it as a museum. My grandparents had driven a thousand miles north from Oklahoma on the first leg of a trip into Canada, west to Yellowstone and Seattle, south to the Olympic Games in Los Angeles, then east on Route 66 to the Grand Canyon and back to Oklahoma. At this time there were few paved highways or motels. The Model A Ford lacked a fuel pump, so if it met a hill too steep, the gravity-fed engine would be higher than the gas tank and conk out, so the driver had to turn it around and back up the hill. Flat tires were frequent, sometimes twice a day. The Lagos usually camped on the edges of towns, unfolding the kitchen my grandfather had rigged on the side of the car.

They drove through California during the dust bowl flight of Okies to California, and their Oklahoma license plate invited the mistreatment John Steinbeck later wrote about in The Grapes of Wrath. Yet my grandfather was simply a teacher on summer vacation, starting a family tradition of long road trips, a tradition my father would continue with me. My grandfather led similarly long trips to the East Coast, the Rockies, and Mexico, where my father, a strong swimmer, swam across Acapulco Bay, oblivious to boaters frantically signaling to him about the presence of sharks. As a civil engineer, my grandfather took special interest in engineering feats like bridges and dams. But few bridges won as much space in his travel journal as his description of the rooms and grounds of the Lindbergh home. I am sure that some of my grandfather's interest came from the fact that both he and Lindbergh were sons of Swedish immigrants. I'm sure he was proud to show his sons what a little Swedish engineering know-how and Viking courage could accomplish. On their trip to the East Coast, my grandfather showed his sons the remnants of New Sweden on the Delaware River, Sweden's unsuccessful 1638 attempt to found an American colony.

I told my father about his childhood trips all over America, but after awhile he showed no more memory of them. My fight against forgetting was a relentless retreat. The only way I could feel victorious against forgetting was by regaining memories for myself, memories I had never had. And so I headed for Sweden.

I have to confess that I arrived in Sweden feeling not much different from the average tourist in a foreign land. I felt little sense of personal identification with it. My Swedish background felt remote, nearly as abstract as knowing that humans evolved from fish. I hadn't made any plans to visit Gränna, partly because the relatives my father had met there had died, and he was under the impression we had no more family there. I supposed I might get around to visiting Gränna if I finished with the attractions of Stockholm. When I inquired about the bus to Gränna and found that it was sold out, this seemed decisive. Yet something must have been stirring in me on my long walks through the streets and history museums of Stockholm, for it became important for me to visit Gränna. I was getting a feel for what it meant to be Swedish, and this identity teased me like an elusive memory, like something I should know. When I went to the car rental and they gave me a Saab instead of an American car, it seemed right.


Excerpted from On the Viking Trail by Don Lago Copyright © 2004 by University of Iowa Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii
1 The Swedish Prayer 1
2 Nightingale Echoes 11
3 Tippecanoe and the Titanic Too 25
4 Down the Mythissippi River and the Saga Fe Trail 38
5 Leaving Gothenburg 60
6 Listening Point 74
7 To See the Earth as It Truly Is 101
8 The Unforgotten Spirit 111
9 Adventures in Legoland 121
10 With Liberty and Justice for All 142
11 Vikings on a Sea of Sand 172
12 It's Been a Quiet 150 Years in Bishop Hill 183
13 Melting Pot Stew, with Raisins 196
14 More Swedish Than Sweden 210
15 By the Shores of Gitche Gumee 227
16 Home Run 245
Notes 261
Further Reading 265
Index 269

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