Crossing the Bridge: Crowing Up Norwgian-American in Depression and War, 1925-1946
Arnstein, Walter L., Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society
Crossing the Bridge: Growing Up Norwegian-American in Depression and
War, 1925-1946. By Earl A. Reitan. (Normal: Lone Oak Press, 1999.
Pp. 143. Paper, $12.95.) After earning his Ph.D. degree in History at the University of Illinois, Earl A. Reitan served from the 1950s until the 1990s as a distinguished member of the history faculty at Illinois State University (Normal). There he specialized in the history of modern Britain, with a scholarly focus on eighteenth-century finance, politics, and culture. In retirement, he jumped into our own times to peruse The Times of London each night on the Internet and to produce Tory Radicalism: Margaret Thatcher, John Major, and the Transformation of Modern Britain, 1979-1997 (1997).
The book under review encompasses a far earlier portion of the author's life, and it serves as a vivid evocation of what it was like to grow up the grandson of Norwegian immigrants (on his father's side) and of Danish immigrants (on his mother's side) during the era of the Great Depression and World War II in (very) small-town Minnesota, Wisconsin, and North Dakota. In his historical writings, Professor Reitan is noted for his clear, straightforward, and unadorned style of writing, and he deploys that same quality in describing what life then was like for the eldest son of a serious and hard-working but at best intermittently successful small-town banker. In the process, he provides helpful reminders of a number of easily forgotten aspects of early twentieth-century American life.
One of these is the changing meaning of "multiculturalism." Thus he writes of Alberta, Minnesota (population 125) in 1935: "The people were a mix of Germans and Scandinavians, with a few ordinary Americans thrown in" (p. 67). At that time, Norwegian-- Americans of the second and third generation obviously still thought of themselves as a race apart. They had given up their native language, but their life revolved around the local Norwegian Lutheran church, and they felt strongly committed to a life of family propriety in which there was no room for dancing or swearing or card-playing or the consumption of alcoholic beverages. …