Book review: The Brides of Midsummer
At the risk of losing my Swedish cred, I present this obligatory confession: I hated nearly every page of Vilhelm Moberg’s Emigrants series. The four volumes chronicle Karl Oskar Nilsson and his insufferably whiny wife Kirstina as they travel with their children and folk community from a small family farm in Småland to settle in rural Minnesota. “The Emigrants” put Lindström, Minnesota on the map. In fact, the novels were so tragically convincing that many Swedes and Americans alike believe the characters truly existed.
Sure, I named my cat Karl Oskar. Sure, I read all four books in about two weeks. But oh that Kristina. She made everyone miserable, including me. Happily, Kristina does not make an appearance in Moberg’s “The Brides of Midsummer.”
Translated to English by Gudrun Brunot and published by the Minnesota Historical Society last year, “The Brides of Midsummer” is Scandinavian folklore at its best. The novel progresses backward, with each progression voiced by a Midsummer’s Eve spelman (musician), ultimately telling the story of the Bridal Spring; water that gives life, takes life, and demands homage from those who need her.
Each Midsummer’s Eve the community gathers near the spring. They feast and drink, dancing and singing as an honored spelman plays them into the solstice. Couples form along the outskirts of the fest, as on this one night of the year a virgin who surrenders her maidenhood can retrieve it at dawn in the Bridal Spring.
Moberg’s four musicians describe the events proceeding their final midsummers. We learn the history of the spring who weaves the stories and the men together. They are bound by music, Midsummer’s Eve, and the urgent desire for a woman’s warmth.
In the 1930s, a drunken and bitter fiddler approaches his position as Midsummer’s Eve spelman with the knowledge that his old-fashioned music is no longer relevant to the celebrators. He is frantic in his fiddling and drinking and regresses into self-delusions and demise. His predecessor, a key harper, begins his story with love and beauty, only to endure the loss of everything during the plagues of the 1700s. On the key harpist’s final Midsummer’s Eve, death permits him to reclaim all he has lost. The third spelman is a sinful and mostly unrepentant flutist who carouses before 1545’s midsummer. His good intentions become greed, which is his undoing. Finally, a prehistoric goat-horn blower is strong and honorable until his love for a woman is more powerful than the traditions he is forced to abide. As his story, and that of his would-be bride, unfolds we come to understand the mysteries of the Bridal Spring.
My first time through “The Brides of Midsummer,” I was struck by the poetry of Moberg’s beautiful verses:
I am the water. I am the beginning. I was before the oaks, the grass, and the flowers. I was before the beasts that graze the grass. I was before hovering wing and currying foot. I was before the birds, the bees, and the bumblebees.
I was before sorry and gladness. I was before the tears and the laughter. I was before the song, the music, and the dancing. I was before the torment, the suffering, and the anguish here on earth. I was before mankind.
From the earth’s darkest, innermost recesses flow my veins, known to no one. Yet, here, I surface at the foot of the hill. Here, I reflect the crowns of the oak trees and follow the generations of man throughout the world.
I am the spring. I am the beginning.
Midsummer approaches. There is no better time to pick up a copy of “The Brides of Midsummer.” Soak in Moberg’s poetry as you lounge near a pool, in a hammock, or under an oak tree (or maypole).
"The Brides of Midsummer,” 169 pages, is a available for $18.95 at the Minnesota Historical Society online, at Minnesota Historical Society Sites gift shops, Ingebretsen's Nordic Marketplace, and various other bookstores.