In her new book, Minot author Barb Solberg navigates the twists and turns of a family saga that intersects homesteading in Mountrail County with the lesser-known history of Norway in World War II.
“What We Leave Behind” is told from the perspective of a Norwegian homesteader wife and three of her daughters. The historical fiction is based on the true story of Solberg’s grandmother and aunts, with a cast of other real-life characters.
“It’s factual,” she said of the book. “If they have a name, they’re a real person.”
Information about characters in the story outside her family came from documents such as ship manifests, plat books, Mountrail County Historical Society biographies and obituaries.
“I just have a great deal of respect for people who have archived and curated history, because it’s available for us now,” Solberg said. “One of my goals, besides providing this story for my family, was to somehow inspire people who hear their family stories to reach out and grab them, especially my generation, because when we’re gone, the stories our parents told us are going to be gone if we don’t capture them.”
“What We Leave Behind” is a dramatic, moving story of a family with allegiance to two flags, according to a synopsis. Norwegian immigrants – Solberg’s grandparents – came to America in 1913 to homestead. Nineteen years later, during the Great Plains Dust Bowl, they sent three of their nine children – an 18-year-old daughter and her two young sisters, ages 8 and 4 – to Norway to live with a wealthy relative for two years. But things didn’t go according to plan.
By 1940, when Germany invades Norway, the sisters are living with a Quisling, a member of the Nasjonal Samling, the Norwegian Nazi Party, and they miss the last U.S. evacuee ship out of Petsamo, Finland. One sister spends time in Grini, a German concentration camp north of Oslo; she and her older sister both marry men in the Norwegian Resistance Movement. Readers will wonder: Will the girls ever see their parents again? Will the whole family ever reconnect?
Solberg formerly taught at Magic City Campus and was a writing professor at Minot State University. She published a textbook with Harcourt College Publishers, was a freelance writer for The Minot Daily News in the 1980s and 1990s and has had articles published in North Dakota Horizon Magazine. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of North Dakota, Grand Forks, and currently serves on the North Dakota Humanities Board of Directors.
She credited the Humanities North Dakota program, Little Mo Writers (a writing incubator), for helping her lift the narrative of her book. That incubator encouraged her daily writing routine every afternoon during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There were days I researched and there were days I wrote and there were days I cried. I felt so bad for my grandma. I felt so bad for my aunts. Just the pain, I think, for my grandmother to watch her three girls drive away in a car – to be gone,” she said.
She said she became interested in the story of her mother’s family after visiting her mother’s sisters in Norway while traveling in Europe in 1975. Solberg met the two younger sisters who had been sent to Norway during the Depression. It was during that visit that her grandmother’s youngest sister, who was born after her grandmother left Norway, brought out the picture used on the cover of Solberg’s book.
The family picture had been sent to Norway with an X marked above the heads of the three daughters who would be arriving. The photo was to help identify them when they disembarked from the ship.
Solberg said she needed to know more, and over the years her research uncovered many stories and old documents.
In 2015, while visiting her Norwegian cousins, Solberg learned of the life story written by the aunt who had been imprisoned in the concentration camp. Solberg said it opened the door for her to put final pieces of the puzzle together so the story could be told.
“It tells a real story that’s very tragic, and yet very heartening,” Solberg said. “Somehow they stuck together. This family still gets together every five years.”
Solberg’s next trip to Norway will be in July. In five years, her Norwegian relatives will come to America to visit.
“We’ve done this since 1987. So I’m sure my grandparents would not at all believe what they left behind – that we all still reach out, and know each other and communicate,” she said.