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Book Review

‘Augusta’s Daughter: Life in Nineteenth Century Sweden’

12/19/2012

Book 122012Courtesy of Beaverdale Books

Review by Cathryn Lang

Penfield Books

Aug. 28, 2012

$21.95

HIV

238 pp.

Americans are notorious for the tendency to romanticize the “old country.” This tendency always made me wonder, “If the old country was so great, why did people leave?” Augusta’s Daughter by Judit Martin helped answer my question.                

Martin settled in Sweden in 1969 to study the culture, customs and beliefs of the peasant culture. Her curiosity led to the realization that life for the 19th century Swedish peasant was no better than a serf. Dominated by the powerful landowners or the local patriarchs of the state churches, they lived hopeless lives of constant toil. In the case of women, toil was punctuated by frequent pregnancies and disrespect on all fronts. Their few chances to experience happiness came on long summer days or at the yearly market.                

This is the story of Elsa-Carolina, an immigrant to America. For 75 years, she shared only the idyllic aspects of Swedish life with her family. As she approached death, she entrusted her true life story to her great-granddaughter. Elsa-Carolina’s mother, Augusta, had been a peasant impregnated by the landowner’s son. Forbidden to marry him, she is forced by the landowner into an arranged marriage with another peasant. Things appear promising at first, but when the truth becomes known, the lives of Augusta and Elsa-Carolina became horrific. Abused and left to fend for themselves, they become outcasts of society. After Augusta disappears with the authorities, Elsa-Carolina is sold at a parish auction and experiences the full dreadfulness of poverty.                

The gritty aspects of peasant life made this story difficult to read at times. Yet this same grittiness explained exactly why the Swedish people left the old behind and became a modern egalitarian society. CV

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