About Portland, Oregon
Martinsons biographer, Sonja Erfurth, writes that when Martin Olofsson,
Harry Martinsons father, first saw Bengta Svensdotter, the authors
mother, he was so taken by her beauty and charm that he abruptly abandoned
his previous fiance and from that moment would not leave Bengta alone. According
to some of their contemporaries, he was not her first choice for a husband,
but she had become pregnant and social conventions held out only one option--so
in September 1895 they were married. Considering these circumstances, it
is not surprising that Martin appears to have been a jealous husband from
the start. Furthermore, it also seems likely that Olofsson, a world-traveler
and adventurer, came to regret his decision to settle down in an area with
strong traditions, fixed social positions, and stubborn resistance to change.
Over time, he clearly became an increasingly bitter man.
Martins inheritance, the newlyweds set up a small country store on
the first floor of their house in the village of Nyteboda in the province
of Blekinge. Over the years, seven children were born to the couple. Harry
was the fifth and the only boy. Due to his abrasive personality and short
temper, Martin Olofsson made more and more enemies as the years went by.
Eventually there was a lawsuit following one of his many fights, and Olofsson
had to pay a fine and spend three months in jail. This was only the first
in a growing number of fights, jail sentences, and fines. In 1904, after
mounting debts and repeated lawsuits brought on by unpaid creditors, the
Olofsson store was declared bankrupt and the family lost its home. All of
this proved to be too much for the marriage, and Martin and Bengta, or Betty
as she was now called, separated (but did not divorce). In 1905 Martin Olofsson
received a boat ticket from a childhood friend in the United States. He
used this to reach America, and he eventually settled in Portland, Oregon.
There he found work with a streetcar company. Removed from the conflicts
at home, he was able to get back on his feet. The fact that he regularly
sent money home to the family and stayed out of fights and brawls demonstrated
two things: that he was loyal to his family, and that his problems in Sweden were
at least partially related to his discontentment with the community in which
he had lived.
When Harry Martinson writes about his fathers life in the United States in the autobiographical novel Nasslorna blomma (Flowering Nettle), he correctly places the father in Portland and provides details in a matter-of-fact way. For example, he writes:
|For two years he
stood driving a trolley in a city far away by the Pacific Ocean. It was
difficult to have him that far away. ...
But the letters from Portland did not come far and few in between. He had not forgotten her.
During her husbands
absence, Betty Olofsson, with the additional financial support of friends
and neighbors, was able to open a new store under her own name. The children
were healthy and happy, and the biographer Sonja Erfurth writes that these
were probably the best years in Betty Olofssons life.
Now she was, she said, finally
confirmed and on her way to California. Mother had sent her a ticket.
From the very beginning of
his years as a foster child, he must have felt a mixture of abandonment
and rejection, as well as hope and longing.
Imagine, she came all the
way from the Cascade Mountains. She gave him a postcard with a picture
of the school where she was a teacher who taught the avoidance of sin,
what was sin and what wasnt sin... [The school] ... was beautiful
and had hundreds of windows; [it] was located on a shelf above a valley
of great natural beauty. It looked like nine regular parishes could fit
in the great hole of the valley.
And in his thoughts, Martin returns to the missionary and the landscape of Oregon later in the book:
She is from the Cascade Mountains. And even if the atoms move like ants inside the Rocky Mountains she is still from the Cascade Mountains, a place of great natural beauty. ... He could feel his heart leap just to stand in front of Miss Johannesson at the Methodists. It must have to do with her being from the Cascade Mountains.
Perhaps his heart leaped because
Miss Johannesson was another symbolic connection to his mother. It is
interesting to note that this figure is cast as a missionary of morality.
Are we to understand this as irony, as an implied criticism of his mother?
Or is it yet another expression of hope that his mother will learn right
from wrong in Oregon, and that what is right will lead to the boys
reunion with his mother?
Another revealing passage comes up during a conversation with his sister. In this Martin asks:
"Have you received any
letters from America?"
In other words, the sister has no illusions about being helped to the United States; Martin, however, still clings to the hope that they will all be helped over. But the sister was right. After World War I, no more tickets came from Oregon to the children left in Sweden. After 1920, no more letters came either. What had happened?