Monday, February 11, 2013

On "The Railroad and the Churchyard" by Bjornsterne Bjornson (about 10,125 words) ****

Bjornson's story of two local friends and then enemies vying for control of the local government board explores issues of economy, friendship, government, and community, all the while providing a look at how mid-nineteenth-century Norwegian society worked, at least insofar as I have understood it from some of the nonfiction that I've read on Scandinavian culture. Democratic ways of running a community seem to go back pretty far in the far north. Here, the community decides on things together, but as in all such communities, some men have more sway than others.

The person with sway here in Knud Aakre, whose upbringing encouraged self-education and wide reading. Aakre serves as the chair of the governing body for the community, and he is assisted by his less-educated friend Lars Hogstad--at least until the story really gets going. Lars, at some point, comes to see Knud's ways as too conservative; the community pays higher and higher taxes but gets less and less for its money. A railroad wants to come through town. There will be easy money, investment. And it is with some good arguments that Lars wrests control of the board for himself, destroying a friendship in turn. Knud licks his wounds, bides his time, largely withdraws from public life. Lars becomes a bigger and bigger man, even serving on councils that pull away to the capital. The community flourishes--for a time. Speculation, as generally happens, proves dangerous, and all the community's loss of wealth eventually brings Knud's more somber ways back to the public notice, especially once it becomes known that the proposed railroad will run through the graveyard, disinterring the ancestors. Is Knud's concern for the community or only himself? Are they not, on some level, the same thing? A few choice events bring the story full circle. You can read it here.

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