Erica Appelros is a Doctor in Theology and Associate Professor in Philosophy of Religion with more than 20 years of experience as a teacher, coach and speaker, works as an associate professor in philosophy of religion at Lund University, Sweden. She is also a published author in Swedish and in English, and she is dedicated to creating courses, books and workshops to empower people to advance in their growth towards more clarity, knowledge and self-knowledge to live a life with a deeper purpose. She is a lifelong learner and reader, and her university training includes Philosophy, Theology, Mathematics, Biology, Linguistics, Religious Studies, and Horticulture. She is also a certified dance leader in Liberating dance and Sacred dance, a raving reader, a lively language learner and loves playing with clay. I could have talked to her about her background all day, but we also talked about her favorite book – a Swedish classic I’d never heard of, called “The Emigrants,” by Vilhelm Moberg.
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Host: Julie Strauss
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Guest: Erica Appelros
Discussed in this episode:
The Emigrants by Vilhelm Moberg
Unto a Good Land by Vilhelm Moberg
The Settlers by Vilhelm Moberg
The Last Letter Home by Vilhelm Moberg (Gah. The title alone brings tears to my eyes.)
Bookstore Funchal – Livraria Esperança (do yourself a favor and look up photos of this bookstore. We’re moving to Madeira, right? I feel like we have to move to Madeira.)
The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
1984 by George Orwell
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis
The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
Ten Lessons for A Post-Pandemic World by Fareed Zakaria
Here’s a clip of Liv Ullman talking about the goodbye scene in the 1973 Emigrants movie
And here’s a clip for a remake of the movie, coming in March 2022
Karl Oskar and Kristina monument in Karlshamn, Sweden
There is a matching one in Lindstrom, Minnesota!
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Hello, Bookworms welcome to the Best Book Ever, the podcast where I get to know interesting people by asking them about their favorite books. I’m your host, Julie Strauss, and today I’m talking to Erica Appelros. Erica is a Doctor in Sociology and Associate Professor of Philosophy of Religion, with more than 20 years of experience as a teacher, coach and speaker. Erica works as an associate professor at Lund university in Sweden. In 2019, she started a private coaching business. Erica has a vast array of interests and expertise ranging from the scientific to the artistic, and I was thrilled for the chance to ask her about her favorite book, and fascinated to hear why she chose the Swedish classic The Emigrants by Vilhelm Moberg as her Best Book Ever.
Julie Strauss: Good morning, Erica, welcome to the best book ever podcast.
Erica Appelros: Thank you, Julie. It’s an honor to be here.
JS: Although, I guess it’s not good morning where you are, right?
EA: No, it’s eight o’clock this evening. I’m in Madeira, a Portuguese island.
JS: Oh, you are? I thought you were calling me from Sweden.
EA: I could have been, I am from Sweden, but I spend the winter here because of the climate.
JS: What is the literary life in Madera. Are there a lot of bookstores?
EA: Yes. In fact, there said to be the biggest comprehensive bookstore in Portugal is actually in Madeira. It’s a bit amazing. It’s huge. It’s said to have every book that’s been published in Portugal, and it hangs in little plastic bags on clothes pins. I’ve been in there several times and it’s an amazing place. And then of course there are several ordinary books stores too. So it’s a very cultured island. I went to a book fair the other a week ago. And last year I went to a book fair, too. And, yeah, for being such a small island, it’s only 250-something thousand people living here, there are lots of books being read and sold.
JS: Tell me about your reading life. How did you become a reader?
EA: I remember learning to read. Or rather, I don’t remember that thing to read, but of course my mother has told me that I learned to read before I could speak. So, I was crawling, and she had written words on large pieces of paper, mum or dad or dog, or things like that. Then she tells me to go get dog. I crawled on the floor and got her the right thing. So, I can’t actually remember a time where I didn’t read. I do remember when I was four, my father promised me for each book I finished he would get me another one. I think it was a kind of illustrated science series for kids. Something like that. I would get another one. So I’d finish these books one at a time, and in the end he said, no, sorry, cannot afford this because I held him to his promise too long. Right? So reading is just like breathing to me. I just, I love it.
JS: So your parents obviously must have been big readers? Yes. Yes, they were. That’s where I started my reading. I read through the library at home and of course it’s sort of sad, because I was kind of lonely child. I spent a lot of time reading and found my friends in the books I swiped through my parents’ library. Are they were the kinds of books, historical fiction, thrillers, crime, crime puzzles like Agatha Christie sort of crime books, a lot of classical literature, The Gulag Archipelago, and old Swedish books. The famous authors from the 18th, 19th, 20th century. So I read all of that. Science fiction. 1984 was one of the first. And Brave New World. Those were my favorites. And the the Emmigrant series of Vilhelm Moberg. That was one of my first delights in reading. Of course I also read children’s books.
JS: I was going to ask, cause I thought, wow, you really went from getting those dog flashcards right into Agatha Christie and George Orwell?
EA: No, no, no, no. Well, I did read all of those and when I was around 10, but I also read CS Lewis The Narnia series. Yeah, I’ve read a lot. And I had a period where I’ve read all the fairy tales I could find. Good old-fashioned fairytales with princesses and princes and dragons and things. And I even rewrite ones that, because you know, it’s always the prince looking for the young lady. So I rewrote one of them exchanging the genders of everyone and it was quite fun. I couldn’t, I couldn’t write. I asked my mother to write it. I dictated it. She wrote it and it was quite amusing. A young princess who didn’t have a husband and all the all the council ladies begged her to find a husband and they searched all the realm and collected all the young, pretty men they could find. And on it went. Quite exciting.
JS: And what about now? What are your favorite genres now? Is there a certain place of the bookstore where you like to spend time or are you still sort of all over the place?
EA: In a way I’m all over the place, but a special place in my heart is the science fiction section. Not the fantasy section, particularly. Some of them can be quite good; but the pure, more science fiction. Asimov, Clarke.
JS: What is it that you like so much about science Fiction?
EA: I think it is that it lets you dream. It lets you escape reality for a while and have some fun. And also it’s not unrealistic. In way in ways unrealistic, but it’s not extraordinary. It only takes more science to make science fiction. But in fantasy, okay, it’s more like fairytales. Which are amusing in their way. But they are different genres. And I liked this reality connection. It’s very, very thin, but it’s still there. I was looking for, because I was reading, if we’re talking about science fiction, a woman writer, because most science fiction books are written by men. But there’s a really good, Becky Chambers, that’s the name. Have you read anything by Becky Chambers?
EA: She’s written a series, The Long Way to Small Angry Planet is one of them. I could recommend that. She writes well.
JS: It sounds like it might be environmental dystopia?
EA: Not at all. You will be quite safe from that. Way out in outer space.
JS: Do you remember the first time you read The Emigrants?
EA: Yes, I think I do because I read it before it was made into a movie. And I think that was 1973. I believe something like that. I was nine at the time, so I must’ve read it before that, but I can’t remember, because I’ve re-read it so many times. I reread it almost every Christmas.
JS: The whole series, or just the first one?
EA: Well, if I start with the first one, I cannot stop. I think I do think the first one is the best. So when I come to the last one, The Last Letter Home, I was ended with this sense of sadness. No, it can’t be over. I want, I would just stay in this world.
JS: Can you summarize this book for my listeners who perhaps haven’t come across it, the way I hadn’t come across it before?
EA: Okay. I’ll try. It’s a book it’s set in the countryside of Sweden. It’s in the beginning of the 1840s or something. The main characters are a young couple, they’re Karl Oskar and his wife, Kristina. They meet and they marry and they get four children. Karl Oskar is very stubborn young man. He takes over the small farm from his father and his mother because his father was injured from a big boulder. The soil was so difficult to farm. There were stones everywhere. So they lived a very poor life. Karl Oskar had a brother, Robert, a teenager, and he had to serve as a hired farmhand. And he was badly treated. In that time, they could hit their employees. These are the main characters, but they’re also a lot of other people. Kristina has an uncle who is very religious, but not in the Swedish church. He has his own Bible study groups. And that was forbidden at that time; very much forbidden. So, he got a warning from police and from the church and he had to stop it or leave the country. And he had taken under his wing is also a former prostitute called Ulrika. And what has happened is that the young brother, Robert, he starts reading about this new promised land of bounty, where everyone is treated equally, and there is gold on the roads. You know, America. And he wants to emigrate. So, one day he plucks up his courage, okay and he goes to his older brother, and says that he wants his share of the inheritance in the little farm because he want to emigrate. And he’s surprised because his bigger brother Karl Oskar has had the same thoughts. Because he’s so hard working, and the whole family, they work and work and work, but they can never, for each year, the debts become higher and higher. And he thinks that in the country where I work as much as I can, and I still cannot get any better, it’s not a place where I want to live. So he’s thinking about emigrating, too. They are all getting advised against it by the church, and everyone. Kristina, the wife, she really, really doesn’t want to emigrate, leaving her parents and friends and everything she holds dear. But when they something happens, that makes her change her mind, too. Maybe that is going into too much detail, but they are in so much hardship. They didn’t die from starvation, but they starved. Kristina didn’t want to leave. It was because of her children. She didn’t want to take them out on the ocean. But when her children finally suffered too much here, she agreed they could leave. And that was an adventure. They left in a wagon, had to go for hours and hours to get to the ocean. They had never seen the ocean before. They embarked on the little brig, Charlotta, I think it was called. Very small. They had to spend 10 weeks suffering from all the kinds of things you suffer from on the small boat on the ocean. They were totally packed in and some of them died of the passengers, of course, on the way over. So I think the first book, The Emigrants, ends when they finally reach New York Harbor. And not all of the parties that left survived the journey, but most of them did. And the rest of the series is taking them from there.
JS: For the purpose of this podcast, I read the first book in the four book series, The Emigrants. After that, in English, they’re called Unto a Good Land, The Settlers and The Last Letter Home. Do they stick with this same group of people through all four of the books?
JS: So by then, you really know them well.
EA: You really know them. You get to follow Karl Oskar and his wife, Kristina, and their children. Because the first book, they just arrive in the United States, emigrating from Sweden. You get to follow them all over the continent, to the new settlement, finding where to live. You got to follow his brother, Robert, the younger, the farm hand, enthusiastic, going on to searching for gold with his friend. I won’t say what’s happening, but it’s very, very adventurous and very sad. And you get a full everything and they grew up, and until you see the settlement growing from just walking out to the forest with an ax until you get the first little general store and things. What happens to them in The Last Letter, it’s of course, the last letter. They have happy lives. They have real lives. But I think that’s why I like it. They’re so real or they also move, but he doesn’t shrink from showing both the good sides and the bad sides of life. He shows us the pains, but also the love between Kristina and Karl Oskar is wonderful to read about. And the new life created for the children. They grow up, they get a new life, they don’t starve anymore. But that also has the consequences of them speaking another language and the grandchildren cannot speak the language of the grandparents anymore. So there’s sadness. It is always the good and the sad. When the Swedish group, the family, they started off in the beginning of the 1840s to emigrate from Sweden to America, and they were the first family in their area at all. Nobody knew what this new big country was, and everyone advised against it. But they decided to go. And there’s one very touching scene where the parents of Karl Oskar, they stand by the gates and they wave goodbye to both of their sons. They have one daughter still left in Sweden. And the emigrants, they are all very excited and happy because they go to a new life. Of course, a bit sad, because they say goodbye to their parents. But the father, he says to somebody, I don’t remember who asked him, why are you serious? Well, I’m not waving goodbye to my sons. I’m following their coffins. That was their funeral carriage he was waving goodbye to. And not only theirs, but his grandchildren and grandchildren’s grandchildren. It’s not only them who were moving but all the generations to follow. It makes you think, does it? Every decision you make, every choice you make, well, they’re not that straightforward. They have consequences. They have good consequences and they have bad consequences at the same time. Maybe they are not even good or bad, but they are just consequences. And we have to choose what consequences we want to live with. And sometimes we don’t even know what they are.
JS: What is the place of this book in Sweden? Is this a childhood favorite book, or is this something that is given to children in school? Or where does the rest?
EA: It’s not as childhood book. I was an unusual child.
JS: I suspected.
EA: I believe that’s in some schools, when I was young, you were supposed to come across it to read it in what’s equivalent is for you when you’re in the late teens school? It’s something, that’s the general education. You cannot pass by it; you know about it. It’s part of our history.
JS: I mean, it’s definitely acclaimed in Sweden because, again, as I was researching, I saw that there is a statue of Karl Oskar and Kristina in, I’m going to say the name incorrectly – Karlshamn. Is that correct?
EA: Karlshamn. Yes. That’s where they left from. I mean, in the fiction.
JS: I haven’t thought this through, but I don’t know that I can think of any statues of fictional characters in America?
EA: Maybe that’s true because I mean, they are such a symbol for all the Swedes that emigrated around 1840 to the beginning of 1910. Millions. The families, the immigrants – there’s a museum also, in that those areas, because so many people emigrated. Everyone here has relatives in America. So they stand as a symbol for all those people who was that brave and courageous. And I think that’s one of the things too. I mean, I’ve got plenty of relatives that emigrated later, but they were sent the tickets from older brothers, or they were already in established society. But the first families who left, who this, this book is about, they didn’t know anything. They had no one waiting for them. They didn’t know the language; they didn’t know what to expect. And they just left. They left everything. They knew just to take this bold leap of faith, really to follow their dream. They believed that they would get somewhere. I find it scary. So scary.
JS: So is that what appeals to you so much about this book? The inner strength of these characters or this ability to take a risk?
EA: Yeah, I think so. I think so. It’s both. It’s supposed to be very inspiring cause that’s kind of life I would put to lift myself to. To be, to know what I want and to follow up with dreams and to be strong and loyal. Because they decide something. I mean, Kristina, once she says yes, she never, ever blames Karl Oskar. She’s very loyal and they endure all the hardships together and they just do it. I’m so inspired by them, by the courage, by their lives.
JS: Do you have a favorite part of this?
EA: There’s so many favorite parts, but one of the most moving parts that make it almost makes me cry is that the harvest didn’t go well for several years in a row. They had four children, and the youngest one was just about to be christened. To prepare for this meal, Kristina cooked porridge. And that was it. They didn’t have anything to eat, maybe some potatoes. And so porridge, oh, that’s a feast. She prepared the porridge and they had to save it for the christening dinner. So she puts it in the cellar and the oldest child, she was four, she was hungry. She was always hungry. So she sneaked into the cellar and she ate. My, she ate. She ate as much as she could. And they found her there, moaning. But then in the night she got into such pain. She screamed, she screamed. Just bloated. There were no doctors at the time, not in the countryside, but they sent for a wise woman who said that, well, the porridge had expanded in the little girl’s stomach. It had ripped up intestines. So it’s nothing to do. So they could just, all they could do was just spend the night with her, hearing her anguish, her pain, her asking for forgiveness. Because she was sort of, forgive me, please forgive me, I shouldn’t have eaten the porridge. Please forgive me, take away the pain. So they couldn’t take pain, and she died. And that was so, so horrible. That’s the event that made that Christina change her mind, and she told her husband, I’m with you. Let’s go to America. It couldn’t get any worse than this.
JS: As I was reading this, I realized how provincial my immigrant education is because I have read a lot about Mexican immigration or Chinese immigration to California. My family’s Irish, so I know a lot about Irish immigration. It occurred to me as I was reading it that I know so little about Swedish immigrants in America. They are concentrated up in the Minnesota area. And I’ve just missed these stories entirely. And I realized what a poverty that is in my life that I’ve missed probably a great wealth of stories of immigration from all over.
EA: Yeah, probably. I mean your country is so vast and has received immigrants from all over the place. It’s no wonder. You live in one place and you get the stories from around that, but they take that to happen in the, in the series too, because after a while you get the mixing of people. You’ve suddenly got the Italian shopkeeper; the children fall in love with the Swedish farmer’s children and they get all these mixed nationalities and they will become Americans. So, you’re full of that process too, in this series, what happens to the next generation and the next and the next was the end. The old the parents were right. Their grandchildren and grandchildren, all the generations were taken away from them. They didn’t even know their own language. They realize that they wanted a better country for their children. But did they want them to become different people with different values, different culture? Because that happened, too. They couldn’t keep the Swedish culture, Swedish values. It was all mixed. I didn’t know is they couldn’t know if they had known would they still have immigrated? I don’t know. I’m sure that they should have, they would have, but it’s interesting.
JS: Erica, tell me what you’re reading right now?
EA: Right now I’m reading Becky Chambers. Her latest is a book of short stories. And then I’m also reading this the bestseller, Ten Lessons for a Post Pandemic World by Fareed Zakaria. He’s the guy who writes, he wrote a book before COVID where he made a prediction that one of the biggest threats facing the United States, isn’t big at all. Actually, it’s tiny. Microscopic.. So now he’s written a second book about the world after that pandemic. And it’s very interesting because obviously he’s brilliant. He’s a brilliant thinker.
JS: Erika, will you tell my listeners where they can find you online?
EA: Okay. they can find me in several places. I’ve a website for my coaching business.
JS: I want to thank you for joining me today. This has been so lovely talking to you, and I especially want to thank you for introducing me to this book that had never crossed my desk before. And I’m so delighted that it’s now part of my life.
EA: That’s great. And do go on or read the next three books of the series.
JS: I will. Thank you.
EA: Thank you.
Thanks for listening, Bookworms! You can follow the podcast on Instagram. I’m your host, Julie Strauss, and you can find me on Instagram where you can see some of my favorite quotes from the podcast and occasional photos of my reading cave and get bookish news from friends of the show. You might even catch a glimpse of our official mascot, Benny, the meanest bunny on the planet. I really love most social media, but I love the Instagram book community. So come on over and let’s chat books.
Thanks for joining me today. And I will see you at the library.