The Journey of Karoline Olsen

"She felt like she was releasing her inner self, the person she was. It leaked out of her and pooled on the ground around her."

Kristoffer and Karoline court in late nineteenth-century Norway and soon sail to America like so many in their community. Once there, they live the hard and hardened life of farmers in early twentieth-century Minnesota and Iowa in homogenous communities of culturally similar European Protestant immigrants. Over more than two decades of marriage, they suffer the hardships of immigrant and farming life, as well as universal challenges of marriage, complicated by their youth and distance from family support and local roots. When Kristoffer dies suddenly, Karoline’s journey to collect and bring home his body gives her the opportunity to reflect on her marriage and absorb the shock not only of widowhood at age forty but of the finality and sorrow that their final words were spoken in unthinkable, unresolvable anger.

Told in an alternating timeline between Karoline’s funerary journey and the years of her marriage, the story is from Karoline’s perspective at age seventeen and on, chronicling their early poverty, her near perennial pregnancies, and their tragic losses, including the death of two children and the maiming of another. Yet despite the time and place specificities of the family’s history, the universality of Karoline and Kristoffer’s marital realities—the struggles to communicate, understand each other, honor tradition and training, and forge a new joint path forward—are resonant and quite poignant. The author’s introduction and closing comments offer further depth, framing this fictional story as the imaginative outgrowth of stories she has heard of her ancestors. The intimacy of her chronicling a version of what might indeed have been her great-grandparents’ story lends additional authenticity and relatability to an already thoughtful tale.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

U.S. Review of Books - Review by Jordan Landsman

The Journey of Karoline Olsen is a novel about an extraordinary undertaking made by a woman whose husband dies in 1905, prompting her to bring his body on a long journey via wagon as she recalls their marriage and move from Norway.

At this point, it should be noted that Karoline Olsen's fictional journey is based on the author's family stories and experiences. This lends the account an aura of authenticity created by the author's personal connection to her story. It should be read as fiction, but this foundation lends to an immersive experience that comes to life for Karoline's readers.

From the beginning, one of the striking notes of this story is the sense of time's slow passage which is reflected in journeys by wagon across prairies and wilderness. Descriptions of these processes are solidified by insights into the trials produced by even the simple process of bringing a body home for burial: "The frozen blocks were packed around the body, which was wrapped in a heavy canvas tarp to keep it from deteriorating until she could put him into the ground. Karoline had traveled more than two weeks to make the trip from Soldier to Cedar Falls to retrieve him. Now, she needed make the journey home."

From solo trips cross-state to acts of kindness and support which enable Karoline to achieve her goals, Ann Hanigan Kotz cultivates a personal perspective to the character's actions that embraces her thoughts and experiences about love, marriage, and survival. As her life unfolds, Kotz is especially attentive to creating passages that describe Karoline's expanding world both within and outside her marriage: "Their conversations always started with something less personal but then evolved into their questions about men and marriage as well as their own pains and scars as wives and mothers."

Whether speaking of the process of an immigrant journeying to a new country and home, making friends, raising family, or surviving marriage and death, Kotz captures this world of changing lives. She profiles Karoline's cleverness in trying to protect daughter Betsi's reputation and life as well as the progression of 22 years of Karoline's often-stormy marriage to Kristopher. Kotz winds history, love, and survival issues into a thoroughly moving story that will especially appeal to women who look for history-based novels that come alive with the quickening of both relationships and survival tactics. The result is a story that winds through early 1900s America and the trajectory of a woman's heart.

Libraries looking for solid representations of these lives and their struggles, whether from choices and circumstances or changing interpersonal relationships tested by the rigors of new worlds and opportunities, will find The Journey of Karoline Olsen a compelling recommendation.

Midwest Book Reviews - Review by Diane Donovan

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