Uncovering truth behind “Swedish Lie”
A Talk with Novelist Amy Hillgren Peterson
By Jody Ewing
July 22, 2004
A mysterious phenomenon exists in Siouxland, though many don’t know where it came from, or why. It is called Jante’s Law – an admonition against ambition in an unspoken code of ethics. It is that little voice inside that says we’re really not all that special, that we shouldn’t expect too much lest we fail. With its roots in Scandinavian-American culture, it is also a phenomenon unique to the upper Midwest.
In her compelling debut novel “The Swedish Lie,” Iowa author Amy Hillgren Peterson takes on Jante’s Law in a four-generational saga that one reader called remarkable in “illustrating raw emotion.” The day young Henny finds her great-grandmother’s century-old journals, family mysteries begin to unravel as she discovers parallels between her life and events happening a century apart.
Through the stories of frontier life, the Depression, drag races and love in the ’60s, Henny reaches for her own place in a world dominated by laws of past generations.
A native of Carroll, Iowa, Peterson’s other work includes a published memoir and award-winning short fiction. I spoke with Peterson about The Swedish Lie and how Jante’s Law still permeates modern society.
JE: Can you define for us the actual meaning of the phenomenon, “Jante’s Law?”
AHP: Envy and jealousy are cornerstones of Jante. It’s about making sure another’s life is not more fulfilling or better than one’s own. It’s about bringing everything down to your level (or bringing yourself up to their level) so that no one has more than you do. If they do, the result is jealousy and envy on your part. Having more (wealth, for instance) or being better known is seen as more of a “sin” than the jealousy and envy.
JE: Why do you think Jante’s Law is unique to the upper Midwest?
AHP: The upper plains were populated by many of upper European descent. Jante’s law is not unique to Sweden; it’s prevalent throughout Scandinavia and even Germany. I believe, in spite of the fact that our region has become more culturally diverse, the tendency toward following Jante’s Law remains.
Sioux City, in fact, is a perfect example of Jante’s Law. Very few days go by when I don’t see it in the leadership here. We could be a great city – we have great people, a nice family environment, lots of innovative, smart, generous potential – but we shoot ourselves in the foot.
Our leaders decide we shouldn’t afford basic human rights protection to people who are gay, thus flagging us as a backwater, homophobic berg. Our leaders bring in low-paying retail jobs and say “Well, they’re not good paying jobs, but they’re jobs.” We’re just supposed to accept that we won’t attract a big name store to the JC Penney building. We build an amazing new events center but it’s not optimized for people who are physically disabled. It’s as though Sioux City is afraid of its own potential and takes the low road. I blame Jante’s Law.
JE: Tell me about “The Swedish Lie” and how the idea for it came about.
AHP: For about three years I had been writing about my Swedish-American ancestors. It started out as a screenplay, but was largely unfocused. Then one day I decided to use a technique taught by writing guru Natalie Goldberg, who wrote “Wild Mind” and “Writing Down the Bones.” I wrote a series of sentences, each beginning with “I want to write about…” and the ideas just flowed, and those were the chapters of my book.
JE: What kind of research went into the book, as far as recreating a great-grandmother’s century old journals?
AHP: I did a lot of research on the Internet to get myself really living a century ago. I had a family history my grandfather’s cousin had written in the ’60s which included a lot of information about my real great-grandmother, Hilda Mattson Hillgren, who really did lose her husband to become a widow with five young children, but really didn’t make a sleazy deal with the banker but rather moved in with her brother’s family when she couldn’t maintain her homestead.
Other than that, I employed a sort of imaginative empathy – how would a 16-year-old young woman feel, meeting a sexy man, running away from her small town home to America, only to be back in the frigid back country trying to survive on a farm? Would she be lonely, isolated, afraid, excited? Sixteen year olds a century ago were more adult in some ways – taking on more responsibility, often being married and starting families of their own – but more naive in other ways about sex, relationships, money, and were generally not as well educated, especially if they were women. So I incorporated imagination with fact to create her journals.
JE: What was the most rewarding part of writing this particular story?
AHP: The most rewarding part for me in any of my endeavors is when I “nail it.” When I write something and it evokes the reaction I was really going for, that’s when the frustration is all worth it. I used to think I was a naturally talented writer, but the better I get, the more frustrated I get. I sometimes feel like a kid who sees in his mind’s eye a perfect fire truck – huge and red with lots of bells and sirens and hoses, but when he tries to draw it, it’s a blob of red crayon marks with some black and white stuff on it, and not even close to what he sees.
This article first appeared in the Weekender on July 22, 2004.
Copyright © Jody Ewing, 2010