The Vikings first displayed that knack, of course, at the end of the eighth century, when they seized on Europe's vulnerability after the death of the emperor Charlemagne to launch a series of daring overseas expeditions. Their raids reached east to Russia and as far west as Ireland, with the goal of not only enriching themselves at others' expense but also finding new homes for their families—a constant theme in Scandinavian history.
After acting as a largely destructive and disruptive force for two centuries, the Norsemen suddenly pivoted and became a galvanizing presence in European civilization. They helped shake Europe out of its Dark Age malaise, finding innovative ways to transmit ancient Greek and Arab knowledge and science to the West, while expanding and fortifying the boundaries of Christendom, thereby laying the foundations of the medieval West. Starting in the eleventh century the Normans, descendants of the Norsemen, became living conduits of astronomical, medical, mathematical, and physics texts and instruments, including the astrolabe, bringing them from Italy and the Mediterranean to northern and western Europe. By doing this they triggered an intellectual renaissance that would sustain European civilization for the next four centuries.
In fact, an informal title for this early history, from the Middle Ages onward, might be "Scandinavians to the Rescue." The descendants of the Vikings came to the aid of the papacy in the 1000s, when the Catholic Church most needed help. In the 1100s they transformed their earlier paganism into a powerful cultural force that would inspire Western music, art, and literature for centuries, right down to today.
Then, having rescued Latin Christianity, the men and women of the North went on to save the Protestant Reformation, when it seemed doomed to be swept into the dustbin of history. They also turned Protestantism itself into a powerful force for reshaping the future of humanity—what I have described as the Lutheran work ethic, which still characterizes the men and women of contemporary Scandinavia.
The story of the Viking heart doesn't end there, however. Having conquered and reshaped Europe, Scandinavians would then descend on the new republic of the United States. There they came to the rescue of the American frontier and the Union cause in the Civil War, opening up the prairie states and winning a war for liberty, a cause that Scandinavians deeply identify with. A commitment to freedom is buried deep in their own history and reflected in many of the institutions of the Vikings centuries before.
Scandinavian Americans went on to transform the American self-image at a critical time in the twentieth century, while back in Europe their former countrymen rallied against tyranny and stopped in its tracks the Nazi effort to build an atomic bomb—while also working, at home and from far away, to save Jews from the Holocaust.
The impact of Scandinavian Americans on America, I will finally argue, goes far beyond their actual numbers—even though today the eleven million Americans who claim Scandinavian heritage would, if they formed their own nation, outnumber the population of any one of the countries where the Vikings originated.
In fact, more than any other group of American immigrants, Scandi-Americans pointed the way toward a new paradigm for the American "melting pot," one that featured a robust cultural assimilation without a full shedding of their ethnic identity or their roots in the homeland. Like my grandmother, they were proud to be Americans. But as her tiny Norwegian flag reminded the rest of us, a part of her still remained in the country of her birth, a place where members of her family could still be found. In a profound sense, Scandi-Americans have managed to use their pride in their ancestral home and its history—including its most famous inhabitants, the Vikings—to embed themselves 'deeper' into American culture, to become important contributors to American society as farmers and businesspeople, as philanthropists and engineers, as artists and politicians and leading figures in sports and entertainment.
That sense of belonging to America but while retaining pride in the past, even a once-violent past, remains an outstanding example for how immigrants can still shape the future of the American Dream in the shadow of American exceptionalism.
In that sense, the second half of this book could almost be called "The Tale of Two Grandmothers." This is because my paternal grandmother, Helen Sorlie Herman, was the descendant of Norwegians who came to America in a much earlier wave of immigration, in the 1850s. That was when fleeing poverty and the specter of starvation drove thousands of Scandinavians to make the almost impossible journey to America on sailing ships—vessels the Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen once dubbed "coffin ships." Many lost their lives on those ships, from disease and hardship as well as natural disaster. They arrived in an America that was rougher, less civilized or forgiving, and—when my great-great-grandfather Oscar Sorlie arrived—on the verge of civil war.