Monday, February 17, 2014

One of Life's Slaves by Jonas Lauritz Idemil Lie

Edward Munch, The Storm 1893

First, I apologize to my readers who have commented that they have not received new posts from me.  I’m a free lance pianist/organist and I am currently working four jobs:  twenty singers and twenty-four instrumentalists I play with, an opera, and pipe organ for church.  Just a leetle busy. 

And…I’ve recently become engaged so time I usually reserve for reading has been otherwise occupied.  (Insert huge smile here). 

I have managed to read one book finally.  Thanks to Zohar over at Man of laBook, I have become aware of a Norwegian author whose books, at least some of them, are free downloads at Amazon.  The first one I’ve read is called, One of Life’s Slaves.  It is a rather grim story and I’m not sure what the author’s reasons were for writing it, but I’ll speculate on this after the review.

A young woman, Barbara, gets pregnant out of wedlock.  Since in the 19th century, this is considered a scandalous condition, Barbara is hard put to find work.  She finally procures a job as a wet nurse and nanny at a well-to-do household on the condition that she get rid of her own child.  This she does by paying a local village family, the Holmans, to care for her son, Nikolai.

Barbara’s life takes a turn for the better where she becomes a pampered, spoiled and imperious “servant” of the family that hired her.  She raises the two children as if they were her own, while rarely visiting her own blood child.

Nikolai’s fortunes go from bad to worse.  He is exploited, neglected and abused at the hands of his foster mother, Mrs. Holman.  He is treated like a slave and any minor infraction is severely punished with prolonged beatings and being made to spend terrifying nights in a coal cellar.

Still, Nikolai manages to grow up, run away from his foster family and get work as a black smith.  He returns to the Holman household in secret, however, because he has formed an attachment to their daughter, Silla, who grew up with him. They meet in secret for as long as they are able.  Though his life takes many adverse turns, Nikolai manages to earn enough money to ask for Silla’s hand in marriage. 

Mrs. Holman tries to intimidate Nikolai with her usual imperious, demanding and sanctimonious manner and speech but he has become hardened to them.  Furthermore he is determined to marry Silla.  Doing her best not to show Nikolai, Mrs. Holman is secretly hopeful of the prospective marriage.  Her own husband has since drunk himself to death and she has had to rely on doing the washing of town folk.  Because of her caustic attitude she loses as much work as she gains.  She begins to think that if Silla and Nikolai were to marry, she’d have a source of financial security by moving in with them.

The fly in that ointment is that Nikolai’s mother, Barbara, who has by this time moved in with him.  The family she worked for finally developed enough of a back bone to throw her out and her attitude of entitlement has successfully ostracized her from any other employers.

Demanding that Nikolai cannot abandon his very own mother, she persuades him to let her move in.  Plus he gives her his hard earned savings to buy a store.  This forces him to postpone his marriage plans. 

Barbara eats more of her products than she sells and the store goes under.  Oblivious as to the reasons her store is going bankrupt, she demands more money from Nikolai.  He refuses to give her more and the reader, with a sigh of relief, hopes that finally Nikolai has wised up and will boot his parasitical mother out.

This is not to be, however.  After blaming Nikolai for all her life’s misfortunes, Barbara threatens to seek help from Veyergang, the boy she wet nursed.  Nikolai cannot tolerate this so he gives her the money.  He understands that this ruins his chances of ever marrying Silla.

Things finally come to a head when Nikolai reviews the hardships he’s had to endure his entire life.  Who made his life hard?  Mrs. Holman who abused and neglected him through out his childhood?  His mother, Barbara, who abandoned him and, literally, ate up all his money?

Common sense would dictate that this was the case.  Nikolai, as tragic as he is, is made even more so by an amazing lack of common sense.  After reviewing all his misfortunes he arrives at the conclusion that it is Veyergang who is the cause of them all.

Part of his prejudice could perhaps be explained by the fact that this rich young man has enjoyed everything Nikolai lacked:  a wealthy, privileged home, the love of Nikolai’s own mother, and finally he has begun wooing Silla.

Silla is a young, silly girl.  She loves Nikolai but also loves fun and dancing.  Nikolai provides the former without any of the latter.  Who does?  Young Veyergang.  It is at a dance where Nikolai find Silla and Veyergang together.

Nikolai hurls a large stone at Veyergang’s head and kills him.  What is the conclusion to Nikolai’s life?  A life time of hard prison labor.  The final words of the novel are uttered by Nikolai as he swings his pick:

“If I got out (of prison), it would only be to come in again.  For either the world ought to go to prison or I ought, and I suppose it may as well be the last!”

I have wondered what the point to this dismal tale could be.  Is Lie hoping to show people their pious hypocrisy?  Is he trying to awaken their compassion for the misfortunate?  Is he hoping to strike their consciences by recognizing their own pharisaical and heartless attitude?

It’s possible.  The characters certainly weren’t meant to portray the complexities of actual people.  They all seem to represent types.  Two types, really:  the selfish and the innocent victim whose life suffers as a result of others’ selfishness. In this sense the story reminds me of the short stories of the Indian writer, Rabindranath Tagore.

There were not any compassionate people in this story to counterbalance the bad.  All of them were the worst of any bad guy Charles Dickens could conjure up without any of his good characters to provide relief and ultimately hope.  Dickens always gave us the ending we wanted.  Lie feels no need to provide the reader with any sense of good triumphing over evil, rather the opposite.

Reading a biography of Lie, he is known for creating characters and story that colorfully depict the folk life of the Norwegian people in the 19th century.  That he certainly does.  The writing is impeccable and the characters are vivid.  And I must say that the story, for all its sordidness, drew me into the time period and culture quite effectively.

And for that reason alone, One of Life’s Slaves are worth reading.


  1. Congratulations on your engagement Sharon!

    You also had mentioned that you were a musician but I had no idea that you were versatile or so busy!

    Sometimes simplistic characters make me question the value of a book. However, if there are other redeeming qualities I can enjoy it nonetheless. It sounds like that was true for you here.

    1. Thanks, Brian! I do believe that the book was worth reading because of how well Lie painted life in Norway, even if his characters lack psychological depth. I don't think I'll rush into reading any of the other stories I've downloaded, however.

  2. Congratulations on your engagement and professional success.
    Thanks for the honorable mention as well :)

    1. Thanks, Zohar. I hope it sends additional traffic you way.


I welcome comments from anyone with a mutual interest in the subjects I written about.