A maid among maids

Sheeps in a meadowIn 1914 Swedish farms had difficulties finding enough labourers. Many young people from the country side preferred to move into the cities or emigrate to America to the hard work as a farm labourer. At this point a young Stockholm journalist, Ester Blenda Nordström (1891-1948), decided to find out for herself what it was that made people leave. Using an assumed name she applied for a position as a farm maid and spent a month working as a farm labourer. Back in Stockholm she wrote about her experience, first in an article series and later in a widely popular book, En piga bland pigor (A maid among maids) which is the one I have just finished.

So why do we need an outsiders perspective on the hard farm life when Sweden have so many great working-class authors who wrote about their own experience? Well, I must admit that I found the outsider’s perspective really helpful. Reading it today we are all outsiders and Nordström, as a very modern woman in 1914, acts as a bridge between me as a modern reader and the common life in 1914. She asks the questions I would have asked and she comments on thing I find notable but which may have been considered too normal to mention by someone who was not an outsider. She also wrote this before the working-class authors really broke through in Sweden so it was cutting edge both in its theme and the way it was done. It doesn’t hurt either that she was an excellent writer and that the book is genuinely funny.

In Swedish this type of undercover journalism is called wallraffa (to wallraff) after the famous German journalist Günter Wallraff. Perhaps it would have made even more sense to name it after the Swedish journalist who used the method more than fifty years earlier.

I may have already ordered some of her other works. I can’t wait to read about her time hitch-hiking through America or the time she spent one and a half year in Kamchatka. Unfortunately she doesn’t seem to have been translated into English so if you want to read anything by her my recommendation is to either learn Swedish or pester your favourite publisher until they translate her for you, whichever seems easiest

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34 thoughts on “A maid among maids

  1. This sounds so interesting, your point that today we’re all outsiders is perfect! I would love to read it but my Swedish is rubbish. I wonder if Eland would publish? love the sheep.

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    1. I think Eland would be a great match for her travelogues if they are equally good. I’m looking forward to finding out.

      I always feel a bit guilty when I review books that aren’t available in an English translation as I hardly have any Scandinavian readers. But it would be boring to have a book blog where I couldn’t talk about some of my favourite books just because no one bothered to translate them yet.

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      1. I agree, keep reading and blogging and one day they might be translated or I might learn a nordic language! I thought of you today because there was a programme on BBC radio 4 ‘The Forum’ on Saint-Exupery, really interesting, I still have to read him – next year!

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  2. “Well, I must admit that I found the outsider’s perspective really helpful. Reading it today we are all outsiders and Nordström, as a very modern woman in 1914, acts as a bridge between me as a modern reader and the common life in 1914.” – I love this! Trying to maintain the appropriate perspective when we read history can be challenging. It’s easy to slip into anachronistic judgments or to feel completely disconnected from what we’re looking at, as though it was a fantasy or sci-fi novel. This idea of being an “outsider” and looking for an author who can help bridge that gap is really essential to learning about the past.

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    1. Yeah, and it is often a challenge to separate our judgement of a texts appeal today (e.g. that a certain text that used to be important has aged in a way that makes it less relevant or enjoyable to modern reader) with our understanding of a text in its original context. In the first case an anachronistic approach works (as it deals with a modern readers response to a text) but not in the second case.

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  3. Fascinating! And I agree an outsider’s perspective can be helpful. While we, arguably, should be able to appreciate and understand another’s perspective, sometimes we do need someone to help bridge the gap between our experience and someone else’s.

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  4. I’m usually iffy about outsider perspectives – largely because when we get outsider perspectives of Indian culture, it’s not handled well? – but this sounds like it works really well! I’m glad you enjoyed the book!

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    1. So am I, and I’m sure there are things in this one that isn’t handled perfectly. However, it reminded me that a well-done outsider’s perspective may have its place in instances where there either isn’t really any insider’s perspective available (as seems to have been the case when this reportage was written) or when the cultural difference is large enough that we could use someone who knows both worlds as a guide (as was at least partly the case for me as a modern reader).

      Of course we need to remember that we are seeing things at least partly from the outside so it shouldn’t replace an inside perspective, but sometimes it could complement one. (The author of A Time on Earth which I reviewed last week, is one of those insiders, but he is slightly later).

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    2. In the US, one of the most famous outsider perspective books is by a white man who took a pill that darkened his skin. He then went down south to see if African Americans really had it as bad as they claimed. The issue with an outsider perspective can sometimes be that they get more credibility and we overlook the people who completely live the life another person dabbled in.

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      1. I completely agree, I tend to be rather sceptical of outsider’s perspective which is why I was pleasantly surprised to be reminded that they can add something. After all the problem is not that it is an outsider’s perspective, more perspectives are generally a good thing, but that the outsider’s perspective way too often is treated as more credible or important. If we treat them as unreliable narrators instead they become much more interesting. And when they fail to give an accurate portrait of whatever they are describing, they often succeed in giving an accurate portrait of themselves and their prejudices.

        In this particular case I found it especially unproblematic as it is not the dominant perspective. I don’t know of anyone else writing about this exact situation (life of farm maids in early 20th century) but Sweden has a long tradition of working class authors writing memoirs, poetry and fiction rooted in their own experiences. Many of them are among Sweden’s most respected authors (I’ve reviewed two of them, Dan Andersson and Vilhelm Moberg, here on the blog). Most of them are however slightly later, from the 1920s and onward.

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      2. I’m new to your blog, so I am unfamiliar with your reading preferences, but I do look forward to following you! I don’t have any other friends who read Swedish authors (beyond the Swedish crime novels everyone loves right now). I absolutely agree with your assertion that it’s important to have multiple perspectives, but to be cautious about who is treated as the authority. Thanks for such a thorough response! *high five*

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      3. Welcome to the blog, I love company!

        it’s the best thing with being an international blogger, books I consider standard classics suddenly sound new and exotic 😉 Swedish crime novels really seems to be everywhere though and they are of course very popular in Scandinavia too. Although I’m not convinced that it is the best ones that are the most popular.

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      4. Crime fiction was my primary introduction to adult fiction so I’ve read a lot of it before I found my footing in the other genres. I still find them an excellent way to recharge after a hard read but I’m more picky with which ones I choose these days.

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      5. Oh, I have no ambition to solve the mystery before the detective, in fact I always feel a bit cheated when I accidentally do, I love the big reveal. And I mostly read crime fiction when I don’t want something difficult, just good entertainment. All I ask for is a solution that makes sense in hindsight.

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      6. I’ve found I do better with audio books. I get more involved. I think with me the problem is I don’t ever understand the ending. Ever watch one of those Batman movies with Christian Bale? WHAT IS GOING ON??? Maybe I’m just bad with big reveals! 😳

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      7. I guess there is a rather peculiar logic to the genre which would take some time to get used to (of course the least likely suspect is really the murderer). Maybe it would help to consider them atmospheric puzzles instead? So that the best authors are the ones with the best puzzle and the best atmosphere.

        (I’m fairly sure that I’ve seen The Dark Knight but I don’t really remember anything of it and have no idea what I thought about the ending.)

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  5. On the one hand, I’m sad to not be able to read a book that sounds so interesting! But on the other, I do kind of like it when a book isn’t translated into English. My mother was a high school French teacher and spent the early part of her career wearily explaining to her students that it was important to learn another language because they couldn’t expect the whole world to learn English for their own convenience. By the end of her career, the world had sort of proved her wrong. So we always like it when we find bits and pieces of the world that remain inconvenient to English speakers :). But maybe someday I’ll either know Swedish or it will exist in translated form! You never know…

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    1. Yeah, that sounds more and more like a losing argument. And I imagine that arguing that new languages opens up new perspectives and ways to see the worlds would be too abstract for a monolingual teenager who don’t know what they are missing.

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      1. Definitely a losing argument! And yes, when she went for the more abstract argument she might get one student who was open to the idea and then 35 blank stares from the rest of the class. It was tough for a woman who loved languages as much as she did (and does)!

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      2. I can’t say that I was entirely convinced that I needed a third language in school either (the need for English was obvious though), so I can’t really blame them. Adult me have a much better understanding of the value of learning multiple languages.

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  6. How fascinating! I love the idea of wallraffa. As a trained educator, I understand the value of having an outsider present what they see. While the insider can provide detail, knowledge, and a deep understanding beyond what the layman can identify, the outsider will identify inconsistencies and help clarify things the insiders take for granted.

    Great review– I love the format you write these reviews in. Do you expect Nordström’s other works will follow a similar vein?

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    1. Thank you! I know that this was the only time she used an assumed identity and expect the other books to be more standard travelogues. However, she seems to have been generally interested in trying things for herself rather than taking the easy way so I expect some similarities. For an example I know that she choose to travel third-class on her way to the US and wrote about that experience in her book about her US travels.

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      1. In A maid among maids she doesn’t just take on an assumed name, she actually plays a role and commits to it for a month.

        In her other adventures she frequently places herself in interesting situations which a person of her background normally wouldn’t be found in, but she does so as herself. however, in practice the difference is probably rather small.

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