This post is written also for the Read the Nobels hosted by Aloi (Guiltless Reading)
Harry Martinson is a Swedish Nobel Prize Laureate, receiving the prize in 1974 together with
It is about the boy Martin (Martinson’s alter ego), 7-11 years old during the story, and whose mantra is ”my father is dead and my mother is in California”. Martinson lost his parents at a young age; his father died and his mother left him to move to Portland, USA. He spent his earlier years in foster care. It has certainly influenced his writing in general and is specifically present in this novel.
We follow Martin from when his father dies and his mother leaves the children behind to emigrate to California. Times were dire, especially for a widow, with several children. The children were placed in foster care through the municipality, according to the norm; the family who demanded least money could have the child. It is terrible to think of how these children must have suffered.
Although Martin in the novel does not physically suffer very badly, although there are some beatings occasionally, it is the mental part that is most difficult for him to handle. He is missing his mother, love, closeness to a family member. His beloved older sister died young and that was the last person he loved. He is taken from one foster home to the next and in the end (at least of the book but not his life) he arrives to a home for older people with mental deficiencies. He helps out with the inmates and feels that the lady in charge is a surrogat mother for him. Then something happens.
Harry Martinson’s novel lingers between reality and dreamlike story telling. It is written from a 10-year old boy’s view, but the wisdom of these views belong to a much older man. ”Martin is described as a selfish, stupid, childish, self pitying, obsequious, coward and false.” I don’t really agree to all of these characterisations. His situation is of a vulnerable kind. A child that, in principal, has lost his family at a young age. Living in five different homes during as many years, with people he does not know that well. When he gets attached to people, it is time for him to move to another family. In those harsh days, parents did not have time and energy to give love to their own children, less to an orphan child. Maybe the description above is only natural for a child in his situation.
The story is a good description of the situation for the poor in Sweden in the beginning of the 20th century. It is written in a wonderful, easily read prose with dreamlike sequences and beautiful descriptions of nature, woven into the sad story of Martin. Harry Martinson has managed to delicately balance his story, and make it trustworthy. And, being a Nobel Prize Laureate book, easily accessible. An enjoyable read.