ND author visits Rugby library
By Sue Sitter
North Dakota author Lela Selma Peterson visited the Heart of America Library’s Book Discussion Group Monday morning to share her nonfiction work, “Selma: Swedish Fortitude on the North Dakota Frontier.”
Peterson, a retired teacher, told the group she hadn’t planned to be an author, although stories of her family heritage had interested her for decades.
However, after her husband’s death in 2007 and her retirement in 2008, Peterson said she found herself alone on her family farmstead, her children grown and gone. Her children thought of her, though, when they gave her a laptop computer for a present.
“They said, ‘It’s got a few strings attached to it. It’s not only for retirement, and your birthday, and The 4th of July, and on and on, but we never knew our grandma and grandpa – your mom and dad. Would you write about them?’ Just like that, I said, ‘sure.’ “
Peterson said she was sure about the subject of her story – her mother, Ingeborg Sjoqvist. “We called her Ma,” Peterson said.
Peterson said she began jotting memories down in a note pad with a “stubby pencil” during early morning walks to nearby Reynolds, North Dakota.
“When I got through two reams of paper, I thought I did a pretty good job, but I had it all sorted into piles and I thought, I’m going to start with Ma’s story,” Peterson said. “And I have an open floor plan, and had piles of papers from the kitchen, to the living room, to the dining room and past that wall there,” she laughed, pointing to a wall across the room.
“And I laid out all these stories on the floor. And I thought, ‘I don’t know if this goes first, or that over there.’ I was thoroughly befuddled. I had the story, but I didn’t have the facts.”
Research at libraries in Grand Forks and Bismarck followed. Next, she took a trip to Sweden.
Peterson said the trip was her second one; she had visited the country in the 1960s. As she traced the path to the church where her mother was baptized as an infant, the town where her grandparents had married and started a family, and the dock where her mother boarded a ship for a new land, Peterson said the true subject of her book emerged: her grandmother, Selma Dahlgren Sjoqvist.
Peterson said she viewed documents tracing how her grandmother traveled – with three children in tow – to a land described in glowing terms by turn-of-the-twentieth-century propaganda.
“This is a picture taken before they left Sweden – Selma and Johan,” Peterson said, showing with her laptop an image of a young married couple. “Johan left in 1903, and they really believed they were going to get so rich they could return in a year or two. So, Selma came the next year. She brought my mother and the two boys. She left a year-old baby and her oldest, an 8-year-old daughter, thinking, ‘I’m an only child. This will soften the blow and we’re coming home in a couple of years. So, my folks will take care of them.”
The group shook their heads, knowing what waited for Selma on the prairie.
“How much do you think it cost for Johan to make the trip in 1903? And this included transportation on the steamship, and a train ticket to North Dakota?” Peterson asked.
“$25,” she answered. “And it was a $1 train ticket for the trip across the country. So, the value of a dollar was pretty high. When Selma came, there was a six-month window, when it was the only time in history – the steamship (companies) had a price war.”
Peterson described the Sjoqvist homestead in northern Ward County, near the banks of the Mouse River.
“This is what Selma saw when she came,” Peterson said, showing a photo of lush, green land on her laptop’s projector. “And she felt at home. These are the coulees that are on the north. We picked juneberries (there). I grew up going in those coulees. And mom was just like a wild person when we’d get in those coulees. She’d get all us kids – there were nine of us – all picking, and she’d say, ‘You two come with me,’ and she’d get two of us to go into the next coulee. She was just so at home,” Peterson said.
Clicking to another image, Peterson added, “This was just the little part of that house on the left was where grandpa first stayed. He built that much, and then he built on, and my mother is in the middle.”
After Peterson’s seven and a half year journey through Selma’s story, her book was published after requests from family and friends who wanted the story for a gift. Peterson modestly noted her book “won an award,” which opened “not Pandora’s box, but Selma’s box, and away she went. I feel like in one way, it’s such a beautiful witness for people to realize what homesteading was like, so I’m going to run with it as long as I’m able to.”
“Selma: Swedish Fortitude on the North Dakota Frontier” and two other books by Peterson, “Pencil Shavings: Growing Up in a One-Room Country School on the North Dakota Prairie” and “A House Divided” are available at Amazon.com.
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