More than thirty years ago I didn’t know much about May 17. Norway’s annual holiday on that day (Syttende Mai in Norwegian) is similar to our American Fourth of July. May 17 celebrations include colorful flags, parades, traditional foods and clothing, games, fireworks, and family gatherings.
Then I got a chance to travel to Norway with a friend to visit her family. I heard delightful family stories, viewed countless photos, and fell in love with that country and the warm-hearted people I met. Of the many stories I heard, the ones about life during the Second World War were among the most memorable, and clearly mattered greatly to the elder Norwegians who had survived those trying times.
One story in particular I heard involved resistance to the Nazi-led German occupation of Norway, a wedding, and the traditions surrounding Syttende Mai.
Syttende Mai commemorates the signing of the Norwegian Constitution, May 17, 1814. Unlike American independence, the signers of that Norwegian document weren’t creating a new country from a patchwork of colonies and rebels. Instead, their millennial-old country declared that they would finally and forever govern themselves with their own king, rejecting centuries of domination by Sweden, Denmark, or Finland.
Norway’s national pride, their sense of cultural identity, and their independence as a nation are intensely-held values. Celebrating Syttende Mai is one way in which those values are expressed. So it’s no surprise that the German invasion in April 1940, followed by an attempt to impose German culture on Norway, would spark wide and deep resistance.
I knew immediately during that visit that I wanted to write about those personal stories. But it was only after decades of research, revisions, shifts in perspective, and periodically giving up that I stumbled across a scholarly work on Norway’s grassroots resistance efforts. It included several excerpts from journal entries by school-age children.
That’s when my main character, pre-teen Mari, found me. She convinced me that she, too, had an important story to tell and would help me tell it. That included very significant scenes of Syttende Mai, 1941. Her story mirrored the details of the stories, full of humor and resistance, I’d heard in those living-room conversations I’d experience, enhanced by specific anecdotes from this new source.
Only then could I combine those personal stories and years of research with the scramble of ideas Mari offered. With her voice to guide me, I pulled together pieces to construct her tale of fear and courage, love and loyalty. And sure enough, bits of those stories I’d heard found a home within hers, including that wedding on Syttende Mai, 1941.
After all those years of revisions.
All I had to do is listen.
That’s when Odin’s Promise was born.
The research that helped me find Mari as a character is Kathleen Stokker’s scholarly book: Folklore Fights the Nazis: Humor in Occupied Norway, 1940-1945. Even though it’s written in academic style, it reveals personal insights and touching human elements, using photographs, journal entries, and other primary sources in the words of those who lived through the German occupation.
Stokker’s work was published in 1995, and I wish I’d found it sooner. Others have, though, since it was cited in two recent middle-grade historical novels set in Norway during the occupation: The Klipfish Code, by Mary Casanova and Shadow on the Mountain by Margi Preus. I enjoyed both of these exciting and emotional stories, and recognized that they, too, incorporated fictional versions of incidents and historic anecdotes referenced in Stokker’s work. I hope you’ll give them a try.
Three Books about Norwegian Resistance in World War II
Odin’s Promise by Sandy Brehl (2014)
The Klipfish Code by Mary Cassanova (2012)
Shadow on the Mountain by Margi Preuss (2012)