THE BOAT OF LONGING (1921 as Længselens Baat; Eng. trans. 1933).
The fourth novel of Norwegian American Ole Edvart Rølvaag (1876–1931)
and his personal favorite, The Boat of Longing preceded Rølvaag’s betterknown tale of immigrant life on the midwestern plains, Giants in the Earth:
A Saga of the Prairie (1927). Fellow sailor and friend Lincoln Colcord*
assisted Rølvaag with the translation of this later masterpiece into English.
The Boat of Longing is a melancholy tale framed with ocean crossings and
infused with prose poems about the sea. It follows a Scandinavian legend
about a phantom boat that foretells death and signifies a deep, painful longing for something unattainable in this life. Protagonist Nils Vaag, as had
Rølvaag, spends twenty years eking out a meager existence on Lofoten Island, Norway, following the family tradition of fishing, before his own
dreams and disenchantment with the provincialism of his homeland lure him
to America. When his family rescues a wild and enigmatic shipwrecked*
Dutch girl, Nils falls in love with her. His parents become increasingly disturbed by the couple’s growing attachment, and they contrive to have the
girl sent home in an ineffectual ploy to hold on to Nils. At the same time
as the boat on which she departs eludes Nils’ frantic rowing attempts to
gain her back, his nets swell mysteriously with a bounteous catch of herring.
Amid the squalor Nils finds in the slums of Minneapolis, his violin repeatedly offers him solace, particularly when he plays a folk melody called
“The Boat of Longing.” After his letters back to Norway cease, his desperate
father, Jo, crosses the ocean to find him, only to be turned back at Ellis
Island for lack of supporting documents. Heartbroken, Jo allows himself to
believe an unconvincing story from a fellow steerage passenger that she has
seen Nils, and he offers this slim delusion to his wife upon his return home.
One sunset, his son seems to glide in a golden vision on the waters ahead
of him, and Jo rows after it; neither he nor any trace of his boat is seen
again. He has followed the phantom Boat of Longing, even as Nils had
pursued the woman who had enchanted him.