It's the early 1900s in still-Victorian Bergen, Norway. Little Swanhilde Holmboe has never felt especially loved by her fat, selfish mother Sophie, who also makes her sweet but inept husband, Martin Holmboe, unhappy, by her constant cravings for more money. When the father makes a disastrous investment, hoping to please Sophie, she divorces him to marry her successful distant cousin, Henry Krogh. Young Swanhilde makes the best of it, yearning for the day she's grown and can get
At fourteen, the girl, now nicknamed "Bus" for her Buster Brown mop of blonde hair, is nearly seduced by her stepfather and flees to share a flat with her older brothers, Johann and Wilhelm Holmboe. Eric Andersen, handsome in his Navy uniform, and the spirited Bus meet at an enchanted Christmas party in 1918. Eric has his own family skeleton, a scandalous divorce by his father, Hans, from his pretty wife, Charlotte-Emily, after learning she has slept with his handsome brother Thorvald. They fall in love and are married the following June. While on their idyllic Sognefjord honeymoon, an offer comes via his father, for Eric to become director of a new bank in Mexico. The newlyweds set out for New York in elegant first class on the liner Stavangerfjord.
The Mexican bank is unexpectedly nationalized and the young Andersens cool their heels in New York, exhausting their finances, before another opportunity arises through Danish businessman Colonel Borg de Rasmussen, one of a group of other city Scandinavian immigrants. Before long the young couple is bound for Casper, Wyoming, where Eric is to be in charge of the drilling of an oil well at the big Salt Creek strike near there. The money for the lease has been raised by Hans Andersen and his wealthy Christiania cronies. The venture ends in a dry hole, and Bus, now pregnant, and Eric head for California.
Los Angeles is entering a tremendous decade of prosperity, and Eric quickly finds work as an accountant for a company supplying props and costumes to the burgeoning film industry. The next few years are good ones, marred only by the news that Hans Andersen has committed suicide in the woods outside Christiania following a fatal tunnel collapse in the subway project he has been overseeing. Also, Alf Andersen, Eric's brother, turns up one day at his brother's Spanish style Inglewood home, on the run from Canada after embezzling $100,000 there.
By the mid-twenties, ambitious Eric Andersen is riding high (though his brother has been nabbed and sent to jail). He has a new home, a good job, a brand new Packard, a growing stock portfolio and two young daughters. Julia Andersen, the six-year old, is a blonde angel, smart as a whip. Firstborn Nora Andersen, now seven, is slower and has never been robust.
In 1927 however, the prop company is about to fold, as many movie companies, inspired by the big profits already garnered by the first 'talkie', form their own costume departments. The problem is 'solved' for the owner, Leo Laemmler, when the building burns down, and Eric finds himself jobless. Times are still good and he takes a position as a mortgage loan officer with a bank, deciding at the same time, and against his wife's wishes, to plow every dollar he can into the upward-spiraling stock market. The October, 1929 crash wipes him out. He decides to head back to New York, on news from Borg de Rasmussen that a new formula ships' paint will be a surefire success, and that
The venture fails because of the paint's cost and, like millions of others, Eric is now seriously out of work. A kind Norwegian family puts the Andersens up in their crude, cold attic in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, where many Norwegians have settled. To add to the difficulties, Bus is pregnant once more. In November, 1932, at the height of the Depression, little Bertel Andersen is born. Roosevelt has just been elected president and a faint hope of relief from the dreadful times has been raised. Eric pays the hospital bill by selling his blood, and celebrates his son's birth with whiskey at a speakeasy. As he throws his last quarter at some hoboes around a trashcan fire, he thinks that, perhaps at last, things will surely get better.
But they don't. Eric tries selling wire rope off a huge coil which he pushes around in a wheelbarrow on the Brooklyn waterfront, to little avail. Eventually the proud Norwegian is reduced to applying for the $6.60 relief doled out each week to needy New York families. The New Deal comes through in 1935 with the WPA program and at last Eric has work again, at Main New York Library, at fifteen dollars a week.
His expectations for quick advancement, because of what he considers to be superior experience and intelligence, don't pan out. His brooding becomes worse, fueled by the cheap whiskey, he's now able to pay for by withholding part of his salary from the family finances. Personal relationships suffer badly -- Eric and Bus seldom speak, except to wrangle over the family plight. Bertie is growing up as a mama's boy, fearful of his father. The high school age daughters are shy and repressed.
The nadir is reached when Bus is forced to retrieve her drunken husband from a church parsonage on Staten Island, where the family has moved from Brooklyn. The kindly Unitarian minister has rescued Eric from probably freezing to death, and he invites Bus to attend church services. The contacts she makes enable her to obtain a part-time job, an outcome irritating to Eric, but Bus is not dissuaded, finding that she likes working and having some independence for the first time in her married life.
More depressed than ever, Eric sees an advertisement for workers to come to Newfoundland for a year to construct an airbase, to be used when the anticipated war breaks out in Europe. The pay is good -- he can send much of it home -- but most important it will give him a chance to try to recapture his pride and start over. The offer seems irresistible.
A final, bittersweet confrontation takes place between Bus and Eric. Each is forced to size up where they've been as a couple and where they're going. They decide to separate, to let their individual destinies have a chance to play themselves out. They utter faint platitudes about getting together again after a time, neither one sure of anything except that they once loved one another, and may still, but for now they're saying goodbye.
Vol. 2 of SAGA will briefly reunite the parents, but mainly trace the younger Andersens during the World War II years and into the 1950s.
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March 12, 2012
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