Ole Edvart Rölvaag was born on April 22, 1876, on the island of Dönne and lived in Nordland, the far north of Norway. His family had been fishermen and seafaring people for generations. After a meager education Rölvaag worked for several years as a fisherman, but in 1896 he emigrated to the United States to work on his uncle’s farm in Elk Point, South Dakota. He worked his way through Augustana College, South Dakota., from 1897 to 1901 and through St. Olaf’s College, Minnesota, where he received a bachelor of arts degree in 1905. He then returned to Norway to spend a year at the University of Oslo.
Returning to America in 1906, Rölvaag joined the faculty of St. Olaf’s College. In 1908 he became a United States citizen and married Jenny Berdahl; they had four children. In 1910 Rölvaag received his master of arts degree from St. Olaf’s.
Rölvaag had begun writing during his early teaching years. His first book, written in Norwegian, appeared in 1912 under the title Amerika-Breve (Letters from America); with a succeeding volume, Pa° Glente Veie (1914; On Forgotten Paths), it portrayed the life of the young Norwegian immigrant in the Midwest. His next novel, To Tullinger (1920; Two Fools), is the study of a miser’s temperament; it was translated into English a decade later under the title Pure Gold (1930). His most poetic and mystical work is Laengselens Boat (1921), which concerns a legendary vessel symbolic of the heartache caused by emigration. It was translated into English as The Boat of Longing.
Rölvaag’s artistic vision was doubtless shaped by the harshness of his life—the years of hard work and hard study and especially the tragic deaths of two of his children. His novels are strong reminders of life’s severity, and this is nowhere truer than in his masterpiece, Giants in the Earth (1927), written with the assistance of a friend, Lincoln Colcord, who helped Rölvaag translate idiomatically from the Norwegian. Rölvaag dedicated the book “To Those of My People Who Took Part in the Great Settling, To Them and Their Generation.” The Nation called Giants in the Earth “the fullest, finest and most powerful novel that has been written about pioneer life in America.”
The last book by Rolvaag, Their Father’s God (1931), consists of intensely dramatic projections of the Minnesota—South Dakota prairie and of the whole westward movement in America. Toward the end of his life, he was appointed head of the Norwegian department at St. Olaf’s, where he hoped to institute a center of Norwegian culture, a plan that was aborted by his death on Nov. 5, 1931, from a heart attack.