Unraveling A Father's Secrets And 'Sorrows' Siri Hustvedt's new novel, The Sorrows of an American, begins one winter day when two adult children uncover a mysterious letter among their late father's papers. Hustvedt tells Jacki Lyden that the book draws from her own father's unpublished memoir.

Unraveling A Father's Secrets And 'Sorrows'

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Now to a tale set in Minnesota: "The Sorrows of an American," by Siri Hustvedt. The novel begins when a brother and sister, Erik and Inga Davidson, uncover a mysterious letter amid their late father's papers. The letter is dated June 27, 1937.

Ms. SIRI HUSTVEDT (Author, "The Sorrows of an American"): Dear Lars, I know you will never, ever say nothing about what happened. We swore it on the Bible. It can't matter now -she's in Heaven - or to the ones here on earth. I believe in your promise, Lisa.

LYDEN: From there, the novel becomes a quest for the past. Now, we don't want to give it away, just what the family secret is. For that, you'll have to read the book, but the story, according to Siri Hustvedt, is about much more.

Ms. HUSTVEDT: Even more than the letter, Erik begins a search for the depths of his father, and I think in some way, he begins to find his father in himself. So there's a theme of being occupied or inhabited by other people, even when they're dead.

LYDEN: It was fascinating the way you used your own father's unpublished memoir in this book. He was a descendant of Norwegian immigrants, and life was very hard, and tell us more about him.

Ms. HUSTVEDT: Well, he grew up on a farm during the Depression, and the farm was actually ruined by the Depression. They couldn't make a go of it. They lost part of their land, and this story became, I think, a real grief for my own father. He carried it with him his whole life, and he was certainly the model for Lars Davidson in the book.

LYDEN: Let's have you, if you would, please, read a little bit from his memoir, which you use so seamlessly in your own text. It really takes us back to a grim time. This was not Garrison Keillor's mirthful, Norwegian context. This is something else.

Ms. HUSTVEDT: Bachelor farmers? No, this is something a little different. Looking back at our early life, the most astonishing feature must be how small our house was. A kitchen, living room and bedroom on the first floor came to 476 square feet. Two lofts on the second floor, which were used as bedrooms, provided the same amount of floor space. There was no furnace.

A wood-burning range warmed the kitchen, and a heater cared for the living room. Except for storm windows, the house had no insulation. The water in the tea kettle was often frozen by morning. One winter in the early 1930s, we ran out of wood. If one must burn green wood, ash and maple will serve you best.

LYDEN: You know, as I was reading that, I kept thinking it was something out of the 19th century, not the 20th century.

Ms. HUSTVEDT: It's true, and actually, I think a form of 19th-century prairie life went on much longer in that particular part of Minnesota than many other places.

My father also grew up speaking Norwegian, and he spoke English with a Norwegian accent until the day he died, which is amazing considering he was a third-generation Norwegian-American.

LYDEN: Erik, your protagonist, is looking for old family secrets but something more, as well. He suspects that his father may have been - is the word pronounced a fuguer?

Ms. HUSTVEDT: Fuguer is an old word, but it is something that does still exist in the psychiatric literature. It's now called dissociated fugue states. This was something that got a lot of play in the 19th century in medicine, and it was men, always men, who would suddenly vanish from their homes, run off and forget who they were.

This was not actually the case with the father, but he does go out on fugues. He walks, and that is a kind of escape, and by the end of the book, Erik begins to understand, I think, a bit more why he walked.

LYDEN: (Unintelligible), you know, thinking about everything that you have knit together here, there are a number of sub-plots, but the action does go back and forth between Minnesota and New York, between the past and the present. One of your reviewers said America is a large and strange country, and I think that you really captured that strangeness here.

Ms. HUSTVEDT: It is a large and strange country, and I think I wanted to bring into this book that richness that also exists in American life, and since I grew up in a small town in Minnesota, very much like my two sister and brother characters in the novel, that small-town world hasn't completely vanished, and people are doing very strange and interesting and complex things all over the place, and there are these two women in the book who make dolls, and those dolls are very peculiar because they all have something wrong with them. They're all wounded or damaged in some way.

LYDEN: And Erik and Inga, his sister, ask the doll-maker what comes first, the story or the doll.

Ms. HUSTVEDT: And she says that the story always comes first. So the implication is that these two women are making images of actual people who have lived these stories. One is a little girl. She's on crutches and has a cast, and there's another doll that is sitting in a chair in overalls. It's a man, and he's holding a letter in his hand, and the letter is a letter about his son's death in the Second World War.

LYDEN: American gothic.

Ms. HUSTVEDT: A bit, yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYDEN: And our mystery is revealed, one of the many mysteries in here, is revealed in these dolls. We won't say what that is, but I'd like you to just leave us, if you would, with some of that humor from the Scandinavian plains on the 80th birthday of Erik's father, Lars Davidson. He makes a speech. The speech he makes, I think, is a real testament to the perseverance of that previous generation of settlers.

Ms. HUSTVEDT: Yes, it's true, and I have to say that I stole this directly from my own father at his 80th birthday. So this is how he began his speech.

I read a small ad in the newspaper not so long ago, he said, that went like this: Lost cat, brown and white, thinning fur, torn left ear, blind in one eye, missing tail, limps on French right foreleg, answers to the name of Lucky.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYDEN: Siri Hustvedt. Her latest novel is called "The Sorrows of an American." Thanks again.

Ms. HUSTVEDT: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

LYDEN: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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