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Legacy & Espionage: The Odnes Saga and Spy Parenting

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Today's Segments:

Barb Solberg
Imagine raising 10 kids during the depression. Martin and Asta Odnes did that in Van Hook, ND, after emigrating from Norway. Granddaughter Barb Solberg of Minot traces the family's agonizing decision to send three children back to Norway, in hopes of a better life, only to have World War Two break out. She tells the story in What We Leave Behind. We reair a conversation from 2022.

Christina Hillsberg
We talk about spying on our kids, to keep them safe. What if you were an actual spy. In 2021, we visited with Christina Hillsberg about her book, "License to Parent: How My Career As a Spy Helped Me Raise Resourceful, Self-Sufficient Kids" where she shares how her training as a former CIA operative influencing her parenting.

Transcript of Barb Solberg's interview:

Ashley Thornberg

I want to start with what we would call the pull quote. On the cover of the book, it says, Asta pressed the photo to her heart, paused, and then put an X over the heads of three of her daughters. And Barb, this is the story of your grandparents, Martin and Asta, coming to the United States in 1913, leaving at the time some poor circumstances that were happening in Norway in search of a better life, as so many people were doing at that time period.

But you start the book and the cover of the book is all of these faces and then the three X's over three of these tiny little faces. So start with who Asta and Martin are and this impossible choice that they have to come to.

Barb Solberg

Martin and Asta are my grandparents and I never knew them. I understand that I saw my grandfather once, but these were grandparents I never knew. And they had actually ten girls and one boy.

And so the picture you see on the front cover is of the family of children in 1932. And they're all girls on there except one boy who was right in the middle because they had all daughters except one son. And what happened was their family in Norway had wanted them to come home and visit.

And of course they couldn't afford to do that. They had several children and, you know, farming wasn't going so well during the Dust Bowl. But my grandfather had a wealthy cousin in Norway and she was single and they thought it would be a good idea, the cousin did and the other family members in Norway, if they would just send a few of their girls over.

And so the relatives in Norway actually paid for the trip and the idea was that they would send three girls for two years. And so the X's on the front, on the picture, my mother had told me this story about, you know, when the girls had gone over. But in 1975, when I was in Norway, my grandmother's youngest sister, Elsie, who never met her sister, came running out of her house and brought this picture with her to show me.

And this is the picture she showed me, the X's over the heads. And she told me, and someone interpreted it for her, that this was the picture that my grandparents sent so that the girls would be recognized when they got off the boat in Oslo. And I was just overwhelmed by that picture.

And, you know, I was meeting my aunts for the first time. So if you look at the picture on the very back of the book, those were two of the girls that are on the front cover. And here they are as adults living in Norway and they're, you know, kind of telling me some of the family stories.

And so I was really captured by that picture and really wanted to know more. So, you know, 40 years later, that was 1975, 40 years later in, you know, 2015, I was in Norway and I was visiting with my first cousins. And the middle girl, Boya, before she died, sat down and wrote her story, 35 pages in Norwegian, about what had happened in her life.

And this was part of the family story that nobody had. And my cousin took the, she said, well, I have my mother's story and I brought it. And so she took it out.

We were sitting in the family big house in Atnes, Norway, and she brought it out and started to translate it. And I'm just very hurriedly trying to write this down. Oh, just a minute.

She said, I think my daughter will translate it for you. So she did. And I think it was probably about a year later that I got this email with 16 pages of Boya’s story told.

And it told us what was happening to the girls when they were in Norway. And, you know, they didn't get home after two years because the oldest one got married and the two little ones were left without a way to get home. So I was real captivated by what I had learned about my aunt's life, their lives when they were in Norway.

And somehow the family needed to know that story.

Ashley Thornberg

Yeah. We've just touched on this idea that there are three daughters sent back to Norway in these really desperate economic times. But let's stress here that Clara is just barely 18, and she is in charge of Borghild, who later goes by Boya, and then Eleanor.

Boya at the time is eight, and Eleanor is four. I mean, it just it feels an impossible choice to make between do I continue to struggle every day to feed these children, or do I continue to struggle with not seeing them?

Barb Solberg

You know, and I think they probably felt like this was going to be good for the girls. You know, for two years, they would go meet the family in Norway. And the cousin there, you know, was a wealthy woman.

And my mother always said that they thought they were going to be going, you know, to dance lessons, and they would be going to Switzerland. And everybody at home thought they were having a great life in Norway without realizing what really was happening there. And so it was, you know, it had a lot of tragedy to it.

And then the poor little ones, you know, didn't, were just kind of left because their sister got married. And they just had to bounce around with whatever the cousin was doing, who was really not not a real good surrogate mother. And just, you know, for part of that story, she ended up getting married, the cousin did, and she married a Quisling, who was a Nazi sympathizer.

And that really turned, you know, a lot of things upside down for the girls.

Ashley Thornberg

Yes. There is a section in the book where, you know, Boya really starts to sort of realize that there's something going on with this surrogate stepfather, you know, she's recognizing the symbol on the clothing, and she's recognizing that he's going to these meetings and that they don't talk about what was happening in these meetings. And in your last answer, Barb, you use the phrase, you know, that you thought that they'd be going to dance lessons and then they were and then it was the first time in the lives of these girls that they ever had brand new clothing and like a plethora of toys.

There was a material wealth that came with this move to Norway. But then you said, what was really happening? And this two years turned into...

Barb Solberg

It was the rest of their lives, actually.

Ashley Thornberg


Barb Solberg

They didn't come back. The whole family got together in 1947. It was after the war.

And, you know, the girls were going to come back. Eleanor was a four year old when she left and she just wanted to come home and meet her family. She really didn't know them.

A four year old doesn't remember what things were like. And what I found interesting was Eleanor didn't stop at the home place in Van Hook. The parents had moved out to Seattle.

But when Boya and her husband came back, they did. They stopped in Minneapolis and then they stopped at my parents in Minot and then they went down to Van Hook because Boya could remember where she had been for those first eight years and wanted to see it. So Eleanor's whole life wasn't attached to Van Hook.

And so she was meeting, you know, a new family.

Ashley Thornberg


Barb Solberg

How was she going to do this? It was just, you know, there was a lot of joy and a lot of sorrow in writing it, actually. Yeah.

Ashley Thornberg

You talk about near the end of the book that Asta and Martin had, you know, the ten children and there was only one time in their entire lives where all of the children were together. And they were all fully adults at this point. Eleanor had siblings who, had a sibling who was born after she had already left for Norway and she never met that sibling until she was an adult.

And this really touching story about how Eleanor was naming her toys after her siblings in an attempt to remember them. And the way that she mourns later on, there's a measles outbreak and it takes the lives of one of the youngest of the siblings. And Eleanor every day has a funeral in her toys to grieve a person she's never, ever going to meet.

Barb, how did you put yourself in this mindset? I mean, I know that you had Boya's journals from this time, but to really even start to imagine the depth of feeling that these young women and children were feeling.

Barb Solberg

I don't know. I just remember, you know, I was committed to write every day from one to four. And some days, you know, when I had to get inside their head, it was very emotional.

I mean, I have to admit, I did a lot of crying, you know, to become what life must have been like for them. And I was in a writing incubator – Little Mo Writers – that Humanities North Dakota had. And Deb Marquardt, the instructor, told me, she said, you know, when you write fiction, it's like playing dolls.

You have to give the dolls names and you have to dress the dolls and you have to have the dolls have friends. And I think that really was powerful for me because I had to consider these two girls, especially, sort of like dolls. I have to give them a life.

I have to give them feelings. I have to color their world some way. And the color wasn't always bright.

Ashley Thornberg

I want to talk to you about another major theme that develops in the book, because in addition to the economic hardship of the 30s, then we start to lead into World War Two. And so often we think of World War Two and you really just think about Germany. You think about Japan.

You think about the attack on Pearl Harbor. You think about the invasion of Poland. You think about D-Day.

We don't really think, at least I don't, that much about what was happening in Norway. But Norway was occupied at the time. And you have this family dynamic here of the surrogate stepfather of the three girls ending up being a Nazi sympathizer.

And then Clara and Boya go on to marry people who are part of the Norwegian resistance and they are fighting the Nazis. How much of the story of Nazi-occupied Norway did you know going into writing this book?

Barb Solberg

I did not know very much at all. I had to spend quite a bit of time, you know, doing research on that. But I had always thought, you know, when my mother started telling me some of the story, how strange this was that here they were living with a Quisling, a Nazi sympathizer.

Clara's husband was sending messages to England downstairs in the potato bin or the coal bin, whatever it was. And, you know, doing undercover work that we had just so many variables that, you know, the water was murky. So it was really fun for me to kind of tease out exactly what was going on.

And I did quite a bit of reading and I also watched an awful lot of YouTube about World War II and about Norway. And then to be able to tie it to the family was easy because I knew that they were part of that. And then a relative had posted a picture to Facebook, which was his dad or his grandfather who had been part of the resistance.

I was really captivated to keep finding more.

Ashley Thornberg

Boya was sent to a concentration camp.

Barb Solberg

She had spent some time at Grini. We didn't know how long. As I was doing research on Grini online here, I found another woman's story about when she had been at Grini and her name was Anna.

And when I did the time sequence on when my aunt was there and when Anna was there, it was the same time. So some of what Anna had written about in her diary that I found online was, I incorporated part of that into the story because it told me more about what was going on when my aunt was there. And then the interesting thing was when my aunt had written that Terboven, the head of the Nazi party in Norway, had made it possible for Boya to be released.

Then I really needed to know more not only about Quisling, but also about Terboven and how that all happened.

Ashley Thornberg

Well, yeah, these ideas of loyalty and justice and how we can be kind of divided as people to end up in a concentration camp and then be rescued by a member of a Nazi sympathizing party because of some family connections. But also then to still remain true to Boya’s personal ethics of not at all being attached to a Nazi sympathizing party. And what kinds of thoughts did you start to have as you examine this idea of loyalty?

For starters, she's loyal to two countries, the United States and Norway. She's loyal to the surrogate family that adopted her, but she's also loyal to these personal ethics that don't align with the surrogate family and these ideas of morality and loyalty and justice and how complicated they can all be in a war.

Barb Solberg

Right. I think one of the saving factors for her was not only did she have to be strong, but she was young. You know, she didn't have too many choices and had to be strong even after her sister got married.

And, you know, being in the family with the Quisling and the cousin and then her younger sister and the loyalties were really pulled. But I think she was one tough broad. Is there any other kind of woman?

Oh, I know. And that at such a young age, you know, 14, 15 and 16, to become strong relatively independently by I mean, who was helping her be strong? She had to be strong by herself.

And I think she knew that and had to step out on her own, you know, she didn't stay back to take care of Eleanor, but she still, you know, harbored her inner heart and inner thoughts and kept putting one foot forward, never really knowing what was next. Everybody in the family had good intentions. You know, nobody had bad intentions.

It's just every intention seemed to get twisted and it didn't turn out right. I think that happened to a lot of homesteading families and a lot of families with family in the war. It's a huge story.

It was too big not to try to put the pieces together. Right. And and tell it and then to sit back and say, oh my gosh, you know, this is this is my family.

Ashley Thornberg

It was weird to me that it feels big to me and it's not my family. But in reading this book, it really did feel like this. I had a connection to this.

And I'm curious, Barb, as as you talk about Boya in particular being a strong woman. I want to pull on this thread of how much this story turns into a woman's story. And we know so much about the homesteading era of this country's history.

But so often it is told by the men who were doing this backbreaking work of, you know, building the homes and proving up the homesteading land and and the soldiers who were going off to war and they were standing in bread lines during the Depression. And it was an incredibly complicated time to be alive. But we don't hear as many stories as told from a woman's perspective.

And of course, Martin and Asta, you know, they have 11 children, 10 of whom survive into adulthood. Most of whom, as you mentioned, are women. So there is just a numbers game here where they have the advantage of it of it being a woman's story.

But when you started writing the book, was it intentional that this was going to be about the dedication and intelligence and just sort of emotional strength that a woman brings to this kind of story? Or did it happen almost by accident?

Barb Solberg

You know, I would say it happened by accident. And I think when it started to become a woman's story was when I realized two different points. When Asta and Martin were going to her brother in rugby, it kind of became her story.

And then when they ended up in Barton and Martin had to get on the train and go back to the homestead. And there she was, 18 and giving birth to their first child while Martin was on the train. And she was in Barton.

And I thought, you know, this this woman was really put into a situation where she had to be strong. She was by herself. And then it became, who were her friends when she got to Van Hook?

And it became a woman's story then as the women gathered and shared what was going on in their lives. And I think being a woman myself, it made it easier than telling about, you know, what it was like to plow the South 40. But it was a woman's story at that point.

And it just kind of continued. And then Boya, technically, you know, kind of wrote her own story with those pages that she had written before. I think when you go to an art exhibit and you see a painting, often you will see the artist's pencil sketch.

And then you see what happened afterwards with the colorful pieces that were put on there. And that's what it kind of became for me that, you know, there was a pencil sketch out there. And then I had to color it for who was going to stand out and what were these people going to be like in my imagination?

Ashley Thornberg

Now, none of the people who are written about in the book are still alive today. But you are in touch with some of the extended family. There are trips back and forth between the United States and Norway every five years.

What has been the reaction among the rest of your family in keeping this story alive?

Barb Solberg

So five years ago, we were out in California and I can't, there must have been 125 of us and a lot of them from Norway came. And I then had pulled together all of the research and also had what Boya had written. So I had put a book together with just the straight history, the documents and those kinds of things.

And so I did a presentation at the family gathering. I think it was probably three hours. One morning, I had put a PowerPoint together and told the rest of the family about the story with these documents.

And then I had copies of the book there so that they could have the pencil sketch of the whole family story. And I have to say, quite honestly, there was a lot of crying that morning when we all realized what our grandparents and aunts had gone through. And an interesting piece kind of in the same light is I sent three copies of the book to cousins in Norway.

And Eleanor's daughter, who has the home place now, sent me a message and she said, thank you so much, she said, for telling the story. She said, I never knew Martin and Asta and I wish you could write about the other sisters because we don't know their stories either. So, you know, it was kind of putting the pieces together.

But the pieces of the story I had were the pieces of Martin and Asta and then what Boya had written. And then documents from when they had gotten together in Seattle. When I first was thinking about doing this, this was decades ago.

I don't know if you read the Thorn Birds.

Ashley Thornberg

No, I never have.

Barb Solberg

I liked the way that book was put together. Each chapter had the title was the name of somebody different in the family. And then it was their part of the story.

And I'd always thought that, you know, that would be a way I could put this book together. But as I started to do it, I realized it was not the story of all the sisters and the one brother. It was the story of Asta and the three girls.

NOTE: Prairie Public transcripts are created on a rush deadline by turboscribe.ai. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of "Main Street" is the audio record of the show.