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A Maid’s Bestselling Novel

Written by: Tuva Korsström |

“From kitchen sink to literary heights. That’s the success story of Miss Sally Salminen, 30-year-old Swedish maid for a New York family,” (Tyrone Daily Herald, Tyrone, Pennsylvania, 20 October 1936) announced one of hundreds of articles published around the world in autumn 1936 about Sally Salminen (1906-1976), an immigrant from the Åland islands who won first prize in an international fiction contest for her first book, Katrina (1936; Eng. tr. Katrina).

Fifteen editions of Katrina were brought out in the first year alone. The book, which has been translated into a score of languages, is still being reissued. For thousands of women, it is the first and perhaps only adult literature they have ever read.

One of the biggest Nordic bestsellers of all time, the novel is still fascinating, even though the story of its self-taught author has faded into obscurity. The book starts off like a folktale: “Katrina was the eldest of three sisters, daughters of a farmer in northern Österbotten: the prettiest, the gayest and the proudest of the three. Her tall young body was strong; work was like play to her, whether it was timber felling in the forest, plowing and harrowing in the fields, or spinning and weaving withindoors. It was a pleasant sight to see Katrina bringing in her load of timber on a winter’s afternoon, as the sun sank beyond the snow-covered plain. She sat erect and firm, holding the reins in sure hands hidden in bright blue home-knitted mittens.”

Åland villagers still equated fiction with madness. Gunvor Javen, one of the contributors to Sallys saga (1986; The Story of Sally), writes, “Even her mother, who loved to read, tended to think like that. When she found out that Sally was working on a novel way over there in America, she wrote a letter instructing her to drop the whole endeavour. What nonsense to write books while she was working – and it wasn’t even a woman’s occupation.”

Dührkop, Johannes (1903-1985): Portrait of Sally Salminen. Book cover from: Sallys saga. En minnesbok om Sally Salminen, Schildts, Borgå 1986

Katrina leaves her sheltered existence in the very first chapter. A seductive prankster lures her to the faraway Åland Islands, and neither her sisters, the thriving household of her parents, nor the blue mittens can stop her. She descends into bottomless poverty, virtual serfdom, which Salminen describes with penetrating realism.

Katrina’s sailor is the poorest and most despised pariah of the village. She has the same status as a crofter or maidservant. She labours, gives birth to and raises children, and watches them die as products of a class society that is in the process of dissolution. Her only surviving son rises to the rank of captain, but that only leads to their estrangement.

The social critique implicit to the book aroused strong feelings in Salminen’s native village of Vargata on Vårdö Island. The novel opened the door to a literary career, but grew to be a burden as well. Salminen married painter Johannes Dührkop and spent the rest of her life either in his native country of Denmark or on the road. She ended up publishing a total of seventeen novels, travelogues, and autobiographies. But Katrina overshadowed everything she did.

However, a number of her last books deserve serious consideration as well. Among them is the remarkable Brittany novel Prins Efflam (1953; Prince Efflam; Eng. tr. The Prince from the Sea), which takes advantage of Salminen’s travels, erudition, and anti-Fascist sympathies to forge a mystical contemporary narrative.

Her last four books were autobiographical: Upptäcktsresan (1966; The Expedition), Min amerikanska saga (1968; My American Story), I Danmark (1972; In Denmark), and Världen öppnar sig (1974; The World Opens Up). Upptäcktsresan, which has been called one of the best Finland-Swedish novels about the 1920s, tells of Salminen’s childhood on a poor family farm with her parents and ten siblings. Min amerikanska saga chronicles her life as a maid in New York.

Salminen was a diligent autodidact. She took correspondence courses even before going to the United States. Javen comments on the poems she wrote in the United States:

“‘Yes, Madam’ is about an ostensibly acquiescent and obedient maid. But it ends with the words ‘No, Madam!’ It is a protest poem pure and simple.”

Salminen recited the poem for radical young immigrants at their Harlem club and published it in a small newspaper called Domestic Workers’ News.

The book completes the circle with the loved and hated Katrina. Both of them reveal everyday details and established mechanisms of oppression that had not previously been regarded as relevant to literature. Their appeal derives from the fact that they are Cinderella stories in the guise of realism. Katrina goes through her arduous life as a princess in disguise – the reader never forgets that she once sat atop a timber cart in her blue mittens. Salminen wrote her first and most famous novel in longhand as she kneeled by her bed in the maid’s quarters. She was the ugly duckling who turned into a swan.

Translated by Ken Schubert