My morfar (grandfather on my mother’s side) hunted alligators by a lake in Småland. If this sounds strange to you, imagine how my mother must have felt when as a child in the 1940’s in Sweden she read Pelle Svanslös i Amerika. Or for that matter, how strange and incredulous a journey to America Gösta Knutssson’s book, published in 1943, would have been to any Swedish youngster.
For several years now I have kept a stack of Pelle Svanslös adventures on my bookshelf. My mother gave them to me in the process of downsizing and no doubt wanting to make sure they were in good hands, as she is advancing in age. I treasure these books because they must have made a lasting impression on my mother. She loves to talk about Pelle and that evil Måns and his stupid followers Bill and Bull. When she mentions them it is with an intensity not shown in connection with any other book talks we have had.
Until two weeks ago I had never read any of the Pelle Svanslös books, not even as a child. My reading list back in Sweden consisted of Emil i Lönneberga, Karlsson på Taket, Pippi Långstrump, Ture Sventon Privatdetektiv, and Nils Holgersson. Add to that Tintin, Kalle Anka, and Fantomen, while not Swedish characters, certainly adopted as if homegrown by me and many other children in Sweden.
O the story that I found, to paraphrase Dr. Seuss deliberately as badly, when I opened up Pelle Svanslös i Amerika on a recent trip. You have heard the saying “I could not put it down,” and it was one of those rare occasions when I kept reading and also was fortunate to have the time to do so.
Gösta Knutsson, presumably writing for children, immediately drew me into his world of cats that behaved and appeared as if they were persons, while existing in a world that features, at least peripherally, people, and also showed the cats, both in print and lovely illustrations, to be cats. Gösta Knutsson shows the ability to write in a way that appeals to all age levels, including those reaching middle age, such as myself. He has also the ability to tell of things that concern society and the adult world, without being heavy-handed. At no time does one feel he is creating a moralistic fable, so with all due respect to George Orwell and his Animal Farm, move over George, Gösta is the champ. Hands down, Gösta wins the match! Gösta is the Ingemar Johansson of prose as it relates to animals, entertainment, and literature. And T.S. Eliot with your cats and subsequent mega musical machine, I’m sorry, nice try, but, if you will excuse the term, you are not the cat’s meow.
I mentioned earlier how strange this Pelle Svanslös book must have seemed to a Swedish child, maybe an adult also, in the early 1940’s. I wonder how many in Sweden really knew anything at all about events or details as Knutsson depicts them in Pelle’s adventure across the vast ocean.
Knutsson informs us that America has lots of automobiles and skyscrapers. But this is where the familiarity of what most in Sweden in 1943 likely would have known. He tells us that in America there is an ice cream man on nearly every corner because Americans are terribly fond of ice cream. Elevators in America are ten times as fast as those in Sweden. He teaches his readers what a “drug” store is, including depicting a counter where Americans sit on high stools and drink something sweet, and eat ice cream and fried eggs. We also learn about gangsters. In this book they are ever present and while no blood is spilt, their actions and behavior should scare any child beyond what they might see today watching The Sopranos, Good Fellas, or any mobster offering on television. Without wishing to spoil the book, I think I can share that it is both frightful and hilarious to have the cat gangsters raise their paws and and shout in unison several times the abbreviation of their gang, G.G. (for “Gangster Gang”) and motto, “Everything Ours!”
Knutsson as part of the story and Pelle’s encounters depicts interesting social behavior such as Swedish cats having immigrated to America and changed their name to sound American, as well as Swedish cats having various language proficiencies in Swedish, leaving the old country behind and inevitably losing touch with gamla Sverige. He manages to entertain and instruct in such instances, and only twice in the book is an overt pedagogical lesson, what would these days be called a “teaching moment,” evident. They concern race relations. I translate the passage below, found on page 83 of the 1947 edition of Pelle Svanslös i Amerika.
Pelle is told by another cat, “But you should not buy [a souvenir] from him, because he is a Negro [cat].” Pelle’s response is a manifesto against racism “If I could only understand why it should matter if a cat is a Negro or not. As long as he is a good cat, that’s what matters. If he is evil, that is so much worse than a Negro cat who is good, and if I am good, I am not one iota better than a Negro cat who is good. If a Negro cat is evil, he is just like any other cat who is evil. Whether the nose is black or white shouldn’t matter.”
I wonder how much Swedish children or Swedes in the early 1940’s knew about racism in America or what the opinions of the Swedish people were.
Following Pelle on his adventure in America we are in good hands with Gösta Knutsson, who educates us about geography and different cities, and even includes a tour of the Swedish exhibit that has brought Pelle and his human companions to America in the first place. The chapter features a beautiful drawing of a giant Dalahäst a boy has managed to climb to ride, as another child photographs the moment and Pelle and another cat look on. Even birch trees have been brought to the exhibit. Good to know Swedish marketing and public relations were at work in America in the 1940’s.
Having had two weeks to think about Pelle Svanslös i Amerika, my hope is that by introducing or reintroducing you to the Swedish cat and his creator Gösta Knutsson you will visit or revisit some of his work. More than anything, I would like to hear from those of you who were alive in the 1940’s and read Pelle Svanslös books, your perceptions of America back then, inside or outside the Bonniers Barnbibliotek book covers of a great Swedish cat.
It is important for the sake of Swedish and Swedish-American history to know how and how much perceptions have changed as the countries of Sweden and America both integrate and disintegrate in a world that is, as they say, and yes, it is, no matter how much you like it or not, global. Tack ska du ha!
This post originally appeared in Nordstjernan as a column on September 15, 2013.