How does one locate a story at the intersection of “truth,” “lies,” “memory,” and “imagination”? Whatever. . . Never Mind, or Old Torvald Skaalen Died on Saturday is a place-based attempt to play with this question. It is both a piece of short fiction and a documentary photo essay, structured in the style of a children’s book, a form notable for its close and deliberate combination of image and text.
In December 2014, I spent a brisk and rainy day taking photographs of the small town of Stoughton (pronounced stoh-tun), Wisconsin. Founded in 1847 and located approximately thirty miles south of Madison, the town was named after its founder, Luke Stoughton, and it rapidly grew into a Norwegian immigrant settlement community. Today, the town still places remarkable emphasis on its Norwegian-American history, visible in its iconography, experienced through its cultural celebrations, and understood through its economic development strategy.
Along with photographing the built landscape of Stoughton, I spent a day taking interior shots of the local public library and capturing inventory in a Norwegian gift shop on the town’s picturesque main street. That evening, I joined a group of community members from the local Sons of Norway Mandt Lodge as they prepared batches of Norwegian lefse (pronounced lef-sah), a traditional flatbread made of potatoes and flour, rolled paper-thin and cooked on a griddle—in preparation for their children’s Christmas pageant.
The following story took shape upon repeated consideration of the photos, a story built around an old curmudgeon named Torvald Skaalen, a man who is simply fed up with being Norwegian.
This is his tale.
*with special thanks to Fall 2014 UW-Madison Visiting Artists: writer, Brad Zellar, and photographer, Alec Soth; The Nordic Nook in Stoughton; and the generous and spirited crew of lefse-making champions at the Sons of Norway Mandt Lodge, especially Darlene and John Arneson.
Sigrid Peterson is a graduate student in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and holds a master’s degree from the University’s Department of Geography. She is specializing in long form journalism and multi-media documentary techniques, and has a soft spot in her heart for grouchy Norwegians. Contact.