This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.
The Swedish novelist, Fredricka Bremer, had been touring the United States in 1849, especially to see how American homes compared with those in Sweden she had written about. Before leaving Minnesota toward the end of October, she begged Governor Alexander Ramsay to show her the inside of one last home: one of the wigwams she had seen all along the Mississippi from her steamboat.
She was astonished. While most American homes had not come up to her ideals, this rude savage dwelling surpassed them. Instead of dirt and poverty, she found, she wrote, a kind of rude Oriental splendor. A fire burned in the middle of the wigwam, underneath a large kettle of soup suspended from the roof. The walls were covered snugly with buffalo hides. Three men sat around the fire carving peace pipes from the sacred pipestone. Women and children sat around the walls on cushions, showily embroidered, laid upon white blankets. With their dark eyes and disheveled hair, they were handsome and exotic.
The women made room for her to sit down, laughing and chattering among themselves, very much at their ease. Why, these were women like herself, she thought in wonder, but how different their lives were from hers.
She thought back to the hard, grey, domestic family life in Sweden, headed by cold husbands and circumscribed by the invisible barriers of social conventions more surely than the circle of this wigwam. Compared with the drawing rooms of Boston where everyone had to be polite, the wigwam was a better and happier world. "There they sit at their ease, without constraint or effort," she wrote, "these daughters of the forest."
But aren't we taught that Europeans are the culmination of civilization? She must be missing something, she thought. And she was. On the way out the door flap, she counted the Indians. Three men and thirteen women. That averaged out to four and one-third wives per husband. How could one ever sit at the same dinner table with a rival wife? An unpleasant choice for a woman: one-fourth of a warm husband or a whole Swedish cold one.
Fortunately, for Swedish women like Fredricka Bremer, there was a third even more civilized choice: write novels in which the male characters will do whatever you want them to do.
Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by the Scott County Regional Authority, with additional funding from the Illinois Arts Council and Augustana College, Rock Island.