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Nils Holggerson

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

All but one of the Swedes who emigrated to America in the first decades of the 20th century came by boat. Nils Holggerson came on the back of a goose that had lost its way.

At least that's what Swedish workmen in Chicago thought when Holggerson arrived there in 1922 to work for Ragnar Benson's contracting firm. Nils Holggerson was the name of the boy in a Swedish children's book, The Wonderful Adventures of Nils, written by Nobel-Prize-winner Selma Lagerlof in 1907. The book began as a geography text for Swedish school children, but it turned out to be a boy's magical trip in the back of a goose through all the provinces of Sweden, full of adventures such as getting lost and weathering storms. Its popularity had reached even to America.

For Selma Lagerlof, the book led to an even stranger adventure. After writing the book, she learned that there was a real boy named Nils Holggerson, the child of parents too poor to care for him. When Lagerlof visited the family, the mother gave her son to the author to raise.

For a while, things went well, but the real Nils grew as restless as the boy in the book. His foster mother had planned for him to farm her estate, but he longed for his own adventures in America. In spite of a falling-out, she bought him a ticket to Chicago.

Nils spent several years in Chicago working as a carpenter, but he grew restless again. He was not comfortable living in such a big city. He wandered across Illinois to Coal Valley, not far from the Mississippi, where he became a contractor.

Just before World War II, he returned to Sweden to make up with his foster mother. She died in 1940, but Nils remained in Sweden until after World War II, when still restless, he returned to Coal Valley.

Nils Holggerson died in Coal Valley in 1985 and is buried there. On his tombstone, a small boy is flying on the back of a large goose on some wonderful adventure. Perhaps at last, the two boys have met.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.