A 1933 Newberry Honor Book winner, Children of the Soil: A Story of Scandinavia (1932), brought acclaim to author, teacher, and folk artist Nora Burglon, who lived in a small Scandinavian-style cottage on Rucker Hill in Everett, from the 1930s until her death in 1976. While Burglon's stories speak for themselves, very little is known about her personal life. Hoping to renew interest in the author's work, Snohomish County historian Louise Lindgren wrote an article titled "In Search of Nora Burglon," which was published in Third Age News in March 2003. The following People's History is an edited version of that original piece. Several attempts were made in the early 2000s to republish Burglon's most popular books, and in 2012 Doubleday, Doran and Co. released new editions of Children of the Soil: a Story of Scaninavia, The Gate Swings In: a story of Sweden and Sticks Across the Chimney: a story of Denmark.
In Search of Nora Burglon
In Everett, from the 1930s to 1976, lived a woman who made her mark upon society, her physical environment and the minds of countless children whom she taught and who read her books. She was Nora Burglon, author, artist, teacher, world traveler and Scandinavian folklorist. Born April 28, 1900 in Minnesota, she came from, as she was proud to say, "sturdy Swedish stock." She researched and shared that heritage for much of her life. For someone who was well known nationally and internationally, little is known about her private life. In 1935 she was listed in Polk's city directory as a writer and as managing director for "Scandinavian Crafts," a small business in Everett. Also in the 1930s she began to fulfill a lifelong dream to build a little cottage in the Swedish peasant style on Everett's Rucker Hill.
Burglon became known in the '30s and '40s as a prolific author. Six books of fiction for children were written from 1931 to 1939, another four between 1940 to 1947. Add to that a large number of magazine articles. Her stories were carefully researched for accurate detail and a sense of place, through her many travels to Europe and Scandinavia, the Caribbean and Hawaii, even to the Arctic.
One book, Children of the Soil, A Story of Scandinavia, 1933 (serialized 1931-1932) was named an Honor Book by the Newbery Foundation. That award placed Burglon alongside Laura Ingalls Wilder and Isaac Bashevis Singer in the pantheon of writers who won similar Newbery awards. The story follows the adventures of two children and their widowed mother as they struggle to rise from the status of poor crofters to respectable farmers. It is filled (as all her books) with adventure, moral lessons, cultural and environmental education, with usually a young girl as heroine who has common sense, will and faith enough to turn every ill to good.
Burglon's observations on fairness and justice run through all of her work and society fell short of her ideals much of the time. In Children of the Soil she speaks of feeding weeds to goats: "That was one fine thing about goats. It was as if they were related to the crofter folks, for they did not believe in wasting anything they could make good use of. Now cows on the other hand -- well cows were more finicky -- they were more like the gentry, nothing was ever just exactly enough."
At a point in the story when the heroine's little brother is falsely accused, Burglon writes: "Nicolina wanted to fly at the big red-faced woman, she who always made the girl feel like a crofter were something akin to being a thief or a beggar." She had no patience for people who sweep along with the crowd: "People never knew half the time what they themselves really wanted to say. Someone said Cry-lunta (Cry Baby). Then all the rest said the same. Someone else said Bravo and they all said that."
One of Burglon's traits was a talent for description that painted in words so clear that she might as well have applied them to canvas. On the appearance of children dressed in many layers against the cold: "A red nose and a pair of bright eyes shone out through each bundle. There was a pair of heavy overshoes under each bundle which kept it moving along, and a pair of red mittens which helped it get up when the bundle went down" (Children of the Soil).
Burglon was in Honolulu in December 1941 when Pearl Harbor was bombed. After watching the catastrophe from her hotel window, she spent days helping the injured. During World War II she organized dispatch of thousands of relief packages to Scandinavia. She spent time in Hawaii as a teacher and had as a mentor a woman named Mrs. Moriama, whose deep and kindly understanding of children supplied the model for Mrs. Urago, a character in her book Sharkhole, a story of modern Hawaii, published in 1943. In the story Nani, the young girl, observes: "Mrs. Urago understood that some people were untamed spirits. Their work was to give light and understanding to others, not to store knowledge unto themselves."
Burglon didn't shy away from the topic of war but tried to help children understand their feelings and those of others in that time of turmoil. In one part of the book she spoke of the legend of the black shark which terrorized the Hawaiian people. Years before it had promised to stop if the people brought offerings to the sea once a year on the seventh day of the last month of the year. In the story it was believed to have returned. "Nani's face lighted with sudden understanding ... That's the seventh of December. Pearl Harbor was bombed on that day and the people forgot. Her eyes widened with fear."
Another observation on the war deals with blackouts and the emotional toil they took: "(Before Pearl Harbor) the hamlet had bloomed with the lights of a thousand windows. Now there was no light except the glimmering of the moonbeams upon the cane sheds. It was this darkness, more than anything else that reminded the three children that their country was at war." For balance against the gloom, Burglon wrote, "War had changed many things in the Islands, but the sound of the cane rushing down through the flumes, over the valleys had not changed at all. Neither had the sweet smell of cane juice, which rose like a warm breath."
Another point she had to make regarded the discrimination against Japanese American citizens that was prevalent in that time. In the story a teacher speaks to a student who injured a Japanese American child: "My grandfather came here from China as a coulee laborer, Miss Chung went on. Yoshio's grandfather came from Japan as a poor farmer. Your grandfather came from Puerto Rico as a contract laborer to work in the sugar cane. It is the people who have made Hawaii the wonderful place it is. Not one of these people could have done it alone. All of us, not any one people are called immigrants."
Burglon was also an early environmentalist. Her writing is full of vivid descriptions of nature, guided by her artist's eye. She appreciated all aspects of the natural world and decried mankind's ignorance in upsetting the order. In Shark Hole she speaks of the damage caused by imported species and plants because the original Hawaiian birds had become nearly extinct; bird lovers had brought in others. The imported birds, lacking the food to which they were accustomed, became fruit eaters and the orchardists paid dearly for their bird song. Crawfish had been brought in to eat mosquitoes but fell on the taro roots instead. Lantana had once been grown in gardens; now it made miles of highland country almost impassable.
Although Burglon's head-on approach was accepted without a blink by many young readers, it was not necessarily so with their parents and teachers. I was told by one former student of 1944 that when she suggested that Burglon be read aloud, the idea was put down because Burglon had Communist leanings. Her deep faith in Christianity might have surprised her detractors. For instance how many kitchens have the entire Lord's Prayer written in Swedish surrounding the room in a border. Or "Blessed are they that do" and "Work is love Made Visible" written in script on a cupboard door or ceiling beam. Burglon's cottage had these and more.
In Better Homes and Gardens magazine (September 1940), Burglon described her motivation for building her home: "I suppose it was those hearty, stubborn Swedish pioneers, my grandparents who bequeathed to me my lifelong hunger for simple walls of white, bright rafters and flowering beams, for vibrant homespun, gleaming copper-studded chests and sunny braided rugs." And build it she did, throughout the 1930s, and often at odds with the advice of her carpenters. Her books were typed out from a desk by the window of a small loft bedroom, designed as a "maiden's bower" where young unmarried daughters slept. She described this room as containing "great quantities of manuscripts in various stages of construction or decomposition. Mine is a joyous little home of singing colors and great peace. In my many authoring trips to the north countries, I had gathered the weavings and chests, the buckets and kettles, the color harmonies and folk designs that would make it truly Scandinavian, that would make it completely my own. I built a harmony of vermillion and royal blue, hues as strong and hardy as the Swedish people themselves. The motifs on doors, rafters and beams I drew from the peasant art of these people: "The limb (of the Tree of Life) was their first symbol, the wheel of the sun worshiper the second and the Sacred Heart of Jesus their third. The heart has become a heart-shaped leaf, the base of a flower, or the center of the design from which stalks and buds appear to grow."
Burglon lived, surrounded by the beauty she created, for the rest of her life in the little cottage in Everett. She died in 1976 at the age of 75. Her books were out of print, the metal printing plates having been melted for scrap during World War II. A short obituary stated that she was a retired teacher with the Everett School District and that she left numerous cousins across the country and a niece and nephew in Sweden.