Olof A. Eriksen,
Memoirs of an Immigrant
(Outskirts Press, 2008)

American literature is peppered with the "success story" fable, which is usually just that -- a fable, meant to inspire schoolchildren to put forth greater efforts, on the premise that anyone can succeed in America and pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. If you have never considered how difficult pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps would actually be, try walking around holding up the tops of your socks and see how far you get -- that would be the modern-day equivalent. So, does this fabled success story ever come true? Apparently it has in the life of Olof Eriksen.

It would be hard to find a more sincere, less ego-ridden narrator than Olof. It is because he is so honest about himself that he never comes across as boastful, though he has done many things worth boasting about, and he does describe them in detail. He arrived in America in 1956, with five bucks to his name and scant knowledge of English. Prior to that he had suffered the deprivations and life-threatening horrors of the Nazi regime in his native Norway, then seven years in virtual servitude in a boys home. But Olof had unusual talent and determination. He was an inventor and a skilled modelmaker. He could design efficient machinery and he figured out how to sell and market what he devised.

Twice nearly bankrupt despite his hard work and financial progress, Olof prevailed. His stories are captivating and his philosophy of life is worthy of study, except you get the feeling that in order to succeed like Olof you'd have to just be Olof. He not only conquered the world of money-making, but several times managed to trick the Grim Reaper. One of the most compelling tales in the book describes his struggle to quit smoking, and a fortuitous meeting with a stranger who tried to force cigarettes on him. The man then displays the results of his recent horrific surgery -- the removal of most of his upper jaw -- as a result of his own smoking habit. Olof is so repulsed by the sight that he immediately begins a regimen that leads him to quit smoking only a few weeks later, for good. The stranger died within a few months, and Olof lives on, obviously grateful to the mysterious stranger for prolonging his life.

Another enjoyable yarn, we assume totally factual, is the story of Olof buying his first Rolls Royce (he is pictured with his car on the front cover of the book). He had a stain on his shirt the day he went to the Rolls showroom, and he persisted in asking the salesman a lot of questions about how much it would cost to operate the car, leading the salesman to dismiss him with the old saw about "If you have to ask you can't afford it." Olof stomped out, vowing he would never let that man sell him a car. However, after much searching he realized that particular dealership was the only one with the model he wanted, so eventually he went back, encountered a different salesman and bought the Rolls after only one question: "How much does it cost?" He told the new salesman how the first one treated him, and this became a corporate object lesson for everyone in the dealership as Olof drove away in his shiny new ride.

Olof also devotes a chapter to his local Lutheran Church. Despite making many large donations to the church, he was hounded by the preacher who insisted he should take communion every year and make a certain minimum donation (much less than he had been giving for emergency repairs and other requests) in order to maintain membership. Olof still attends the church, does not take communion, sits in the back and leaves before the service is over so as not to be recognized by the preacher, whose petty rules he has no respect for.

Olof makes and often repeats a vow to kill the man who, as a boy in the boys home, brutally and sadistically enslaved him. There are not many books around that include an open, shameless murder threat, and I have no doubt Olof would carry it out, given the chance.

Throughout the years, while making fortunes, losing fortunes and rising again to wealth and worldly status, Olof found time to make models, each one the product of hundreds of hours of intense effort, and became "the only person known in the world today who can create museum-quality ship models by welding, using steel only." He also fashioned a playable guitar out of matchsticks. I kid you not. On apparent whim he bought huge collections of stamps and watches and built the drawers and displays cases to keep them in.

This book is not a grammatical or syntactical model. There are spelling errors and a lot of repetition. Olof writes as Olof, mistakes and all, and one wonders why he didn't let an editor shave off some of the rough places. But it seems fitting that such a self-made person as Olof would make his book his way. What he has fashioned is the plain, sometimes incredible, always engaging and readable saga of a long, tough, varied life successfully crafted despite the odds, and attractively displayed for all the world to see.

review by
Barbara Bamberger Scott

25 October 2008

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