Frode Frosk goes to Spain: A tale of family, memory and migration
Old Mads Mus and Frode Frosk about to cross the aurora borealis.
Kosteskaft! Vi skal til nissen med hostesaft!
Magic broomstick, off we go!
We must bring Father Christmas a cure for his cold!
Frode Frosk kommer til hjelp is a book for children, written and drawn by CAM (Barbara Mary Campbell) translated from English into Norwegian by Zinken Hopp and published by John Griegs Forlag in 1954. It recounts the Christmas adventures of Old Mads Mus and his friend Frode Frosk riding a flying broomstick across the aurora borealis to bring a magic syrup to Father Christmas, and thus save the holidays for all the little animals in the woods. It is a charming, uplifting story that conveys the importance of generosity and solidarity – values that are just as relevant today as they were sixty years ago.
When I look at this old Christmas book, worn down by the passage of time and avidly read by two generations of kids, my own childhood and my children come to my mind. It was a Christmas present that my grandmother sent to me from Norway when I was little. My parents were Norwegian emigrants who had come to Spain two decades earlier. My siblings and I lived with my parents in Salinas, a small coastal town in the north of Spain. We spoke Norwegian at home, and we read the books that our family sent us from Norway. Frode Frosk was one of my favourites, and years later I read it to my kids every Christmas Eve. Since my children have not retained the language, I would read them the story mixing Norwegian with Spanish, and they eventually learned parts of the text by heart. They are adults now, but we maintain the tradition every Christmas.
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Memories, in the form of ideas or objects, result from processes of selection across time, over which we do not always have control. Some objects get lost, other memories are forgotten. In some cases, we actively choose which fragments of the past we keep, and in others it is simply life – through migration, moving house or other changes – which makes some memories float back to the shore and others get pushed away by the tide. In this process, the combination of chance and willpower gives a new, wider meaning to the memories that remain, becoming symbols evoking other times, places, identities and relationships beyond their original purpose. Frode Frosk, one of the few books that we keep from my mother’s girlhood, is not just a book: it is the memory of her childhood and her kids’, and the connection to our family across borders.
However, in our family, Frode Frosk does not only belong to the static realm of memories, lodged in the past, but also to the dynamic of traditions, projected into the present and the future. From an anthropological perspective, traditions – ancient and modern – can be defined as ritualised practices, whose forms and meanings are shared among a group of people, building continuity over time, with the aim of reinforcing a set of values, behaviours, or sense of identity and belonging. Certainly, reading Frode Frosk on Christmas Eve is a family tradition for us, a way of celebrating Christmas that is uniquely ours. At the same time, it links us to a wider cultural community, through language, the celebration of a holiday that is central to Scandinavian culture, and the migration story of the very item that serves as a bridge. Christmas also offers the chance to strengthen the ties with family and friends in other countries, through letters, phone calls, and the exchange of gifts sent from far away.
However, the relation that Frode Frosk enables us to establish with the Norwegian cultural community is still deeply personal and, to a great extent, a one-way street. Frode Frosk is a British book, originally entitled Bill Frog to the Rescue. The 1954 Norwegian edition was probably limited and nowadays it is virtually impossible to find any copies for sale. It is not part of Nordic folklore (like the tales of Askeladden), nor was it a cultural hit in Scandinavia. It is safe to say that very few Norwegian children read it in the 1950s and 1960s, and even fewer adults would remember it today. What is for us a symbol of Norwegian-ness and our connection to the family’s place of origin would not necessarily be recognisable for any other member of the cultural community we speak to.
Then, how has this tale taken such a central place in the identity of the Dehli family in Spain? Here, we have to take into account the migratory context surrounding the book. Between 1820 and 1940, Norway was a mass emigration country: approximately 1 million people left, leaving behind a population of barely 3 million by 1940. 90% moved to the US, while the number of people who migrated to Spain was relatively small. This led to the development of a culture of migration, which in places like Spain was not mirrored by a dense immigrant community that would allow the initial solidarity ties to continue over time. In 1954, there were just 216 Norwegian residents in Spain, according to Spanish official statistics; beyond the largest cities, contact with other Norwegians outside the family unit was extremely rare. Therefore, passing down cultural heritage depended entirely on the household and transnational networks made of family and friends; and, in the case of objects, it depended on the postal service and sea shipping.
National traditions, as historian Eric Hobsbawm argued, are largely a socio-political invention of the 19th century. In order to cement their new narratives and national ideologies, and to justify the origin of nations, nation-states lay claim to the memory of certain past events and certain cultural manifestations. Large-scale invention of traditions is not within the powers of a migrant family such as ours, but, by weaving together the available strands (tales, oral histories, old recipes), migrant families such as ours rebuild our traditions and reimagine our cultural connections across, and in spite of, borders.
Memory (the construction and reconstruction of identities in the process of remembering, according to researchers J. Olaf Kleist and Irial Glynn) is both individual and collective. It creates a common heritage from a variety of perspectives and experiences and coordinated learning (for example, via school curricula or institutional holidays). The past, as in the title of David Lowenthal’s heritage studies classic, is a foreign country; a place beyond the borders of today’s world, where we venture and on which we draw in order to find roots for and understand our present. By remembering elements of the past and re-enacting it through inherited or newly created traditions, we are able to imagine ourselves as members of a community, whether or not others are aware of it. For our family, this means claiming our membership of the Norwegian community through the world of tales.
This winding road between objects, memories, traditions, and identity brings to the fore the complexity of how emigrants share and preserve national memories. Many factors are involved: the context of receiving societies, the intensity of the ties to the place of origin and other emigrants, language retention, the (in)existence of cultural institutions abroad, and the passage of time, among others. As a consequence, some traditions adapt and new ones emerge, following paths that can be parallel to or divergent from the cultural developments back home. Furthermore, emigrants are not a socially or culturally homogeneous group, and these differences are also visible when it comes to remembering. Emigrant culture is polymorphic, circumstantial and loosely structured, guided by a broad idea of identity and belonging rather than by the adherence to specific material manifestations. Constructing identity and belonging from the adventures of a mouse and a frog on their way to save Christmas Eve might seem extreme, but it is not an unthinkable illustration of how emigrant memory works, ninety years and three generations after the first Dehli journey from Norway to Spain.
Magda Dehli Mordt
Magda Dehli Mordt was born in a family of Norwegian emigrants living in Spain and grew up straddling two languages and two cultures. She is a philologist and she enjoys books and reading.
Magda Rodríguez Dehli
Magda was born and raised in Spain and obtained a B.A. in International Relations from the Complutense University of Madrid and an MSc in Migration Studies from the University of Oxford. She is currently preparing the admission exams for the Spanish civil service. She is an editor at Routed Magazine.