Ostenso, Martha

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Born 17 September 1900, Haukland, near Bergen, Norway; died 24 November 1963, Seattle, Washington

Daughter of Sigurd B. and Lena Tungeland Ostenso; married Douglas Durkin, 1944

Martha Ostenso was born in a small village high in the mountains of Norway, and immigrated to the U.S. with her parents when she was two. Her childhood was spent in small towns in both Minnesota and South Dakota, where she first learned to speak English and, more importantly, where she developed an ear for the Scandinavian dialects of the Midwest, which she would later incorporate into her fiction. While she was still in her early teens, her father moved the family to Canada where they settled in Manitoba.

Ostenso attended Brandon Collegiate School and in 1918 entered the University of Manitoba. Following graduation, she spent a year (1921-22) at Columbia University, where she studied the "technique of the novel" with Douglas Durkin, with whom she lived for many years and eventually married. From 1920 to 1923 she was a social worker in Brooklyn. Yet what proved to have the greatest effect on her as a writer were her childhood years in the Midwest and then on Canada's northern frontier. In those rugged and at times harsh environments Ostenso developed a deep appreciation for the men and women whose lives were spent working the land.

Ostenso's writing career began in 1924 with the publication of A Far Land, a book of verse. The following year she published two works of fiction, one of which was to become her most successful and highly regarded work, Wild Geese (1925, reprinted 1989). Its inspiration was the lake district of Manitoba: "Here was human nature stark, unattired in the convention of a smoother, softer life." Although none of her later novels ever reached the acclaim Wild Geese attracted, most continued to explore a similar theme: the relationship between human beings and the land they work.

Wild Geese centers on the Gares and their struggle to reach a balance between making a living off the land and allowing their lives to become consumed by it. The family is headed by a domineering father who pushes his family to sacrifice everything to the farm. The women, particularly his daughter Judith, truly understand the cost to the family. "Living only for the earth, and the product of the soil, they were meager and warped." A Man Had Tall Sons (1958) also focuses on a domineering father; like Caleb, Luke is just as willing to sacrifice the happiness of his family for the sake of running the farm. The novel ends with the death of his son Mark. At the graveside, Luke quotes Whitman, for his son's death illustrates the cyclical process of nature: "You will be given to the earth again and you will grow in beauty."

Like Willa Cather, Ostenso portrays the lives of rural immigrants with dignity and respect and examines the "strange unity between the nature of man and earth." By the end of her career, Ostenso had published 16 works of fiction and a biography, And They Shall Walk: The Life Story of Sister Elizabeth Kenny (1943), which like a number of her other works was translated and reprinted several times.

Other Works:

The Passionate Flight (1925). The Dark Dawn (1926). The Mad Carews (1927). The Young May Moon (1929). The Water's under the Earth (1930). Prologue to Love (1932). There's Always Another Year (1933). The White Reef (1934). The Stone Field (1937). The Mandrake Root (1938). Love Passed This Way (1942). O River Remember! (1943). The Sunset Tree (1943). Milk Route (1948).


Arnason, D., The Development of Prairie Realism: Robert J. Stead, Douglas Durkin, Martha Ostenso and Frederick Philip Grove (dissertation, 1981). Atherton, S. S., Martha Ostenso and Her Works (1991). Baldwin, C. C., Martha Ostenso: Daughter of the Vikings (1983). Harrison, D., Unnamed Country (1977). Northey, M., The Haunted Wilderness (1976). Stanko, S. C., Image, Theme, and Pattern in the Works of Martha Ostenso (dissertation, 1968).

Reference works:

CA: Canadian Novelists, 1920-1945 (1946). DLB (1990). FC (1990). TCA (1942, 1955).