Ostenso, Martha (1900–1963)

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Ostenso, Martha (1900–1963)

Canadian-American writer. Born on September 17, 1900, in Bergen, Norway; reared in Minnesota, South Dakota, and Canada; died on November 24, 1963, in Seattle (one source cites Tacoma), Washington; daughter of Sigurd Brigt Ostenso and Lena (Tungleland) Ostenso; married Douglas Leader Durkin (a writer), on December 16, 1944 (or 1945); attended University of Manitoba, beginning in 1918; attended Columbia University, 1921–22; received honorary M.E., Wittenberg University.

Emigrated to the United States at age two to live in small towns in Minnesota and South Dakota (1902); contributed to the junior page of the Minneapolis Journal as a child; emigrated to Canada to live in Manitoba (1915); taught one semester of school in Manitoba (1918); worked as a social worker with the Bureau of Charities in Brooklyn, New York(1920–23); studied novel-writing techniques at Columbia University (1921–22); published first book, A Far Land: Poems by Martha Ostenso (1924); won first prize in a competition for best first novel by a North American writer for Wild Geese (1925).

Selected writings:

A Far Land: Poems by Martha Ostenso (1924); Wild Geese (1925); The Dark Dawn (1927); The Young May Moon (1929); The Waters under the Earth (1930); The Mandrake Root (1938); And They Shall Walk: The Life Story of Sister Elizabeth (1943); O River, Remember (1945).

Born in Norway in 1900, Martha Ostenso was the daughter of an ambitious man who moved his family to America in 1902 and to Canada in 1915. Ostenso, whose last name means "eastern sea," spent her childhood growing up in prairies and small towns in Minnesota and South Dakota, and near the Interlake district in Manitoba, Canada. From these surroundings, she observed the lives and problems of farmers of Scandinavian ancestry. She also acquired writing experience by contributing to the junior page of the Minneapolis Journal.

Ostenso attended the University of Manitoba beginning in 1918, while also teaching school and working as a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press. She traveled to Brooklyn, New York, to work as a secretary for the Bureau of Charities from 1920 to 1923. Ostenso later noted that her negative experiences in New York's Lower East Side gave her an appreciation for the true value of farm country. In New York, she attended Columbia University from 1921 to 1922 to study techniques of novel writing.

By this time, Ostenso was already living with her future husband, writer Douglas Leader Durkin; they may have met at the University of Manitoba. (Because his wife refused to give him a divorce, Durkin and Ostenso would not marry until 1944.) They would collaborate on most of Ostenso's published novels, with Durkin often creating the outline of a plot from Ostenso's ideas and then editing the book she wrote from that outline. While the collaboration was successful, and their income eventually allowed them to live well, a number of critics have blamed weaknesses in her later novels on Durkin's influence. Ostenso's first book, a collection of poems, was published in 1924 under the title A Far Land: Poems by Martha Ostenso.

In a major competition the following year, her novel Wild Geese (1925) was chosen over 1,300 manuscripts to win the $13,500 top prize for best first novel by a North American writer. Ostenso claimed that she first heard the story told in the book while vacationing during a university summer break in Oeland, in the Interlake district of Manitoba, where Wild Geese is set. The title, and dominant motif, of the book refers to the endless quest of wild geese as they fly over Oeland during each spring and fall migration. Judith Gare is locked in a psychological struggle with her farmer father Caleb, whose burning desire to increase his landholdings also includes the plan to keep his four children on the farm permanently, as cheap labor. While she is torn with love for her vulnerable mother, whom Caleb uses to keep his children in line, Judith also passionately wishes for spiritual, sexual, and romantic fulfillment, and this, along with the encouragement of a female friend, finally enables her to break away from her family and leave the farm for the city. Throughout the novel, Judith also functions as a kind of symbol of nature, her deeply felt and unpossessive love of the land contrasting with her father's need to control and shape it.

While Wild Geese is now acknowledged as a classic depiction of life in the inhospitable environment of the Canadian west, the book was little known for nearly 20 years, and only with its glowing mention in Clara Thomas ' Canadian Novelists, 1920–1945 was the book presented to a wide audience. Among Ostenso's other novels set in Canada are The Young May Moon (1929) and Prologue to Love (1932), although in 1929 she settled in the United States, living first in New Jersey and finally in Brainerd, in northern Minnesota. In 1943, Ostenso published And They Shall Walk: The Life Story of Sister Elizabeth, detailing the experiences of Australian nurse Sister Elizabeth Kenny , who worked with victims of polio. The book was written in collaboration with Kenny, and was filmed as Sister Kenny in 1946 with Rosalind Russell in the title role. While Ostenso's later novels did not receive the lasting acclaim of Wild Geese, a number of them were translated into German, Norwegian, Polish, and other European languages. She also acquired some renown as a painter in Scandinavia. Ostenso died unexpectedly while visiting Seattle on November 22, 1963.


Buck, Claire, ed. The Bloomsbury Guide to Women's Literature. NY: Prentice Hall, 1992.

Harding, Anthony John. "Martha Otenso" in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 92: Canadian Writers, 1890–1920. Edited by W.H. New. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1990.

Kunitz, Stanley J., and Howard Haycraft, eds. Twentieth Century Authors. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1942.

Daniel E. Brannen , Jr., freelance writer, York, Pennsylvania