Salminen, Sally (1906–1976)

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Salminen, Sally (1906–1976)

Finnish author. Born in Vargata on the Åland Islands on April 25, 1906; died in Copenhagen, Denmark, on July 19, 1976; daughter of Erika Norrgaard and Hindrik Salminen; married Johannes Dührkop (a Danish painter), in 1940.

Sally Salminen was born in 1906 and grew up in a family of 12 children on the Åland Islands, an archipelago of 80 inhabited islands in the Gulf of Bothnia, forming part of Finland. She went to school there and afterwards got a job in the general store at Vargata. Always an avid reader, she had dreams of seeing the larger world and becoming a writer. At 18, she therefore moved to Stockholm and later to Linköping. To mitigate her primitive schooling, she took classes in Swedish, mathematics and bookkeeping, which eventually enabled her to progress from salesgirl to cashier and bookkeeper.

In the meantime, an elder brother had emigrated to America, and in March 1930, Salminen and one of her sisters set out for New York. While there, she started Katrina, the novel which would bring her world fame. She wrote it in pencil at the end of a day's work as a maid, resting on her knees by her bed or sitting on a park bench, all 600 pages. The book concerned a young bride who arrives on one of the outlying Åland Islands to find that the house her new husband has erected, well appointed in her imagination, is in fact a poor little shack with none of the basic amenities. Friends typed the manuscript which won first prize in a 1936 literary competition sponsored jointly by a Swedish and Finnish publishing company. The prize money enabled Salminen to return to Åland and start a life as a full-time writer. She also resumed her acquaintance with the Danish painter Johannes Dührkop whom she married and later accompanied to Denmark.

Two novels were published in 1939 and 1941, after which Salminen wrote a series about an Åland emigrant: Lars Laurila (1943), New Land (1945), Small Worlds (1949) and The Star and the Chasm (1951). Shy and reserved, Salminen nonetheless made contacts with Danish writers, moved about the country, and actively participated in the Danish Resistance movement during World War II. As soon as the borders were reopened, she and her husband initiated the extended travels they would pursue for many years, making lengthy stops in places which would serve as inspiration for both. Prince Efflam (1953)—arguably her best novel—is set in Brittany, and a trip to Algeria and Jerusalem inspired two travel books: Jerusalem (1970) and Journeys in Israel (1971).

Between 1966 and 1974, Salminen wrote four autobiographical works detailing her stays in the United States and Denmark. Her last major work, On the Ocean (1963), is set on the island of Fano on the west coast of Denmark. Her stay in that country, her marriage to a Dane, and her travels with him gave her a wider horizon than she would have had staying at the Åland Islands, as she had contemplated doing on her return from America. It made her writing more difficult, however, because she continued to write in Swedish in a Danish-speaking environment which invariably colored her own language and weakened its effect.

Salminen has been called an "immigrant in life," and she spoke of herself as an outsider. The sudden and overwhelming fame which followed the publication of Katrina was difficult for her to handle. She felt herself thrust into a new world and confronted by scores of people, all of whom seemed more intelligent and better educated than she. They would ask questions she could not always answer, and even after she had written several other books, they would insist on talking about Katrina. At first, Salminen felt flattered, but she grew weary of being "the author of Katrina." She wanted to move on but felt herself fettered by her own creation:

Katrina became a big and hateful monster stomping through the world. I heard her footsteps as she trampled my peace and quiet and I constantly had to eat her up. I had lived off my work with that book for one and a half years, devoured it as a drunken glutton…. I had had my fill. I did not want to hear any more about it.

Ironically, Katrina refuses to go away. Sixty years after its publication, it keeps appearing in new editions.

Sally Salminen was deeply engaged in social and cultural issues. At her death, a Danish journalist summed up the author's life as a "steady fight for freedom, freedom to learn, to write, to become knowledgeable about people, art and culture." An indefatigable questioner, a defiant, persistent seeker of justice, Salminen would burn with anger and resentment at unprovoked infringements or injustice. However, wrote the journalist, in the presence of love and trust, she would "show her tender heart and quiet wisdom in the steady, clear gaze of her eyes."


Sallys Saga: En minnesbok om Sally Salminen. Ed. Anna Bondestam. Borgaa: Schildts, 1986.

Inga Wiehl , Yakima Valley Community College, Yakima Valley, Washington