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Whiskey Breakfast

My Swedish Family, My American Life

Richard C. Lindberg

Publication Year: 2011

Chicago in the 1920s: Clark Street was the city’s last Swedetown, a narrow corridor of weather-beaten storefronts, coal yards, and taverns running along the north side of the city and the locus of Swedish community life in Chicago during the first half of the twentieth century. It represented a way station for a generation of working-class immigrants escaping the hardships of the old country for the promise of a brighter new day in a halfway house of sorts, perched between the old and new lands. For Richard C. Lindberg, whose Swedish immigrant parents and grandparents settled there, it was also the staging ground for an intensely personal, multigenerational, coming-of-age drama based on the struggles of two disparate families—their dreams and their depravities, their victories and their failures.

Whiskey Breakfast is Lindberg’s captivating tale of life as a first-generation baby-boomer Swedish American, caught between the customs of a land he had never been to and the desire to conform and fit into a troubled existence, tragically scarred by alcoholism, divorce, and peer abuse. But it is also a powerful and intimate portrait of his immigrant ancestors, and especially of his father, Oscar—a contractor and master builder who helped develop Chicago’s post–World War II suburbs. A paradoxical man, known to some as a socialist, an anarchist, and a serious drinker, Oscar would carry with him to the grave a sixty-two-year-old family secret, a secret that for Lindberg lies at the very heart of the great Swedish unrest that drove his father and countless other men and women out of Sweden and onward to America.

Masterfully blending autobiography with immigrant history, Whiskey Breakfast surrounds Lindberg’s family story with Swedish cultural history and politics, as well as remarkable Chicago history and how Clark Street and Swedetown became, and in many ways remain, a center of Swedish immigrants’ social and cultural life. Far from a eulogy for an idealized past, Lindberg has crafted a moving and sobering memoir of a young man’s struggle to come to terms with his father and himself, his immigrant heritage, and his native home.

Published by: University of Minnesota Press

Title Page, Frontispiece, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. iii-v


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p. vii-vii

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pp. ix-xi

The genesis of this book dates back to 1989, when, between jobs in the corporate world, I worked for a suburban Chicago publisher writing A–Z entries for The Encyclopedia of World Crime inside cramped office space above the old Millen hardware store located about two blocks from where another famous Swede, Ann-Margret Olsson, spent her early formative ...

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pp. xiii-xviii

When I think back to my favorite childhood memory of my father, the same one always presents itself—a rare, unguarded moment that occurred one summer afternoon in my eighth year when I inspired the stern, unforgiving old Swede to guffaw in amusement. The moment was spontaneous and joyful. I had never seen my father like that before; ...

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1. Sweden and the Sorrows

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pp. 1-24

Through the oral tradition of family history passed down from one generation to the next, many American families learn of their ancestors’ wondrous journeys from the hellholes of the world to the shores of America to blaze a trail and reap whatever little promise there might be for success. I use the word “hellhole” without rancor, because that is how the ...

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2. Two Men from Swedetown

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pp. 25-39

Taking the same route to America as his father, Kålle, Oscar arrived in Montreal and slipped past customs officials along the Canadian border into Detroit. He reached Chicago and headed for the city’s North Side near Belmont and Clark Streets. New immigrants usually arrived in Chicago with specific directions to the neighborhoods made up of others ...

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3. The Opposite Sides of the Tracks

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pp. 40-50

Richard, Emma, and their two little girls lived in Swedetown for many years—moving from Clark Street to Winnemac Avenue, just a few blocks away. During the years leading up to and all the way through World War I, they built quiet steady lives cushioned by the familiar security of Swedish-speaking neighbors and shop owners in stark contrast to the ...

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4. The Shadows of Despair

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pp. 51-74

Nearly twelve months to the day that Oscar sailed for America, Elma sent a final urgent appeal for help. Osborn, she wrote, had contracted tuberculosis, known to that generation as consumption. Elma had removed the baby from the Göteborg orphanage after finding it impossible to pay for his care and maintain a life of her own. Elma gave up her little ...

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5. Feeding the Sparrows

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pp. 75-91

As much as Chicago’s Swedetown proved a powerful inducement to the poor farmers of Småland tilling the craggy soil in their “kingdom of stone,” those who had spent a fair amount of time in the whirl of Clark Street began to view their situation somewhat less positively. They began to dream of living in more spacious and tranquil surroundings as soon ...

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6. Oscar and Evelyn and Charley

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pp. 92-107

Oscar and Evelyn’s honeymoon was over before it began. Temperamentally unsuited to one another, they were a strong-willed couple, quickly baring their insecurities and anger once the bloom was off the rose. After a few unhappy months, Ezzie contrasted Hamlin to Oscar, pronounced them both unfit providers, and decided it was in her best ...

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7. A Picnic, a Proposal, a Passage

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pp. 108-119

Richard Stone endlessly pondered the fate that would befall Helen and his bungalow now that Marge had flown the coop. What would the poor girl do once he was gone? More than anything now, he desired to find a life companion for his poor homely daughter. But who would have her? The men of the Moose had shown no interest beyond a few beers ...

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8. Charity Begins at Home

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pp. 120-137

It was the late-summer buzz of the cicadas my mother longed for—the hiss of millions of the insects sequestered in the branches of mature trees in the old neighborhood. The thought of the seven-year cicadas brought to mind memories of bygone summer evenings and the struggle to fall asleep in the thick, steamy humidity of a Chicago summer, listening to Marge’s ...

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9. The Crying Game

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pp. 138-148

While Helen fretted in Skokie, Richard and Emma enjoyed their “empty nest” on Navarre Avenue. With just the two of them, the house was mostly quiet except for Emma’s occasional obsessions over the neighbors’ real or perceived slights. Carl Johnson, owner of the family business specializing in feed, seeds, coal, and furniture moving, kept ...

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10. The House That Was Not a Home

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pp. 149-165

It is a spring afternoon in the middle of my eleventh year, and I am afraid. I am Oscar Lindberg’s second son and I’m supposed to be as fearless and tough as my father, but in truth I am anxiety-ridden and my sense of well-being and security extends only as far as the distance from the front hall to my back-porch room, the same room where Richard ...

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11. The Shook-up Generation

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pp. 166-177

Marge Stone, the former flapper from Norwood Park with the rubyred lipstick and sarcastic air, died alone at Swedish Covenant Hospital on February 18, 1958, from cirrhosis of the liver. Not even Leo was present at her bedside when death arrived early that evening. Those who knew Marge were busy condemning her for living a profligate’s ...

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12. Custody Visits

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pp. 178-196

My father would often say to me, “Always make them think you have money, Rickey—people will treat you better.” It seems to me that my father paid a terrible emotional price just to be liked. Ultimately his money and insecurities brought only strife, turmoil, and rebuke. For much of his life he solicited the admiration of others to ...

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13. Slam Books and Second Chances

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pp. 197-217

There comes a moment in everyone’s life when we must let go of childhood. For much of my life, I have dwelled in old memories of childhood in a Swedish household in Norwood Park, questioning why certain things happened to me, attempting to reconcile the past, and harboring a desire to walk down an alternate path once forsaken. I have often ...

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14. A Child of Clubland

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pp. 218-227

I was reminded many, many times that I had cousins living somewhere in the heart of Sweden, but they were meaningless to me. I did not even know their names, and if I thought of them at all I imagined the whole happy group fishing for herring in the Baltic and living a National Geographic life. Who were they, really? What did it matter anyhow? ...

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15. The Taming of the Swede

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pp. 228-236

Oscar was sixty-seven years old, and he desired to make some changes in the quality of his life. Unable to find a suitable buyer or family successor to take over the construction company he had launched in the 1940s—because I was too young and Chuck was totally uninterested—he closed his business in 1964. Alice and her parents were still performing ...

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16. Love Is for Barflies

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pp. 237-252

The bullying and the hectoring I endured as a boy ended by the time I entered high school in 1967, the year of my father’s marriage to Marie. It almost seemed as if that other troubling aspect of my life—my relationship with my father—had ended as well. For the next two years, 1968 and 1969, both Chuck and Oscar were absent from ...

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17. A Worker of the World

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pp. 253-264

As the years passed, my Thursday afternoon visits with my father became a matter of routine. As we sat in the backyard amid his prized roses and buzzing sweat bees in the stifling humidity of a July afternoon, he nursed a glass of Canadian Club—so therapeutic for his emphysema— and wove colorful tales of his early life. He told me about his meeting with ...

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18. Ashes to Ashes—and Back to Ronneby

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pp. 265-276

Dear Richard: We are now in the grip of a severe cold. Below zero the past two nights and although sunny today, the temperature will get no higher than twelve degrees. This is the time of year (a few years back) when your father would say “Let’s take off!” And away we’d go; Florida, Brownsville, Expo ’67, San Diego, Hawaii. Ah ...

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19. A Wayne King Lullaby

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pp. 277-281

My mother, a bitter and disappointed soul, built impenetrable walls to seal off any chance at long-lasting happiness. She lived another thirty-seven years following her final separation from Oscar in 1955, but for all intents and purposes the second half of her life was a slow, measurable suicide, hour by hour, day after day. For years she had fixated on ...

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pp. 283-295

I am a man who lives in the past. I am a historian and that allows me to rationalize my meditations over events of long ago. I am a writer, and the creative muse inspires me to record the voices of the past. And in my mind, the past never recedes. It is always with me, and at times it can be a haunting, aching aria. The older I get the ...

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pp. 297-300

Evelyn Freislinger, arthritic and brittle, visited Chicago and Pistakee Bay one last time in the spring of 1981 shortly before her death in Monterey, California, later that year. She stored her cigarettes in a scratched and battered gold case. She wore pink slacks, applied way too much makeup to her face, spoke every sentence as if it were a formal declaration, and ...

Other Works in the Series, About the Author

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p. 301-301

Image Plates

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pp. 303-318

E-ISBN-13: 9780816678297
E-ISBN-10: 0816678294
Print-ISBN-13: 9780816646845

Page Count: 328
Publication Year: 2011