Did you know that Swedes made up the third largest ethnic group on the Titanic, after the Americans and British?
Did you know that Swedes made up the third largest ethnic group on the Titanic, after the Americans and British? Author Lilly Setterdahl didn’t know, but after much research she found out, and found many other compelling things about Swedes onboard the doomed ship that sank exactly 100 years ago. Nordstjernan spoke to Lilly about how she got interested in the Titanic and her new book “Not My Time To Die: Titanic and the Swedes on board.” Available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and the Store at Nordstjernan
Lilly Setterdahl came to the U.S. in 1959 with her husband, the late Lennart Setterdahl, who was driven by an interest in and passion for documenting Swedish immigrants in America, which he did until his death in 1995. While her husband was busy with this, Lilly did her own writing.
“I used to always write,” says Lilly to Nordstjernan. “When I was newly married, I got first prize for a piece I wrote for ‘Husmodern,’ the Swedish women’s magazine. But I was too shy to tell anyone about it!”
When she first came to the States, she tossed her writing aside and focused on translating instead. Among other things, she translated the history of the Swedish settlement at Bishop Hill. In time, however, she turned to writing articles again.
“But in 2006 I was fed up with writing nonfiction. I decided I wanted to write a novel, so I took a course, and the name of it was ‘How to build a novel.’ Little did I know that I was required to actually write a novel during that course!”
She decided she needed a point in history with which to start her project and chose the Titanic.
“Before that, I wasn’t very interested in the Titanic, and didn’t know that much. When I started writing, I knew I wanted to have a Swedish character in my story, and she became Anna. Anna is an invented character, who gets rescued from the waters by an Italian man named Roberto.”
The name of Lilly’s first novel was “Maiden of the Titanic” and it was received so well that a sequel was asked for. Lilly followed up with her second novel, “Hero of the Titanic,” which tells the story about the character of Roberto. By this time, she had gathered a lot of information and knowledge about the disaster and thought she might write a nonfiction book in time for the Titanic's 100th anniversary. It became “Not My Time To Die.”
Lilly says, “I had done a lot of research, I had gone to the library and pulled out a lot of books. I also went online to ancestry.com to find out what happened to the Swedes on board, although some of them were quite difficult to trace.”
Lilly was surprised to find out so many Swedes were on board the ship. Because of a coal strike in England, many of the Swedes (most of whom were immigrating to the U.S.) were transferred from other ships to the Titanic at the last moment. Many probably considered themselves lucky, as a third-class ticket on the Titanic equaled a second-class ticket on other ships.
“I wanted to focus on the third-class passengers,” says Lilly, “because so much focus has been on those who traveled first class. In that way, my book is unique. People at the bottom of the ship had trouble making it up to the deck. Families with children stood there hand-in-hand on deck, and jumped into the water together, because they didn’t want to be separated.”
All in all, 89 Swedes perished and 34 survived. Of the four Swedes traveling in first class, two survived.
“The women had better chances, because they were put into lifeboats. However, the Swedish men were strong. They were big and used to hard work. One man jumped into the water and managed to float by holding on to a piece of the wreckage.”
Lilly traced what happened to these people. Because no counseling existed then, and the notion of post-traumatic stress syndrome hadn’t been invented, the fate of the people who did survive was in general grim.
“Many of the men didn’t want to talk about it, because nobody believed them anyway,” Lilly says. “People thought they were lying when they said there hadn’t been any lifeboats. Few of them married, few had children, some moved back to Sweden, and one actually became mentally ill.”
Yet, as Anna Nysten, one of the Swedish women who survived, wrote in a letter—and inspired Lilly Setterdahl for the title of her book—“It wasn’t my time to die.”