In Downstream: Bestemor & Me, Vangie Bergum takes readers on her spiritual journey of self-awakening, self-discovery, and self-empowerment. Through creative non-fiction, she interweaves her own life story with that of her grandparents, peppering her narrative with Norwegian words and phrases, reflecting her ancestral background.
While visiting Norway, she ponders why her grandparents left “this verdant land to spend their lives in the dry, treeless, windy spaces of the Saskatchewan prairies.” Her name, Bergum, “means encircled or surrounded by mountains,” and she wonders if this is where she was meant to be. In a twist of fate, the next generation, her mother’s generation, fears “the hovering mountains,” she says. “They claim they can only breathe on the non-stop prairie.”
As she explores her Norwegian roots, Bergum uncovers a family tragedy – the deaths of her grandparents and their two daughters. She says the manner of their deaths – murder and suicide – brought shame to her family, “a shame encoded in my life from the time of my conception.” Adding to that shame is the fact that her grandmother spent time in two mental facilities.
Bergum feels a deep spiritual connection to her deceased Bestemor, Norwegian for grandmother, even carrying on imaginary conversations with her. Or perhaps the conversations are not so imaginary after all. “Grandmothers, mothers, daughters, and sons, too, know that the umbilical cord is never completely cut, even in death,” Bergum says. “Bestemor’s spirit heart is still beating in me.”
This well-crafted work, with its subliminally poetic language, has several themes flowing through it. One is the numerous references to rivers, which Bergum uses as chapter headings, such as Tributary, Rapids, Turbulence, Estuary, and Watershed. Thinking of the family’s shame, she says that if her mother gave in to just “one tear from that deep river of sorrow, the river would overwhelm her and drown her.”
Another theme that runs through is Bergum’s training as a marathon runner. She provides tips on her techniques, such as varying her pace and tilting forward so she can run like the wind. She keeps extending the length of her runs, emerging tired yet rejuvenated and reinvigorated.
She also leaves lessons for readers to ponder, noting that even the slowest runner who completes a marathon receives the same medal as the fastest runner. “If only our society acted like a marathon,” she muses, “in which every person wins.”
Downstream: Bestemor & Me contains a bibliography and twelve black and white photos of Bergum’s growing-up years, her ancestral family, and her marathons, including running on the Great Wall of China in 2008. Not bad for someone who ran her first marathon at age sixty-eight.
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