12 going on 13 : an autobiographical novel /
by Jan Myrdal ; translated by Christine Swanson.
Chicago : Ravenswood Books, 1995.
192 p. ; 22 cm.
1884468012 (alk. paper)
personal subject
More Details
added author
Chicago : Ravenswood Books, 1995.
1884468012 (alk. paper)
catalogue key
A Look Inside
First Chapter

Chapter One

I was twelve then, going on thirteen and soon - in only a few weeks would be thirteen on the fourteenth. Early in the morning I stood at the railing and waited to see Manhattan's faraway skyline come out of the fog into view. It was 1940. The sun would come up behind me and everything had come to an end. Everything.

The dawn was like thin, gray cotton around the ship. The deck heaved slowly under me. The waves rolled in from the huge Atlantic out there. But there was no freshness in the air. Through the fog came a smell of earth and sewer and old sour salty steam. And here where we were anchored the water far down below wasn't a green churning sea. It was a thick, foul tepid mass of water I saw far below me at the side of the ship. Oil floating on this gray surface rocked listlessly, spread, merged together. I made my right hand into a tube, closed the bad left eye, held the tube in front of the right eye and looked down at the water. The floating oil looked almost like a protoplasmic membrane. Like protozoa through a microscope in science class when we talked about how life had once been able to form in the tepid water along the ocean shore.

And Mr. Laurence would stand in front of us with his feet wide apart and show with words the origin of all history so that it all played out here and now in front of me in the classroom. How the globe swelled and the clouds clung together and the sea rose, but volcanoes still spewed lava and the sun was dimmed by their smoke. There in heat and soot the primeval slime itself was born in photosynthesis when the clouds suddenly scattered and the hard light pushed through. The oil down there was organic too, after all. Old dead primeval animals and ferns rotted in primeval times.

I saw the muted colors play on the dark water as it grew lighter. Out of the hazy dawn four huge smoke-stacks belched on the nearest shore. In the dimness under the cloud of smoke there was a coal power plant. It had a cargo dock for coal barges with three big cranes with gigantic scoops; a track with a small diesel switcher pulling the hopper cars. All around there were a lot of interesting details and if things hadn't been the way they were I would have taken pictures when the fog lifted and used them to draw construction plans. But it wasn't like that any more. Nothing was. The whole thing was over.

But above the power plant the wretchedness on the beach began again. It was littered with rotten poles coming up from the gray earth at ebb tide. Abandoned sheds, rusty tracks and heaps of trash. There were rats, even if I wasn't near enough to see them. And beside all of it was the gigantic power plant spewing smoke. None of this could be seen through the still boiling gray haze. But it didn't matter that water and morning fog still rolled together gray in gray and offended the eyes and that naked smokestacks appeared belching above. I knew how it was. I had seen it.

The whole day before, starting when they began to load barrels from the dock out here yesterday morning, I had kept myself locked up in my cabin and this miserable shoreline was my only view. Erom my cabin I could glimpse the power plant. When I pulled the red and white curtains aside and looked through the porthole I saw this dirty waterfront. I kept myself locked up all day and didn't even go to meals. The steward had brought me six bottles of Coca-Cola and a package of Ritz saltines they didn't know about. When they knocked and pulled at the door I said I was reading. And I was too. I was reading Mark Twain and was a Yankee who in spite of technical knowhow and modern science was defeated by the wretched knights of old ignorant churchgoing Europe. Or a Jim who pretended to be a royal prisoner, although he could maybe open the door when he wanted. And when I wasn't reading I lay in the berth and juggled with an empty Coca-Cola bottle and fantasized. I was somewhere other than here. And it didn't do them any good to put on airs and chirp and it didn't help to tug and pull at the door and get angry. True, they had brought me here, but then I had closed myself in and I could lock the steel door and I had fixed it so they had to stand there.

If I let go of the railing, turned and lifted my eyes I should be able to see the sun rise, I thought. But I couldn't do that. It was hidden in the morning fog over the ocean, and looked like a red streak in the bank of clouds. But the water was changing colors and Manhattan appeared.

Sure, I could have opened the door yesterday - it was called a door even though the window was called a porthole. But I hadn't done it. As soon as I was brought on board I had seen I could lock myself in. I did that yesterday. I had gone up on deck while they were still sleeping. When the fog lifted the windows glittered over there in New York. A new day was beginning over there; an ordinary Wednesday when Nelson and the others ate breakfast and were going to school. But what good did it do to think about that? Even if I took a big jump and dove in from the deck to swim back home to Manhattan I wouldn't make it. I wouldn't be able to do it.

Yes, I was good at diving and swimming. It was the only thing like that I could do well. I just didn't participate in basketball and baseball and other things. No one had been able to make me, either. But I could dive. Like a seal, Uncle Folke had said two summers before. And I could swim a long way down under the water. But if I dove from the deck down into the foul water I would never make it. I would be sucked down into the oil, cough from the foul-smelling sewage which would make me sick when I couldn't help taking a gulp. I would get cramps and drown like a kitten long before I reached land. My hair would get matted with tar and green with slimy algae. They would have to send out the police boats or maybe even a harbor tug to search for me as I floated away with the tide, my mouth gaping and eyes wide open.

And even if I did reach land it would only be the shore under the power plant. They would have radioed from the command center when I got up out of the water and tried to get hold of the slippery rotting boards that were once a cargo pier. Then I would would lift my eyes and look! the whole shoreline was blue with police. Police and dogs. I threw myself backward into the water and tried to escape by ducking and swimming in under the old dock and bullets came hissing into the water around me. Choff! Choff! I went deeper to escape but was forced up toward the surface to breathe and a big Irish cop who was just waiting there smiled faintly as he shot. Then I lay and floated in the foul water with head crushed and blood mixed with oil and they pulled the body up with a boat-hook.

"He got what he deserved!"[*]

[*] Passages written in English in the Swedish edition are in italics.

Whatever I did they would bring me in. There is no hiding place.

It was early Wednesday morning, May 7, 1940, and I was on board the MS Mathilda Thorden. It would be the second day the boat was anchored in the upper bay outside New York. It was a Finnish line and we would carry war materiel to Finland. There had been peace there for several months but war would probably come soon and what Finland didn't need Sweden would get. Planes were packed in large wooden crates and they had been loaded at the pier before we got on board.

Our car had also been put on board together with the planes. It was a big eight-cylinder Hudson. Gunnar had bought it cheap the year before. He had only paid about what two ordinary Chevrolets cost, even though it was worth as much as the next-to-the-biggest Packard. He bargained the price down to $1100 when it was the luxury model of 1937 because the new automatic transmission on that model had some bugs in it. They had altered the design already by 1938. But it was roomy, with space for eight people if they squeezed together. That car was for Per Albin, our prime rninister, Gunnar said. It could be used as an official government car or military staff car in the war. There was a fold-out table and everything in the back seat. There they could spread out their maps when the war started in Sweden.

But now the MS Mathilda Thorden couldn't stay at the pier any longer because we were loading barrels with explosives for the Finns' new war. There were special firemen on the dock when the barrels came. As the barrels came on board I told Sissela we certainly wouldn't need to do the life boat drill on this trip.

"It wouldn't even take a torpedo or a floating mine. A U-boat captain would only need to shoot a small hole in the barrels there on the deck. A single hit with a bullet in one of those barrels and it would be all over. Choff! Bang! Vroom! You would be blown to bits and die before you could hiccough and there wouldn't he so much as a fingernail left of you." That's the kind of boat it was.

"Jan!" said Alva. "Don't say things like that. You're scaring her."

"But it's the truth," I said. "You put us on a boat like this for the sake of honor, your public image and reputation. You know it, but you don't dare say so."

The cargo was all war materiel and therefore contraband, so we couldn't get safe-conduct.

"It'll look great if it happens at night," I said. "A huge red fountain out in the middle of the Atlantic. Like a volcanic eruption. And there won't be so much as the nail of a little finger left of the children to bury.

"And no one to come with flowers and wreaths and make speeches and bury them either because everything would be blown to kingdom come," I added.

Then I left them standing on the deck and hurried away from there before Alva could think of an answer. Only a week before I had gone to school as usual. We weren't going to Sweden any more. It had been decided. We would stay in America. They for the duration and I forever. The family would move away from Riverside Drive in the fall. They had sublet the apartment furnished.

First they had looked at apartments on Central Park. The parents of some of my classmates had large apartments there. Like the Rosenthals. I had hardly ever seen old man Rosenthal when I visited because he was there only occasionally. Most of the time he was in Washington with Roosevelt. But then Gunnar rented a real house in Brooklyn with a little yard and everything. I had been there to see it when they decided. I would have a room with sun in the afternoon and two walls of bookshelves and space for a big desk and also a special room for the model railroad up in the attic. I hadn't been able to start building it there on Riverside Drive, where we wouldn't be staying more than about a year and there was no room where I could put nails in the walls. If we had moved to Central Park it would have been too expensive to let me have a room for the railroad. This spring it was called "The Rusty Springs Railroad Corporation." But since last summer, when it didn't have a real name yet, I had been designing various possible layouts and building cars and different structures and I already had two locomotives too. A 4-6-4 Hudson I had bought in the spring of 1939 and an 0-4-0 switcher from Mantua which I got this January. The Hudson was actually an American Flyer and almost tin-plate, but I had put the switcher together myself and painted it.

Ever since it had been decided that we would move to Brooklyn and the railroad would have its own place up there in the attic, I had worked on the track layout for this room with a sloping ceiling and chimney. Layouts where the train went around in circles or figure eights were childish even if they were called models and supposedly built to scale. Toy railroads around the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve! About like Irving, the Burns boy, with his Lionel train which he was allowed to take out only on holidays and put on the floor with his father sitting beside him. Because:

"We are such greatpals!"

And it was Mr. Burns himself who operated the rheostat and Irving only got to place the cars back on the track when the speed was too much for the curves and the train derailed.

The sloping ceiling, the chimney and steps up were a given. I would make use of them in the plans. The sloping ceiling gave extra track possibilities if I made a city street for a background with buildings going all the way up to the ceiling for example. Several side-tracks could be hidden behind them. This was worth thinking about. It would be ridiculous to pretend to have a big transcontinental railroad in an attic. Then the whole thing became only a toy even if the one who built it was an old man of fifty and went around with an engineer's cap on his head. You could make it a piece of reality instead and create a view at the front of the room which almost looked real and have the track disappear from the scene through tunnels under the streets or something and make it look real and the whole big network of tracks like something to read about in timetables and believe in. That's how it was in the real world too. You saw only a piece of it at a time and heard about the rest. Who could see all of New York at one time?

But "Rusty Springs Railroad Corporation" was not a big line like the New York Central. It wasn't even a medium-sized railroad like the Chicago and Northwestern. My RSRRC was a railroad that ran irregularly. Its heyday was in the 1910s. And I would build its railroad yard and the various industrial tracks from the outskirts of the city to the harbor. Rusty Springs was a very small town somewhere out west on the Great Lakes.

In school I had been working on a project about the steam revolution and the big railroad era since the beginning of fall semester and we had come back to New York after summer vacation. It was even more fun than the volcanoes we had studied the year before. It was a current topic too. I didn't agree with General Motors, even though their Futurama was excellent, and thought the age of the railroad was not over at all. Railroads made more sense than cars. There was after all less friction with rails than with highways.

Now it was already tomorrow and nature always chooses the shortest way and technology is forced to take the long way - no matter what the individual believes or wants - to the most energy efficient solution, I thought Mr. Flourens said when I discussed the project with him. Development drives us all inevitably forward, but he who studies nature and learns its laws will reach the goal sooner than he who is forced to follow its requirements, resisting and struggling - kicking like a small child.

I saw him in front of me. Mr. Flourens was old, more than fifty, maybe over sixty, and bald with a pot- belly and gold chain draped diagonally across his vest like the one Grandfather had. He didn't talk like other teachers. Not only because he spoke English with a funny accent. Several of the teachers were immigrants who spoke with strange accents. Many of them had fled Europe and European universities when Hitler came to power. But Mr. Flourens wasn't a refugee, he was an immigrant. But I don't know whether he bothered to become a citizen even though he had been here since before the Great War, as he called it. He was actually from France. What was different about his speech was that he talked the way they write in books. He used much bigger words than other people. And he was different from all the other teachers also because he didn't care if someone said he didn't understand.

"Go then, my young friend, to the library, take a dictionary and look it up. Baby birds sit in the nest with open beaks and cry. You are still a child, but will soon be a man! No one can give you the word, the knowledge, which you don't conquer yourself. But then you have the knowledge. While others run around trying to learn through trial and error you can, with its help, think and in one well-considered action seek the answer with the least possible expenditure of energy. But remember that the knowledge you get from teachers and books is old knowledge. It can already be moldy. Therefore you should, like a smart boy, learn both what I as your teacher tell you and what you read in books and then doubt it and see if it isn't already wrong.

"De omnibus dubitandum!" he said and tapped my head with his knuckles. "Keep that in mind."

But he may have said:

"Doubt everything at least once. Even the assertion that two plus two equals four."

Then he would be laughing already and talking about dyadic arithmetic.

None of the other teachers said things like that. No one behaved as he did. They explained simple words and were nice. And even if they weren't Christians, you couldn't really ask: But on the other hand? Because: He that doubteth is damned. But, I thought, Mr. Flourens told us when he introduced himself that he wasn't a teacher, but a bridge builder with big firms that did steel construction in Chicago as well as New York. He had long been interested in how design sense could be awakened and analytical intelligence could be ignited in children. In his later years, with his family finances in order and his children grown and leading their own lives, he went to Teachers College at Columbia University. Now he planned to try his theories on us.

Last fall when I first met him in the library, and later when I was in his class he talked a lot about friction and energy and even demonstrated that the idea of a perpetual motion machine contradicted the laws of reason.

When I sat in the library and talked with him about my railroad history he had said that if I intended to write something I shouldn't focus just on the small details of the events, but also on the internal relationships.

"Take the history of the rail, for example. The track width is historically determined, but still accidental. It is the Roman distance between wheels. The one they used in their roadways. And so that accident became a historical necessity. A few inches more or less wouldn't have made any difference at the beginning. The step from road to railroad wasn't difficult. Rain and mud became ooze into which the wheel sank. When the railroad was invented it kept the same dimensions. The basic principle was that the rails' smoothness and limited surface area in comparison with the unavoidably irregular roadway offered less friction and therefore saved energy. That rails were cost-effective had been proven in the coal fields of Newcastle since the end of the eighteenth century. On rails of wood a horse could pull a load down to the river weighing four times what was possible on a road. But wood wore down quickly. Throughout the nineteenth century these wooden rails were developed into iron railways without difficulty, step by step. Rails were invented this way out of simple necessity. But what happened in the steam age when a leap was made and the horse-drawn carts on these new rails of iron were replaced with self-propelled steam engines? Even the great engineers were caught up in the prejudices of their limited experience like chickens by a chalk line! Think carefully about that!

"Go West young man and grow up with the country!

"Go, young man, to the library and read!

I did that because we had a good library at Lincoln School. But it took several days before I was sure I had really understood it all. When I read carefully I realized that you could take as an instructive example - one to which Mr. Flourens sometimes referred - the rail designs for Trevithick and Vivian's steam locomotive for the mining operation at Merthyr-Tydvil in 1804 and what they wrote about the role of friction. Trevithick and Vivian were good engineers. They had developed the steam-driven road-traveling cars, long in experimental use in France and America, into a genuine steam carriage which they patented in 1801. But when they tried to put a steam-powered car on the rails and replace horses as the power source in the mine railroad, they made an effort to make the rail's friction the same as that of the road.

Copyright © 1989 Jan Myrdal. All rights reserved.

Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Library Journal on 1995-11-15:
Swedish author Myrdal has received the coveted Esselte Prize for literature in Sweden for this autobiographical novel (a sequel to Childhood, LJ 11/15/91, and Another World, LJ 7/94). The son of Swedish Nobel laureates Alva and Gunnar Myrdal, the author has carried forward the laureate legacy with his insightful look through a young boy's eyes at coming to America. We find out what he sees, what he learns, and what he doubts; as one of his early immigrant teachers, Mr. Flourens, informs Jan, "Doubt everything at least once." Jan learns that life really needs to be analyzed and nurtured. Myrdal shows the reader New York City and Stockholm at the time of the outbreak of World War II. He offers a most insightful look at a family that has been torn apart by ambition. Recommended for most libraries.‘Vicki Cecil, Hartford City P.L., Ind. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Appeared in Publishers Weekly on 1995-10-02:
In this third novel (after Childhood and Another World) based on his own upbringing, Swedish novelist, columnist and political analyst Myrdal once again portrays his Nobel laureate parents (his father for economics, his mother for peace)‘sociologists Gunnar and Alva Myrdal‘as cruel, smug hypocrites. Famed architects of Sweden's progressive social policies, Gunnar and Alva, by their son's acid account, used constant ridicule, authoritarian control, double-binds, sadistic humiliations and a rigidly behaviorist system of punishments to mold him and sabotage his sense of self. Originally published in Sweden in 1989, this searing self-portrait, winner of that country's Esselte Prize for Literature, is told from the point of view of a rebellious, wounded preadolescent. It opens in New York City in 1940, where 12-year-old Jan had been attending school, then moves to Sweden, where his parents leave him with his aunt and uncle while they travel. Hitler's invading armies are taking over Europe, and Jan, though embroiled in his own private domestic hell, castigates the hypocrisy of pious Swedes who ring churchbells on Sundays yet refuse to speak out against the Nazis or to take up arms. There are also flashbacks to the boy's visits with relatives in Minnesota, meshed with sexual fantasies and skeptical questioning of organized religion. Myrdal's fiercely honest account of how he resisted and overcame parental psychological abuse has the emotional intensity of a Strindberg play. (Dec.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
This item was reviewed in:
Kirkus Reviews, October 1995
Publishers Weekly, October 1995
Library Journal, November 1995
Booklist, December 1995
To find out how to look for other reviews, please see our guides to finding book reviews in the Sciences or Social Sciences and Humanities.

This information is provided by a service that aggregates data from review sources and other sources that are often consulted by libraries, and readers. The University does not edit this information and merely includes it as a convenience for users. It does not warrant that reviews are accurate. As with any review users should approach reviews critically and where deemed necessary should consult multiple review sources. Any concerns or questions about particular reviews should be directed to the reviewer and/or publisher.

  link to old catalogue

Report a problem