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Book Review: A Shopkeeper’s Daughter by Rachel Wisdom

A Shopkeeper's Daughter
This review appeared in the July 11, 2014, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. Reprinted with permission.

By Carla Danziger

His Royal Highness King Harald and Queen Sonja of Norway celebrate their 46 years of marriage on August 29, 2014. Active, proud parents and grandparents, it seems they are living happily ever after.

Author Rachel Wisdom bases her beautifully written first novel A Shopkeeper’s Daughter on the fact that during their courtship, in spite of their desire to marry, it was uncertain whether Crown Prince Harald and Sonja Haraldsen would ever be allowed to spend the rest of their lives together as husband and wife.

Wisdom captures the joy and the passion of the young couple as well as the heartaches and challenges that they endure over a period of nine years. She shows the impact that the proscription on royals from marrying commoners has not only on Harald but on his sisters Astrid and Ragnhild as well. The marriage-for-love of their father King Olav (then Crown Prince Olav) and their mother, the late Princess Martha, serves as a model to all three children who believe love trumps all. 

Wisdom writes in an Author’s Note that her characters “truly existed... and in most cases I have tried to be faithful to them. However their thoughts, feelings, reactions and conversations are all my own inventions, as are certain of the actions.” And of this I had to keep reminding myself.

Crown Prince Harald and Sonja Haraldsen meet on the first page, literally bumping into each other at a party. A petite Sonja looks up. “Towering over her — she guessed him to be a few inches over six feet — he was even more attractive in person than in all the photos she had seen. His eyes shone brilliantly blue, and his build suggested he had the strength of an Arctic moose,” but his smile held her attention the most.

They dance and talk most of the evening. Some days later, at the palace, while King Olav urges Harald to pursue Princess Sophie of Greece, Harald’s mind wanders to thoughts of Sonja. “It was her big brown eyes that had first drawn him in, but there was also something at once delicate and adorable about her whole face, with her high cheekbones and round nose.”

While agreeing with his father that he will be a gracious host to Princess Sophie and her mother Queen Frederica when they visit Oslo, Harald invites Sonja to a graduation ball at the end of August.

As on most occasions, Sonja designs and makes her own gown. “The soft silk was pale pink with a soft floral pattern... Part of what Sonja loved about sewing was the potential she always felt she sewed into the clothing, the hope for something wonderful to happen in it...” And something does!

From then on Harald and Sonja date secretly and fall in love.

Harald and Sonja are 22 years old when the story begins; Rachel Wisdom, the author, began writing A Shopkeeper’s Daughter when she was a college freshman. She researched European and Scandinavian monarchies, traveled to Norway and Denmark (where she has family), conducted interviews, and examined original press reports related to Crown Prince Harald and Sonja Haraldsen. Quotes from these sources lend authenticity to the novel — as does Wisdom’s own youthful perspective.

In November 1959, Harald and Sonja’s secret comes out when a photo of the couple hits the media and the negative commentary begins. The following quote is attributed to Verdens Gang: “Sonja Haraldsen... common born daughter of an Oslo shopkeeper... certainly brings the Crown Prince’s judgment into question... a constitutional impossibility for anything to ever come of the romance.”

While his father and Queen Frederica and the press fuss about this mismatched couple, Harald and Sonja continue to see each other privately in picturesque Norwegian settings; they share more about themselves including how their families and Norway were affected by WWII and the Nazi occupation.

They both value Norwegian history and traditions and struggle with their love being counter to both. Sonja worries she is a burden to the prince; she goes abroad in order to forget Harald, but she cannot. Harald worries that he is holding her back from happiness with someone else. But she remains true to him. And no matter how much his father prods him to do otherwise, Harald adamantly refuses to marry anyone but Sonja.

Wisdom convincingly mixes fact and fiction with sensitivity and humor. The fictional conversations Princess Margrethe of Denmark has with Sonja provide interesting observations about the hypocrisy of some royal marriages and gossip about certain European couples. It shows the dignity of Harald’s and Sonja’s long wait to marry for love.

A chart of the Royal House of Glucksburg — 1959 at the front of the book shows the interrelationships between Danish, Swedish, Greek, and Norwegian royal families and serves as a useful reference for the reader.

A Shopkeeper’s Daughter entertains and informs. Already an admirer of His Royal Highness King Harald and Queen Sonja, I am even more so now.

Kudos to Rachel Wisdom for daring to bring this important story in Norwegian royal history to life. This is a book for anyone who enjoys romance; it makes modern Norwegian history relevant to younger generations of Norwegian Americans and, for those of us old enough to remember the royal wedding in 1968, it fills in details we may never have known or imagined!

Author Rachel Wisdom graduated from Washington University in St. Louis, a major in history and English literature, in 2013. A Shopkeeper’s Daughter was published in December by Wes Bow Press.

Reviewer Carla Danziger is author of Hidden Falls, a romantic suspense novel set in Bergen and the Sognefjord.