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Wednesday, March 14, 2007

With the final chapter titled, “The Great Plain Drinks the Blood of Christian Men and is Satisfied,” can anyone be in doubt of a happy ending? This book is an illuminating portrayal of the life, hardships, and sheer pluck of the early settlers of the Great Plains. Translated from the Norwegian, it is nevertheless a very American book – the events and experiences could have occurred in no other place but the unsettled Great Plains in a young United States. Norwegian pioneers immigrate to the US with the sole purpose of founding homesteads and new family histories – kingdoms, perhaps – in the vast, solitary, virgin soils of the Dakota Territory.

During the 1870s, many Mid-western states, like Kansas and Nebraska, had already made successful bids to enter the Union, while the Dakota Territory had held territory status only a few years and its prairies were still largely untouched. Per Hansa and his wife Beret, along with their four children, leave Norway by boat, expecting never to see their homeland or their families again, and travel via Atlantic Ocean, Canada, Great Lakes, and Chicago to arrive finally in Minnesota. There they buy a rickety wagon and a pair of oxen (horses would have been better but they are too expensive), and travel hundreds of miles with three other families to the Dakota territory, where they claim less than 200 acres as their own. Much hard work ensues.

As a record of the first determined human encounter with an ancient land, this book is fascinating. Rolvaag creates unforgettable images of a vast prairie with tall native grasses, without trees, a formidable silence pervading all. There were no birds. How does one steer the right course in such an ocean? And to witness first tilling of the deep prairie soil (Midwestern soils are among the richest in the world) is at once thrilling and heartbreaking.

Then, the book is a masterful chronicle of all the things that must be done, on a household level and a regional basis, to make the place fit for civilized habitation. So many things are needed, especially before the first crucial harvest: farming implements, flour, salt, clothing, seed, wood fuel, a house, a doctor! And they are obtained only with a difficult, multi-day journey to town and much expense.

Per Hansa and Beret are an interesting study. It is invigorating to see the profuse energy Per Hansa has for shaping his homestead: he bounds from height to height, in delights over the fertility of the soil, the unparalleled opportunity for influence over one’s own destiny, the good fortune of having good neighbors, the joys of good crops, healthy children, and earthly pleasures of soil, wind, rain, and sun. Beret, on the other hand, is frightened of the place, not only because of its extreme remoteness, but also of the demonic influences she perceives in the land. The presence of Sioux Indians in the area, the lack of churches and other “civilized” society, the savage pursuit of the necessities of life – all these she attributes to the work of Satan. This contrast plays out through the novel, reaching a climax and a charming resolution...until the conclusion sneaks up quietly, stealthily, and (let’s face it) sadly.

Title:Giants in the Earth
Author:O.E. Rolvaag
Date published:1927
Genre:Historical fiction
Number of pages:453
Notes:Translated from Norwegian


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