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Discover Mid-America September 2006
Giants in the Earth: A Saga of the Prairie by Ole Edvart Roelvaag. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 1999; 560 pages. 0060931930
Through the prairie to America
It is the lot of historians to write narrative at a distance, staying above and beyond the feelings of his or her characters except when those characters reveal those emotions themselves — either through their own writing or the witness of others.
That is why the novelist can sometimes expose the reality of history better than the historian. Ole Edvart Roelvaag does exactly this in his classic story of immigration and the start of a new life in Giants in the Earth: A Saga of the Prairie. It is a fine work of classic realism that brings the finer details of prairie history into sharp focus.
Giants tells a distinctly American story. In 1873, the protagonist, Per Hansa, leaves the dying Norwegian fishing trade to immigrate to the United States, where he clams land with other Norwegians in South Dakota. Having first lost his way, traveling far beyond where his compatriots have found their stake, he demonstrates his cunning and skill at keeping his family together until he can find his way back.
Having arrived in the nascent settlement, he finds the others already at work building sod houses. His neighbor and confidant, Hans Olsa and wife Soerrine, have taken to cutting prairie solely for building shelter. But Per Hansa, using his steel plow, cuts the prairie for planting, figuring that their tent will do well enough until the corn, potatoes and beans are in the ground.
Soon, however, he discovers that cutting the prairie with a plow makes both tasks possible. He builds, much to the criticism and then chagrin of his neighbors, the most elaborate and largest “soddy” in the small settlement.
But while Per Hansa breaks away from his family into his work, his wife Beret slowly deteriorates. As we see the two cut almost opposite paths away from each other. Per Hansa finds himself at home in the vast expanses of the prairie. He becomes happier and more content the harder he works and the more he uses his cleverness for the good of the family. He grows enough to sell at distant settlements, where he establishes social and commercial connections that put him at the center of his settlement’s life.
At the same time, Beret slips farther and farther from sanity. The land and sky, treeless distances, and endless flatness frighten and oppress her, forcing her into the ever-smaller world of the soddy. She covers the shelter’s windows to shut out the prairie. In carrying their third child and the first to be born in their new land, she nearly dies from effects of the depression she suffers being in the open prairie — sleeplessness, lack of appetite and losing the will to keep on.
The novel takes in a sweep of seven or eight years, from the time Per Hansa and his fellow Norwegians settle to the hard Plains winter of 1880-81. Roelvaag faithfully recounts the ways in which new immigrants had to adapt to life in the prairie. With only a few tools, some supplies and their own hard work, they fashion life as best as possible to resemble that from which they came.
Taken out of the general and abstract, life in the settlement allows the reader to see, firsthand, the rituals of building a sod house, improving the land and beginning commerce that will earn the money to build a “proper” wood home. Wood and water lie in the distance. Social and spiritual help are far away from the settlement. Everything has to be gathered, stored and transported. Even the minister who will soothe and bring some relief to Beret brings a form of work for the settlers. Having met him and gone under his wing, Beret becomes seriously religious, straining her relationship with Per Hansa in ways that her insanity did not.
Aptly and deeply significant are the themes of human struggle in relationships, in finding something in themselves to survive, and in the ways humans and nature interact. Per Hansa, finds himself in several dilemmas that foreshadow his importance to the community. One of the most tense is finding, by accident, that his neighbors have settled on land already claimed. He takes up the bearing stakes and burns them, suffering horrible guilt for an action that, in his home country would have been punished with death. He never tells his neighbors, and instead, faces down the men he has helped steal land from, sending them on their way and bringing a relief to him that the reader can actually feel.
Giants, in part, is Roelvaag’s story. It was first published some eighty years ago in Norway in Roelvaag’s native Norwegian and subsequently translated into English. He immigrated to the United States in 1896, leaving his life as a fisherman to take up as a farmhand in South Dakota. He graduated from St. Olaf’s with a BA and Master’s in Norwegian language and literature.
Like the immigrant who wrote it, Giants straddles the indistinct line between American and European. The feel of the book, as well as the characters and their social and spiritual priorities are European, but the story is American. More specifically, the story is Midwestern. Through the prairie, the Norwegians slowly and irrevocably become a part of a culture still forming, and one that is still in flux today — making it a brilliant classic as relevant now as it was when it was published.
Patrick Dobson is a Kansas City-based writer and Ph.D. candidate in history. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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