While Giants in the Earth deals with Norwegian pioneers on the Great Plains in the latter half of the nineteenth century, it is, in a sense, a story of all the American pioneers who went before them into the west, and is a part of the story of the conquest of the continent.
For every pioneer who succeeded — from Daniel Boone to Sutter in California — there were probably two who fell by the wayside, either physically or emotionally. Per Hansa is the personification of the true pioneer, the strong man who looks into the future and sees a golden life ahead, while Beret, his wife, is torn by doubts, longs for what she has left, and wants only to get away. In a deeper sense, it is possibly the story of the caveman and the cavewoman: the male who looked for new adventures, and the female who wished only for a comfortable cave in which to rear her young.
The greatness of is not in the bare bones of the story, for it is a fairly simple one, but in the manner in which author Ole Edvart Rölvaag manages to bring out the emotions engendered in each of the pioneers-how they reacted to the loneliness and desolation of the prairie and how they adjusted to it or did not adjust, as the case may be.
The conquest of the continent was a great American triumph, but it also took its toll in human lives, misery, and disaster. The wonder of it all is that there were people willing to risk everything they had held dear in order to build a new life. Take one single case in this novel: what on earth impelled the Norwegian with a sick wife and nothing to his name to head west? He had just buried one child in an unknown grave on the prairie and had no idea where he was heading. Per Hansa calls him a "drifter," but in another sense he was a true pioneer.
Where the feeling of the "frontier spirit" originated, no one has satisfactorily explained, but with the crossing of the Allegheny Mountains, following the American Revolutionary War, it flowered. Perhaps the early settlers who came from the confined isle of Britain were dazzled with the idea of endless land stretching ahead of them, or possibly it was simply a restlessness that came upon them in this new country. In any case, the breed was born.
There was little to recommend the life, and the American of today would be appalled at the manner in which a pioneer ancestor lived. Tragedy was almost a daily occurrence, and hunger a constant companion. Beveridge, in his Life of Lincoln, tells us of some of the hardships suffered by the family of our great president. It is not a pleasant story. While this novel is laid a hundred years later, many of the same conditions prevailed. That Beret should go mad in conditions that she had only known in nightmares is understandable — and was probably true of hundreds of other pioneer women who put up with the wilderness while their husbands literally carved out their dreams. To the strong man, physical action was the panacea, but this did not apply to the women who longed for something more. Some became hard and calloused, but most of them accepted their lot and toiled and suffered and died so that they might bring up their children in the promised land their men envisaged.
While the stories are not similar, it is interesting to note that Knut Hamsun, the great Norwegian writer and Nobel Prize winner, wrote several stories about Norwegian pioneers in his own country. The classic is Growth of the Soil, in which a couple carve out a homestead in virgin territory. The protagonists are hardy people, similar to the Norwegian immigrants who conquered the Great Plains in this country, and a parallel might be drawn.
The Norwegians who settled in the Great Plains were a small but vital part of the immigrants who poured through Ellis Island in the nineteenth century and enriched America. Rölvaag knows of what he writes, and he writes with affection and understanding.
Rölvaag was himself a Viking of the Per Hansa strain. Born of fisher folk in 1876, on the island of Donna at the very edge of the Arctic Circle, he was, from the age of fourteen, a fisherman around the Lofoten Islands — one of the roughest of all professions. In 1896, he came to the United States, tried his hand at farming in South Dakota, and then decided to get an education at St. Olaf College in Minnesota. After further education at the University of Oslo in Norway, he returned to his American alma mater and eventually became professor of Norwegian Literature.
Basically, this is a strange book, for it was written by one who is European in background but writes about America — an America to which he was an immigrant like the characters in this book. His aim is obviously to tell about the contributions that the Norwegians made to the building of their adopted land, and in this he succeeds admirably.
However, despite the fact that the scene is America, the story is not. Rölvaag is primarily interested in psychology and not in plotting. The story is of pioneers on the Great Plains and of the physical conditions they are forced to conquer, but behind it all, Rölvaag is more interested in what the pioneering meant in terms of mental anguish rather than in the basic facts of the difficulty of carving a home out of the wilderness.
Per Hansa is the true pioneer, the man of strength and pragmatism. To him, the prairie is a challenge to be met with whatever weapons he has at his command. In this he is as successful as any can be, but he is not concerned with the deeper meanings of coming to an unknown land. On the other hand, his wife, Beret, is tormented by being torn away from all that she was familiar with, and is in a sense a failure as a pioneer wife. Fittingly, if we consider the rather gloomy Norse philosophy, it is she who drives her husband off into the blizzard so that the ancient gods may be appeased and the great prairie satisfied. This is not an unusual theme in Norse literature, although perhaps not in this exact context.
Many observers have commented on the strange seeming contradiction of a Norwegian writing a great American novel. But one should keep in mind that this is a novel about an aspect of American life and American history, and while it was originally written in Norwegian it is about Norwegian-Americans and told by one who should know more about them than, let us say, an Irish-American.
This is not the only novel that has been written about the early settlers on the great plains. The great American woman writer, Willa Cather, turned out a novel about settlers on the Great Plains called 0 Pioneers! that told somewhat the same story as this one, but was laid in Nebraska.
The question is asked by critics whether Giants in the Earth should be regarded as a work of Norwegian literature or American literature. The question would seem to be academic. This is a work by a Norwegian-American about America.
It is interesting to note that this novel about Americans in America was originally written in Norwegian, first published in Norway, and later translated into English.
In any discussion of Rölvaag's style of writing, it must be remembered that he wrote in Norwegian, his native language, and that this — his classic work — is a translation into English. While a good translator can presumably bring out a great many elements of the original, a critical analysis of the style of a translation is obviously impossible unless the critic is versed in the language of the original version, and even then, it would seem that the criticism would be of the translation rather than of the style of writing.
In this English translation — in which Rölvaag himself assisted — it would seem that he wrote tersely and without unnecessary embellishment. Again, one is reminded of Knut Hamsun's novels, which, in their English translations at least, are masterpieces of simple writing. On the other hand, Sigrid Undset's Nobel Prize winning Kristin Lavransdatter — again in its English translation — is far more complex.
Suffice to say, this novel has few frostings on the cake of the story. It is told in a forthright way, which fits in admirably with the mood and the locale of the story.