Summary and Analysis
Book I: Chapter 2
On the side of a hill near a creek that winds its way through the prairie, Hans Olsa is building a sod house. He stops now and then to search for something. Beyond the half-completed sod house, a tent has been pitched, and around it are some rough pieces of furniture. In the neighborhood other sod huts are rising. Hans Olsa's wife calls him to dinner in the tent and asks if he has seen anything. He answers in the negative, and after eating he returns to his work. His wife tells him that he should go looking for Per Hansa, but Hans Olsa says he has no idea where to search. As they are talking, Syvert Tönseten turns up and asks if they have seen anything of "them." When Hans Olsa asks in turn if Tönseten has seen them, the latter says that he has had them in sight for over an hour. Hans Olsa and his wife face in the direction Tönseten indicates, and they see a small caravan coming across the plains. Within a half hour Per Hansa and his family arrive to be welcomed with open arms by the earlier arrivals. There is general rejoicing, but in the midst of it Beret has a feeling that there is something wrong with the place. She feels the immensity of the plains and is appalled by it. Hans Olsa tells Per Hansa that he has laid out stakes for a quarter section next to him.
The small group of pioneers sits around and celebrates the arrival of Per Hansa and his family until Per Hansa concludes the celebration by saying that he wants to see his quarter. Hans Olsa tells Per Hansa that he must go into Sioux Falls the next day and file his claim to the land. Per Hansa, Hans Olsa, and Tönseten go together and look over the land. Per Hansa discovers an old Indian grave and is vaguely troubled by it, but he is elated that this land is to be his.
The next morning, Per Hansa and one of the Solum boys go into Sioux Falls and file his claim. The date on it is June 6, 1873. In the meantime, Beret and the boys unload the wagons and set the larger one up as a bedroom. All the while she is working, she feels a certain unease that she cannot pinpoint. After the work is done and supper is finished, Beret climbs to the highest point on their land and surveys the plains. She admits that it has a certain beauty, but she finds the silence, the great open spaces, depressing. Again she thinks that there is nothing to hide behind. The full extent of her loneliness hits her. She recalls how they had left Norway and come to Quebec, then pushed ever westward. Finally, they came to Fillmore County in Minnesota, but even that was not to be their stopping place. Now she is here in the middle of an endless prairie. When she returns to the wagon, the boys bring her some stones they have found and Beret examines them. She asks the boys where they found the stones and follows them to the place — the grave Per Hansa had found the day before. That night, Beret is unable to sleep for a long time.
Per Hansa returns the next day from Sioux Falls in a buoyant and conquering mood. He is wrapped up in his future plans, and Beret feels she cannot get through to him. Per Hansa tells her that he has bought ten sacks of potatoes and is going to plant them before he starts to build a house. Per Hansa lies in bed that night and thinks of all the things he needs and the things that he must do. And he thinks of the baby that Beret is going to have shortly and of the house that he will build her someday.
In the morning, Per Hansa goes over to Hans Olsa's to borrow his plow. He hitches up the oxen and starts the first furrow on his new land. By breakfast time he has made a fine start, and after breakfast he takes the two boys with him to break up the sod and lead the oxen. At noon they return with sod for the future house, and Per Hansa puts in a full afternoon's work. He feels that he must use every minute of time available.
That same evening, Per Hansa begins to build the sod hut although Beret begs him to rest. After this, Per Hansa works on the house every morning before breakfast and every evening after supper, and he is busy every minute of the day. Beret wants him to rest, but there is a drive in him that he cannot curb, and before long he has laid down his field and built his sod hut. Beret is tired out with the labor she has undergone, but she is happy for Per Hansa.
When Per Hansa's sod house is complete except for the roof, Tönseten tells him that it is much too large to thatch. Tönseten thinks that Per Hansa has done a crazy thing in building such a big house. But Per Hansa had thought for a long time about the problem of building a sod house, and he had decided that it should be large enough to be house and barn under one roof. Beret is at first troubled by the idea of man and beast in one building, but then she thinks of how desolate and lonesome everything is here and she thinks of how comfortable a companion Rosie the cow might be on a cold winter evening.
One evening some time later, Per Hansa goes to Hans Olsa's to borrow his new wagon. Per Hansa plans to go to the Sioux River some 25 miles away to see if there are big stands of timber that he has heard about. Per Hansa decides to take the younger son, Hans, with him, and this is a blow to Ole, the older. Beret is not happy about the trip; also she knows they must have wood for a roof for the sod house. By the third day after Per Hansa and Hans have left, Beret is almost in a panic and she goes to see Hans Olsa, but Per Hansa arrives the next day with a load so big that the oxen are barely able to drag it. Included in the timber load that would serve as a roof and winter fuel are six bundles of young trees to be planted around the house, and in addition a dozen young plum trees. Per Hansa has made the acquaintance of another group of Norwegian settlers on the Sioux River, and in time this will to have great significance.
From the near-tragedy of the opening chapter we now come to the rhapsody of the meeting of the pioneers in their new lands. The men are happy; they are reunited, and ahead of them lies only work so that they may make a home in this wilderness. Through it all, however, Beret is assailed with doubts. The phrase, "Why, there isn't even a thing that one can hide behind," should be kept in mind. This is the obsession that is to haunt Beret.
The attitudes of the pioneer man and woman are now being brought out more clearly. Per Hansa is happy and eager to get to work to clear his land, to build a home, and to get ready for whatever may come. Beret, on the other hand, is more and more assailed by doubts. She longs for the life she had in Norway and dreads this vast, desolate land.
The incident of the old Indian grave is not in itself significant, but it should be borne in mind that the Norwegians (Scandinavians in general) had a deep superstitious nature going back to the ancient Sagas, and anything that they considered an ill omen weighed on their minds. Per Hansa, while he dismisses what the others consider an omen of sorts, is vaguely troubled by the presence of the Indian grave, while Beret is deeply troubled. To her, it is definitely a bad omen.
These are the passages in which the vigor of Per Hansa is most displayed. Nothing is too much for him: he plows and he builds and he plans, and everything he does comes out right. Beret is still doubtful, but at this point she plays a very secondary role to her masterful husband.