Summary and Analysis
Book I: Chapter 3
As the summer wears on, the settlers' food supplies steadily vanish. The time has come to take a trip into town, but this is no simple undertaking. While no one wishes to acknowledge it, they all realize that they are living in a land where man's strength avails but little. On top of this, there are the Indians; the men never speak of them while the women are around, but they are aware that their colony is in the path of an Indian trail that leads to Nebraska. It is decided that Hans Olsa and Tönseten and Henry Solum, each of whom own horses and wagons, will make up the party for the journey into town. Per Hansa is out of sorts, for he feels he should have been included. He takes out his ill humor in work and plows an acre and a half of prairie, a record that stands for many years.
The next day, Per Hansa puts in another good day's work, and as he and Ole return home, Hans comes running to meet them and announces that people are coming. Beret resignedly says, "they have come," but Per Hansa tells her to prepare supper as if nothing has happened. Per Hansa prepares his rifle and watches the approaching train, but shortly his anxiety wanes and he decides that it is nothing but harmless Indian families moving across the Great Plains. Once Per Hansa has made up his mind, he is calm, but this is not true of his neighbors, Sam Solum and Tönseten's wife, Kjersti. Per Hansa works on his sod house, but he sends Hans to collect the women.
The Indian band approaches, goes over the summit of the hill, and stops. The Indians release their horses to graze, and this act reassures Per Hansa. At this moment, Sörine's cow gallops away toward the wagons of the newcomers. This starts a stampede of all the cows in the colony. Beret says that one of the men must go after the cows, and Per Hansa says he will do so after they have eaten. Per Hansa jokes about how Indians like to take the scalps of cows, but Beret is not amused and berates him. Per Hansa is deeply hurt and goes off with Hans to see the Indians.
Hans is excited at the prospect of meeting the Indians, but Per Hansa can only think of how Beret had spoken harshly to him in front of the others. They come to the Indian encampment and find several wigwams, squaws busy around a fire and Indians sitting around smoking pipes. Per Hansa is unable to communicate with them because he knows little English, but Hans manages to convey that they live here. Per Hansa realizes that all he has to do is to round up the four stray cows and drive them home, but he is reluctant to do so; he has not had a smoke of tobacco in a long time, and the odor from the Indians' pipes holds him captive. Finally, he pulls out his pipe and indicates to one of the Indians that he would like to fill it. The Indian hands him a pouch of tobacco and Per Hansa fills his pipe. He lights it and feels a rare contentment.
As he is enjoying his smoke, Per Hansa notices an Indian lying by the fire who is in obvious agony. He tells Hans to ask what is the matter with the man and learns that his hand is hurt; Per Hansa says he wants to take a look at it. Per Hansa examines the Indian's hand and decides that it is a case of blood poisoning, or close to it. Per Hansa sends Hans back to bring white cloths, and if possible some liquor from Hans Olsa's. He works on the hand, drawing on the experience he gathered as a fisherman in Norway. Hans returns, bringing Beret with him; she tells Per Hansa he must return at once, that the women of the colony are very disturbed. But Per Hansa pays no attention to her and continues to minister to the Indian; he gets Beret to help him. After he has worked on the wound for a while, he tells Beret to go home and take Hans with her; he will return later with the cows.
Per Hansa continues to look after the sick Indian, changing the dressing from time to time. The other Indians are all asleep, when Beret returns. She has been crying, but she stays on as Per Hansa continues his doctoring. The Indians bring Per Hansa and Beret blankets, and they sleep around the fire. The Indians remain for another day and night, and the sick Indian's hand, while not fully healed, seems much better. Before they leave, the sick Indian comes to Per Hansa's home leading a fully saddled pony and presents it to him. The boys, Hans and Ole, are delighted, and Per Hansa is flabbergasted.
On the following day, the wagons arrive from town bringing all matter of merchandise, including a plow and a rake for Per Hansa. The storekeeper in town has sold this on credit to Hans Olsa, and Per Hansa is interested to know whether the man will extend further credit, for he needs other things and has run out of the small amount of cash he had. The returned voyagers, however, are more interested in what has happened while they have been gone. Per Hansa insists that his dealings with the Indians were nothing. The men celebrate the return of the expedition by drinking together in Hans Olsa's barn. Hans Olsa's wife, Sörine, finds two bottles in one of the boxes her husband has brought back, and she pours a drink for both of the neighboring women. There is a general celebration.
The work in the settlement continues, and everyone is busy at his various chores when suddenly one noon Tönseten's wife, Kjersti, notices that her cow is missing. She sounds the alarm and they all realize that the cows have gone. The search is on, but the cows are not found.
That evening, outside of every hut the settlers stand watching, but no cows appear. Everyone feels a deep sense of gloom. The families gather and decide that the cows must have been taken by the Indians. They tell Per Hansa that it is his responsibility to find the Indians and get the cows back, but this angers Per Hansa and he leaves the group.
Rest is a long time in coming to them at Per Hansa's that night. Hans is heartbroken at the loss of his beloved cow, Rosie, and Per Hansa comforts him as best he can. Hans asks if Indians scalp cows, and Per Hansa tells him no, that Indians are nice people. With this reassurance, Hans falls asleep.
At the first light of dawn, Per Hansa is awake and readying himself to go and hunt for the cows. Beret is already awake; she has not slept, plagued by the surroundings in which she lives, the dread she has for this endless, empty country. This is no place for human beings to dwell, she tells herself, and then, what of the children? In a sense, she feels that the loss of cows might be a blessing and that her husband will come to his senses and leave this desolate land. Beret asks Per Hansa what he intends to do, and when he tells her that he is going to ride eastward to search for the cows, she tells him he is doing a wrong thing. She berates him for leaving her alone, saying that one of the others could go. Per Hansa cannot understand what is the matter with Beret; it bothers him deeply.
Before Per Hansa can get on his pony, Hans Olsa appears and asks him if he is going after the cows. Per Hansa answers in the affirmative, and Hans Olsa says that his wife had remarked the night before that perhaps the cows were wanting male company. They laugh at the thought, but Per Hansa says he will visit the Tronders (the Norwegian settlement on the Sioux River). He asks Hans Olsa to keep an eye on things. As he rides off onto the prairie, Beret looks after him, crying. Tönseten is angry at Per Hansa because he thinks that the latter has not the courage to go after the Indians. Everyone in the small settlement is sad at the loss of the cattle, and while they all gather at Beret's they find her manner unnatural and disturbing. After everyone has left, Beret prepares for sleep. She tries to shut out the prairie by hanging clothes at the window and barring the door.
The following day, Per Hansa's boys climb up on the roof to look for him. Sometime in the afternoon, Hans sights his father and screams out the news. He says that the cattle are with him, and the two boys slide down from the roof to spread the news. The settlement watches as Per Hansa drives the cows before him, but they are surprised to see that instead of four there are now five cows. But before the arrival of Per Hansa, they realize that the fifth beast is not a cow but a yearling bull. Per Hansa is weary to the point of stupor. He has with him a cage of sorts in which there are two hens and a rooster. Per Hansa explains to the others that he talked a Tronder woman into letting him have the bull for a year for ten dollars, and that this would be cheaper than chasing their cows all over the Dakota Territory.
These are not particularly significant chapters in advancing the story of the pioneers, but they bring to the fore again the strength of Per Hansa and his ability to cope with the Great Plains. The Indian interlude is actually just that; while the others might have felt dread for the Indians, Per Hansa is unafraid and secure in the knowledge that they speak the same language in their hearts.
The whole episode of Per Hansa and the sick Indian and of the cows is nothing but a device by which Rölvaag is building up the character of a brave and resourceful man. But at the same time, he is stressing the dread that Beret has for the Great Plains country, for the desolate land that she is unused to.
In an indirect way, we are given a glimpse of Per Hansa's past; when ministering to the sick Indian, we gather that Per Hansa has been at one time a fisherman on the Lofoten seas, and that Hans Olsa has been his companion. Lofoten is a herring fishing area in the north of Norway, and a particularly rugged one where only the hardiest of fishermen venture.
Again, these chapters are building up the strong character of Per Hansa, the pioneer who looks upon the new land as a challenge and one that he welcomes. His boys go along with him, but the woman-personified in Beret — does not. She is troubled at every new thing that happens, longs for a home that is thousands of miles across the sea, and cannot understand why her beloved husband is happy in this sea of grass.