Summary and Analysis
Book I: Chapter 4
Per Hansa is wrapped up in the work of building his estate and is happier than he has ever been. He works endlessly and only rests when fatigue overcomes him. As he works on his quarter section, he envisions a day when he will have another quarter section on which he will keep cattle and other livestock. Per Hansa dreams, too, of the house that he will build for Beret; he is restless, always working, always planning.
One Sunday evening, the boys return to the house and tell of a swamp they found where there were thousands of ducks. Per Hansa says that he cannot use what little ammunition he has for his shotgun, so the ducks will have to wait. But one Sunday, Per Hansa goes with Hans to see them, and he tries to figure some way in which they could be caught. On the way home from the trip, Per Hansa makes a startling discovery. He decides to pace down the western border of his and Tönseten's land. At Tönseten's southwest corner, Per Hansa's foot comes up against a stake in the grass; Per Hansa is rather surprised to think that his friend Tönseten would be so careful of his boundaries and takes a good look at the stake. He is shocked to find that the stake has a name on it that is not Tönseten's but simply O'Hara. After the initial shock, Per Hansa paces along the boundary line between Tönseten's and Hans Olsa's quarter and finds another stake with the name Joe Gill on it. He makes a further search but cannot find a stake by his land. The Per Hansa who had been so lighthearted a few hours earlier comes home with a weariness greater than he had ever known.
To Per Hansa, the discovery of the stakes is so disheartening that he can only think that the trolls have come to his beloved land. The next morning, Per Hansa is up very early and leaves the house. Beret watches him go striding off to the west and wonders what he is up to; she feels that something is wrong.
Later, he returns, eats breakfast and goes off again, this time with the boys. Going to his own south line, he tells the boys to hunt for a black stake in the grass. They comb the whole area, and when they find nothing, Per Hansa is almost joyful.
Beret soon comes to realize that Per Hansa is keeping something from her, and she wonders what on earth there is to conceal out on the prairie. For a week Beret feels no communication between them. On the next Monday, Per Hansa gets up before daylight, takes a spade, and goes off to the stakes he found on the boundaries of his friends. He pulls them out, works the ground so that there will be no evidence of a stake ever having been there, and is very careful not to trample down the grass. Later, Per Hansa takes the boys out to do some plowing, and Beret happens to go to the stable and discovers the stakes. They puzzle her, but she does not realize what they are until later she sees Per Hansa chopping them up and burning them. Then it comes to her that Per Hansa is meddling with other folks' landmarks, one of the blackest of sins. Beret can hardly sleep that night, but Per Hansa sleeps well.
Per Hansa is driven by a furious energy to get as much done in as short a time as possible. Before him is the thought at all times of what he will do when the trolls come. At first he wonders if perhaps the stakes had been put in before Tönseten arrived and no claim had been filed, but he soon dismisses this thought and realizes that the stakes had not been in the ground that long. There was nothing to do but wait for them to come back. He says nothing to anyone. In the meantime, Beret is trying to reconcile herself to what she knows her husband has done. She reasons that perhaps on these wide prairies, there is more than enough land for everyone, but she is still not satisfied, and Per Hansa continues to be difficult to live with.
Beret forms the habit of looking at the prairie, at the whole compass, and her depression grows; they have been there four months and in that time the only strangers they have seen have been the Indians. She begins to brood more than ever, but quite unexpectedly one day a covered wagon appears on the prairie and ends up at Tönseten's. All the members of the small community rush there to see what sort of people have come. The newcomers turn out to be four German men who are going on further west to find land on which to settle. They stay the night, and in the morning Per Hansa shows them his house and stable under one roof, and he sells them two dollars and seventy-five cents worth of potatoes, which is the first produce to be sold out of the settlement on Spring Creek.
The strangers leave the next day, but their visit has affected everyone in the settlement in different ways. To Per Hansa, it means that now there are settlers on all sides of them; he feels confident that he will live to see the day when most of the land of the prairie will be taken up. But to Beret, the visit is nothing but a brief interruption to the endless solitude. About a week later, another caravan arrives, consisting this time of six wagons; they do not come to the settlement but set up a camp some distance off. Per Hansa and Tönseten pay them a visit, and while Per Hansa cannot speak English he soon gathers that Tönseten is very angry. Tönseten tells Per Hansa that these people claim all the land between the creek and the swamp over to the westward. The newcomers are Irish and a wild bunch, and when the Norwegians start to leave, one of them trips Per Hansa, and he turns on the fellow and threatens to hit him. No one wants anything to do with the huge Per Hansa, and he and Tönseten go their way after deciding that the menfolk will meet in the morning to discuss what is to be done.
Per Hansa returns from the camp, quite happy with the turn of events. He is convinced that the Irish newcomers have no legitimate claim to the land. Beret notices the change in mood in Per Hansa and realizes that no danger hangs over them. Beret and the boys want to know about the people in the camp, and Per Hansa tells them that they are Irish and are not going to settle here. The next morning, before anyone else is awake, Per Hansa goes to the Solum boys' place and awakens them. As the three of them walk to Hans Olsa's, Per Hansa tells the Solums about the situation, explaining that while the three of them have nothing to worry about, their neighbors are in trouble. He asks the Solums to act as interpreters in their dealing with the Irish. Per Hansa tells them that they must check the papers of the Irish to see that they have not been tampered with; he adds that he intends to stay where he is until he is kicked out bodily. When Per Hansa reaches Hans Olsa's house, he finds that both Hans Olsa and his wife, Sörine, are awake. Per Hansa does not wish to speak of the matter before Sörine but soon realizes that he must explain the trouble quickly. Hans Olsa, a giant of a man with a slow-thinking mind, wishes to think over things, but Per Hansa tells him to get his deed and hurry over to the newcomer's camp. After Hans Olsa finally realizes that the Irish want to kick him off his land, he agrees to go.
Tönseten and the Solum boys are impatient to get the business over at once, but Per Hansa insists that they must have a plan. Per Hansa explains the tactics they must use: Henry Solum and Tönseten should be the spokesmen, Sam Solum the interpreter. When they arrive at the camp they find that the strangers are already fully awake. Per Hansa tells his companions that the first thing they must demand is to see the papers and then the stakes — particularly the stakes. The strangers do not take kindly to this and finally say that the papers are packed away somewhere and cannot be immediately found. But, says one, he will show them the stakes. He starts off, and the Norwegians follow him. But when the stranger comes to the place at Hans Olsa's southwest corner, he can find nothing. Eventually, the Irish give up and go back to their camp, followed by Per Hansa and his companions. When they reach the camp, the strangers — ten of them — are in an ugly mood and accuse the Norwegians of destroying another man's landmarks. One of the strangers comes at Hans Olsa with a sledge hammer, but the giant takes him bodily and throws him at one of the wagons. The fight is over. That afternoon, Per Hansa returns to the camp to find that the strangers have moved further west. He sells them ten dollars worth of potatoes and feels that he has struck up a profitable business. The Irish settle on the two quarters west of the settlement but leave before the snow. The following spring, they come back with a large company and start their permanent settlement.
On the morning when the men go out to parley with the Irish, Kjersti — Tönseten's wife — is left all alone in the house. The night before, Tönseten had told her of what had happened, and his misery was such that they had had little sleep. After her husband leaves, Kjersti goes over to see Beret, but she gets little comfort there and discovers that Per Hansa has not told her of the trouble. When Beret hears the story from Kjersti, she is again struck by a sense of horror that Per Hansa destroyed the stakes and is now planning to drive the people from their land. Kjersti returns home to find Tönseten moaning and groaning about how terrible things are. Tönseten tells Kjersti about the fight and says that from now on everything will be a mess and they might as well move back to the east. Later, he is told that the Irish have moved on. For a long time, the Irish are the standing topic of discussion in the little settlement. But the only one who does not talk about them is Beret, who is obsessed by the thought that her husband destroyed the stakes and kept it a secret from everyone, including her. She feels that she cannot endure life in such a place. One afternoon, the Irish come over to Per Hansa's to buy some potatoes, and that evening the settlement comes over to find out how they had behaved. Per Hansa says they are fine people, and he then tells the story of the stakes. Hans Olsa and Tönseten praise him for his action, but Beret berates them for condoning what she still considers a heinous crime. During the days that follow, words are few and distant between Per Hansa and Beret.
The chapter starts on a high and joyous note, and is focused on Per Hansa and his work. Rölvaag shows us a happy and busy man, building for the present, planning for the future. The discovery of the ducks in the swamp is another pleasant thing. Then, abruptly, the mood changes when Per Hansa discovers the boundary stakes on his friends' lands.
Here we have not only the sudden change in mood, but the delineation of character between Per Hansa and Beret that will become more and more evident as the story moves along. Per Hansa is the man of action; he is willing to face facts and to do something. Beret is the brooder, the thinker, the mystic. The destruction of the stakes is a good case in point: presumably Per Hansa is aware of the enormity of his crime by old country standards, but he is willing to take a chance for the sake of his friends. Beret, on the other hand, can only think of what Per Hansa has done, and does not take into consideration what might have motivated the act. When the matter of the land is settled and the disgruntled Irish would-be claim jumpers move on, everyone — with one exception — praises Per Hansa for what he did. Beret is the only one who cannot condone what was quite apparently a very wise move; to her the crime is no less because the result turned out favorably.
Here, the story begins to examine Beret more fully. Up to this point, it has been all Per Hansa; now, Rölvaag begins to probe more deeply into his protagonists' souls. It is no longer simply an action story.
Here, too, the trolls enter the story. Trolls, in Scandinavian folklore, are dwarfish or gigantic inhabitants of caves in the mountains. Generally, they are evil creatures, although on occasion they are friendly to human beings. They are found all through Norwegian literature. In Ibsen's Peer Gynt, for example, the mountain king is a troll. In Sigrid Undset's Nobel Prize winning work, the monumental Kristin Lavransdatter, the heroine is often bothered by the thought of evil trolls working on her. The Scandinavians have been Christians for centuries, but apparently the memory of the earlier myths is hard to erase.
Finally, as the chapter ends, we see that Beret and Per Hansa are beginning to drift apart. Beret increasingly feels the dread of the empty prairie, while to Per Hansa it remains a magnificent challenge, to be met and conquered through work. While generalizations might be dangerous, Rölvaag is quite possibly simply pointing out the difference between a man and a woman.