Summary and Analysis
Chapter 5 - Facing the Great Desolation
In the beginning of October, one day Per Hansa, Hans Olsa, and Henry Solum go east to the Sioux River after wood. Beret sits at home knitting, her mood of melancholy deeper than ever. She looks out over the prairie and sees a wagon train approaching. Beret feels that she should do something to turn the people back, to tell them to stay away from the wilderness. But Hans is excited and rides off to tell Tönseten.
When the strangers arrive, it is discovered that they are all Norwegians. Tönseten is delighted, although he wishes that Per Hansa were there to do the honors. He insists that the newcomers sleep in his house before moving west to look for homesteads. The next day, the would-be settlers go out to look at the land, and Tönseten does everything in his power to persuade them to settle in the area. After looking over the available sites, the majority of the newcomers decide it would be a good place to settle. They intend to return in the spring with their families. Tönseten is delighted at the thought of a growing Norwegian community.
The time comes when Per Hansa finds it necessary to go into town to get needed provisions. This time he will be gone a week, and Beret dreads the thought of being on the prairie without him. Thanks to the potatoes that he had sold the Irish and the newly-arrived Norwegians, Per Hansa's cash supply is a good deal larger than when he had first arrived in early summer. Before his father leaves, Hans tells him he is worried about Beret, and Per Hansa tells the boy that there may be a little one coming along around Christmas time. Per Hansa finds he has more potatoes than he needs and loads his wagon with the surplus to try and sell in town.
Per Hansa and his companions are happy to be going to town. At the Sioux River, they catch three fish, and that night when they stop at Split Rock Creek, they eat the fish with potatoes. The next morning, they continue their journey and discover that in the wilderness they had seen in the summer, there are now numerous sod huts of settlers. Late in the forenoon, they come across two sod huts and find that they are inhabited by a Norwegian couple who have nothing but a pair of oxen and a cow. Per Hansa senses that they are short of food and gives them a generous supply of his potatoes. He is happy that he has been able to do something for others.
When they reach Worthington, a frontier settlement on the railroad line, Per Hansa tries to peddle his potatoes but has little luck until he meets a Danish widow who trades him three chickens for some of his potatoes. The widow asks Per Hansa to stay for dinner, and he consents; he is impressed by the interior of her sod hut, which is white, and discovers that it is whitewashed. After the meal, Per Hansa goes to a lumberman the widow had told him about and barters potatoes for lime and lumber. Later, Per Hansa trades for a plow and rake on credit and for net twine and rope. Finally, Per Hansa asks for some calico of a gaudy pattern, ribbon and thread, then cloth, tobacco, matches, kerosene, molasses, and salt. After the everyday needs are looked after, the men buy several bottles of liquor. Late in the afternoon, they set off for home. They are all happy, and when they pitch camp for the first night, Per Hansa starts to knit the twine into a net.
The boys find the days long while their father is gone, and Beret says little to them to brighten their days. Then they hear that Tönseten has killed a bear; they go to his place and receive a pail of "bear" meat, bring it home, and give it to Beret. They ask her if they can take the old shotgun and go after the mother bear, but Beret flies into a rage and beats them with a switch — something that has never happened before in their lives. Beret makes a stew of the meat, with potatoes and carrots, but when it comes time to eat the boys say that it cannot be bear, but badger, and no one can eat the meal. Beret throws it out, and later she hangs more clothes over the window and sits up very late, unable to sleep.
That night Beret is unable to sleep. The thought of the badger that they had almost eaten is the last straw as far as she is concerned. They must go back east, leave this desolate place. In the morning, Beret worries about the lack of wagons but feels that that is Per Hansa's problem. She begins to pack the few belongings they have, and Hans realizes that something is wrong. He tries to comfort his mother and succeeds in doing so to an extent. Beret cries and feels the baby moving within her. At that moment, Ole comes running in to say that the caravan is returning.
At dinner after Per Hansa returns, he is very happy and tells the boys of his adventure. Even Beret smiles at the way in which the boys receive the tale. In turn, the boys tell their father about Tönseten and the badger and he laughs in turn. After dinner, Per Hansa and the boys bring in things from the wagon, and Per Hansa insists that Beret have a drink. Per Hansa is so happy and irresistible that Beret for a time feels as she had in the past. The boys are put to work knitting the net, and Per Hansa busies himself making ready to mix the lime he had bought in town. After the boys are asleep, Per Hansa continues to work on the net and tells Beret how he intends to catch fish with it. The fact of the matter is he intends to catch ducks with it, but he wishes to keep this his secret. That night, Beret sleeps well, without covering the window.
Here again, Rölvaag works on the picture he has been painting all along — of Per Hansa, the man of action who is in his element in the wilderness and happy so long as he has something to do, and of Beret, who is growing more and more obsessed by the desolate country. While Rölvaag does not belabor the point, we are struck by the fact that while Per Hansa, with each passing day, is adjusting to the environment, exactly the opposite is true of Beret.
In the beginning of the chapter, we are told of how new settlers are coming all the time; to Per Hansa this is a good thing, but to Beret it only means that others are coming to suffer along with her.
This disparity in viewpoint is the main theme. Note how Per Hansa is constantly thinking of what he can do to make life better for his family in a material way. He purchases various things in town and plans to whitewash the sod hut so that it will be more livable. Note that all this pertains to the material — or pragmatic — side of things, while Beret is concerned with the emotional, the spiritual. While the chapter ends on a more-or-less happy emotional note, it is clear that Beret is increasingly unhappy about the wilderness life, and her pregnancy adds nothing to make her cheerful. On the other hand, Per Hansa obviously feels that he is on the way to building his dream empire.