Summary and Analysis
Book I: Chapter 6
Autumn comes to the plains and brings with it a further feeling of desolation. The skies darken, and everything is gray. The snow falls, and in the morning there is light, but no sun. The wind howls and the snow falls.
Per Hansa and the boys work hard preparing for winter, and they are happy, but Beret cannot share their mood. She admits, however, that Per Hansa has achieved wonders, the whitewashed walls being one thing. She is thankful, too, for the fish that Per Hansa and the boys caught with the net that they fashioned. But the crowning glory of the net so far as the males are concerned is the way in which they are catching ducks. Beret cannot share their triumph and complains that they cannot possibly eat so many fowl. Winter arrives, and everyone in the settlement is busy with their own tasks. There is little visiting back and forth, and even less at Per Hansa's, for they all wonder what is wrong with Beret. But after the boys deliver gifts of ducks to the others, they all come over to find out how Per Hansa had caught them. They are all amazed at the whitewash on his walls and praise it highly. Hans Olsa is somewhat bothered that his best friend, Per Hansa, has kept it a secret from him.
Winter comes, and Per Hansa finds he cannot get enough work. He sleeps after every meal and is fretful that there is nothing to do outside. Finally, Per Hansa takes the boys with him and they work on the woodpile, but after four days this palls, and the feeling of desolation is on them again. Then Tönseten and his wife, Kjersti, come to visit, and they all talk of the old days in Norway. Later, Hans Olsa's household drop by, and they are concerned about Beret and her state of health. Per Hansa is overjoyed that people have come by, and he brings out the frozen fish so that they can all have a feast.
By November, the winter has been with them for what seems a long time. Per Hansa worries about Beret, who is like a stranger to him now. Per Hansa notices that whenever he shows Beret any tenderness, she bursts into tears, and he is deeply worried. Per Hansa is further troubled that Beret, who had always been neat, now does not care about how she looks; he brings it to her attention, and Beret spends a long time tidying herself, but the change is temporary, and Per Hansa feels a complete lack of communication with his wife. Beret's moods are mercurial, but Per Hansa tells himself that everything will be all right after she has the baby.
Winter ever tightens its grip. The snows come, and only occasionally does the sun break through. On clear nights the sky is brilliant with stars. Per Hansa worries about Beret but does not know what to do. He frets that the baby has not arrived, and the inactivity of winter bothers him. For a time he thinks of taking a trip to the Souix River to fish through the ice but realizes that he cannot leave Beret. Instead, he makes her a pair of wooden clogs, and when she tells him he should have made them for her earlier, he is deeply saddened.
One day, Henry Solum comes to ask Per Hansa if he will look after his cow for the rest of winter. At first, Per Hansa is pleased, but when he discovers that the Solum boys want to leave the cow with him because they are going east for the winter, he is furious. Beret remarks that she can understand why the Solum boys want to leave, and this further angers Per Hansa; he says that if they were men instead of worms, they would stay on. Subsequently, Per Hansa and Beret have a violent argument, and he leaves the house, works at making skis for himself and the boys, and that evening goes over to Hans Olsa's place. Per Hansa asks Hans Olsa's wife, Sörine, to please go and visit with Beret. Sörine agrees and tells Per Hansa not to worry.
Shortly after Sörine leaves on her mission, Tönseten turns up and demands to know why Per Hansa and Hans Olsa have not tried to stop the Solum boys from leaving. Tönseten suggests they speak to Henry Solum about the possibility of him teaching the children of the settlement. The three men go off to see the Solums. At first, the Solums refuse, but after Per Hansa pleads with them, the Solum boys agree to stay if the others' wives will give them a weekly supper and mend their clothes.
The winter days drag on, some sunny, some bleak, but to Beret they are all dark, and she feels that this is God's wrath on her for having married Per Hansa after she had gotten with child out of wedlock. She recalls how her parents had been against the marriage, and she is brokenhearted at how she feels she has failed them. At the same time, she thinks of the love she had for Per Hansa and the glorious days of their early life together. Beret knows that there is one rival in her affections — Hans Olsa, the one who persuaded Per Hansa to follow him to America. Her parents had pleaded with Per Hansa to stay in Norway, but he would have none of it, and Beret recalls how at the time she had gladly gone along with him.
Beret remembers how she had been disappointed when they had first come to America, for there was still poverty even though the rich soil was all around them. She tells herself it is destiny — the law of life that is punishing her for her sins. No sooner had they reached America than the westward fever struck the immigrants. While Beret had had no desire to move on, Per Hansa had been consumed with ambition for new land, and at the same time he was very tender to her. But Beret feels that Per Hansa will never understand that she cannot be like him.
Beret feels that destiny has cast her about and finally washed her ashore on the plains. She is convinced that her end is coming and that she will be buried on the Great Plains instead of a churchyard back in Norway. Then she worries about a coffin and decides that her old chest will have to serve the purpose. At the same time, she is impressed at Per Hansa's foresight in building the house and stable under one roof, for it is the coziest dwelling in the settlement.
Around Christmas time, the women of the settlement take turns being with Beret. On Christmas Eve, Beret takes to her bed and Per Hansa is deeply concerned, especially when Beret tells him she is convinced this is her last day on earth. She begs to be buried in the big chest. Per Hansa tries to comfort her, but she will have none of it. Finally; Per Hansa, in his own agony, tears off into the night and paces back and forth by the hut. Inside, Beret suffers through a difficult delivery, but in time the baby boy does arrive, although Beret still remains distant from Per Hansa.
Sörine tells Per Hansa that the child had been born with the caul and should be christened at once. Per Hansa goes off to get Hans Olsa to do the job, for he says Hans Olsa is the only man fitted for it. After considerable persuasion, Hans Olsa agrees to do it. Per Hansa says he will name the boy Peder Victorious, a peculiar name for a Norwegian. With the encouragement of his wife, Hans Olsa manages the christening. Afterward, they all have a drink and realize that it is Christmas.
Again, Rölvaag emphasizes the different ways in which Per Hansa and Beret prepare for the coming of winter. Per Hansa is constantly busy, pleased because the net he fashioned has brought them fish and ducks. Beret admits to herself that she is pleased with the whitewashed walls of her sod house that others in the settlement admire, but her state of gloom grows. With the coming of winter, Per Hansa is restless because there is little to do, but he does not brood, while Beret sinks deeper and deeper into her dark mood.
Here again, we have the man of action and the woman who thinks of other things than the immediate present. As the mood takes hold of Beret, she turns more and more inward, and now she is again beset by the thought of the sin she had committed because she had had relations with Per Hansa before they were legally married.
It should be noted that the Norse people, at least in their literature, are torn by two forces. On the one hand, their virile Viking ancestry leads them across the seas — or the plains in this case. On the other, since they were converted to Christianity, they appear to feel a sense of guilt that they had ever been robust pagans. So while they are devout, they still believe in trolls — mystical creatures that did evil and lived in caves in the hills — and their mysticism is not Christian but definitely pagan. Sigrid Undset in Kristin Lavrandsdatter draws a somewhat parallel picture to that facing Beret; she also had had an affair with Erland before her marriage, and as time goes by, she is deeply disturbed at what she considers her sinful past. Undset's Nobel Prize winning novel is laid several hundred years before this book, but the heroine's reactions are quite similar to those of Beret's.
The difficult delivery of the child only fortifies Beret's belief that God is punishing her for her sins. And when Per Hansa picks the name Peder Victorious for the newborn boy, she feels he is spitting in the face of providence.
In everything that occurs, Rölvaag is emphasizing the different outlook between men and women. It would be incorrect, probably, to say which sex was the stronger in facing the wilderness, but the outlook was clearly different. And here we have Per Hansa ready to go forward and build his dream empire, especially now that he has another son that he has named Victorious, while Beret feels that this is another of the follies they have perpetrated in defying the Lord and coming to this desolate land.