Summary and Analysis
Chapter 1 - On the Border of Utter Darkness
The desolation of winter has hit the Great Plains, but the tiny newcomer that Beret brought into the world on Christmas morning makes it less of a burden, for here is the miracle of life. To Beret, it is a wonder that she is still alive, and she begins to take a new interest in life. She is troubled, however, that Per Hansa and the boys are not around, but And-Ongen tells her that they are out following wolf tracks. When Per Hansa returns, Beret is happy that she is still alive, and for the next few days she sleeps as she has never slept before, and Per Hansa is kind to her.
The bleakness of the prairie winter continues, but now the folk of the community are able to laugh, for now there is this newcomer among them, and against laughter, what power can prevail? After Beret gets out of bed, she wants to have all the neighbors over for the celebration of the thirteenth day after Christmas, and Per Hansa agrees. The party is a joyous one; all of them feel that they have an interest in the boy that Beret has brought into the world, and they talk of what he may someday become. Finally, Hans Olsa says that the lad may someday be governor, for the prairies will be a state some day. The discussion ends here, but Per Hansa and Beret are happy.
The school that Henry Solum runs becomes a refuge to all of them during the winter and gives them a chance to study English. The school moves from house to house. The school is run on loose lines and in a sense serves as a club. In the beginning, Henry Solum does not know what to do, for he has no materials, and resorts to story-telling in Norwegian and English, but in time the men improvise materials so that the children can have something to write on. They discover that Sam Solum can sing well, and he teaches them many songs.
The bitter winter continues and the settlers begin to run out of fuel, but Hans Olsa discovers that cast-off hay can be twisted into fagots. But in February, it becomes necessary for the men to go off to the Sioux River for a further supply of wood. While the others think it is impossible to take oxen on such a journey, Per Hansa is sure that the oxen he has trained to pull a sleigh can make it. The others depend on their horses.
They have to wait for clear weather, but one day they put out in four caravans, Per Hansa bringing up the rear with his slow oxen. Per Hansa's boys are furious at being left behind. Beret sees the caravan off and feels a sense of powerlessness. The caravan moves along in the brilliant sunshine until the middle of the afternoon, but they are then struck by a terrible blizzard.
The storm hits with all its fury and reminds Per Hansa of the many times he has faced them at sea. He drives his team of oxen into the heart of the storm. Per Hansa is freezing and worries about falling asleep; he thinks of the Rocky Mountains he has heard about and of the Pacific Coast, where there is no winter. Finally, the oxen stop and Per Hansa discovers that they are by a house. He flings open the door and goes in.
Per Hansa is so overcome by the warmth of the room after his ordeal that he has no idea where he is, but he finds out shortly that his companions are there. All of them are together again in the cabin of Simon Baarstad, one of the Norwegian settlers near the Sioux River. Per Hansa is fed, and his spirits return. He jokes about the girl that Sam Solum appears to have found for himself, but later when he tries to sleep he thinks of how Beret must be worrying that night.
Around the area of the Baarstad cabin there is quite a settlement of Norwegians from the Tronder area. They have been there for a good many years and are well settled. For two days the men from the settlement cut wood, and the Tronders show them great hospitality. Before they leave, they order wheat and oats from the Tronders, and Tönseten even buys a sack of barley in order to brew beer. Per Hansa goes fishing through the ice on the river and that night they all eat fish. Later, there is a dance among the settlers, and it is obvious to Per Hansa that Sam Solum is very close to the Baarstad girl. The next morning, before daylight, the men leave the settlement and are on their way back to Spring Creek.
On a Sunday afternoon the whole settlement is gathered in Tönseten's hut; a gloomy restlessness has taken hold of all of them as the winter continues. The courage of the men is slowly ebbing away, but they talk hopefully of the day that this land will be filled with settlers. Suddenly, Tönseten asks them what names they intend to use when they take out the title deeds to their lands. They are all surprised but discuss the matter. Beret is the only one that does not join in the hilarity while they joke about the new "American" names they may take. Per Hansa decides that he will call himself Holm, and Hans Olsa settles on Vaag. But Beret stays awake late that night, thinking of how they are now even discarding the names of their ancestors, and she is unhappy. The old fear that she is going crazy comes back to her; a dark cloud hangs over her and she cannot rid herself of it.
In March, Per Hansa achieves something that is still told about in the legends of the settlement. He had heard from the Tronders at Sioux River about Indians at Flandreau who trapped all winter and sold muskrat, among other animals, for a fifth of the price the furs would bring in Minnesota. He determines to buy a supply of furs from the Indians and transport them east for sale, but he is short of funds and realizes that he must bring the rest of the settlement into the venture. Beret is very troubled when he tells her that he will have to leave her alone for some time, but Per Hansa says that he must go if they are to have clothes for the children and other much needed things. Ultimately, Per Hansa goes alone and reaches Flandreau the first night, riding his pony. He bargains with the Indians, and they sell him furs, which he loads on the pony and takes into Minnesota. He is gone a week, and then he goes off again. In all, he makes three journeys and finally is able to show Beret $140 that he has made. In addition, he brings back many things for the house. But all through this endeavor Per Hansa is disturbed, for Beret does not share in his excitement.
This chapter of Book II is concerned with the winter that the settlers are facing, but it is again a story of the indomitable Per Hansa, to whom everything is a challenge to be met and beaten.
In the beginning, we find that Beret is happier than she has been because she now has the new baby, and the community shares her happiness. But Beret has not adjusted to life in the wilderness, and she never will.
It is always Per Hansa who adjusts to this new environment: he is the one who makes fagots out of castoff hay, who uses oxen to go and fetch wood while the others rely on the faster but less durable horses, and who finally thinks of selling furs trapped by Indians and thus gets some cash. He is, we gather, always cheerful and industrious, while Beret is again beset by fears. Per Hansa feels he is accomplishing something, but he and Beret are moving further apart, and this is the one thing that disturbs the man of action. He can cope with the bleak land and the elements but not with the unhappy woman whom he loves.