Summary and Analysis
Chapter 2 - The Power of Evil in High Places
Per Hansa and the boys sit around the table in their hut sifting the seed wheat he has gotten from the Tronders, and Per Hansa realizes how important this task is, for it means food and money for his family. After the work on the seed is done and spring finally arrives, Per Hansa is impatient to begin plowing, but the ground is still too wet. In the middle of April, Per Hansa decides the ground is dry enough and begins the plowing and seeding. Per Hansa is delighted to be seeding his own land, but in the afternoon Tönseten comes over and tells him he is crazy to sow so soon. But Per Hansa is happy, and the next day he and the boys finish the job.
The day after the seeding, it starts to rain, and then to snow, and Per Hansa is brokenhearted at the thought of what may happen to his wheat. He is like a sick man broken in spirit. Soon the sun comes out and the snow melts, but all Per Hansa can think of is the precious seed wheat he wasted. When spring is fully on them, Tönseten begins his seeding and Per Hansa watches him and thinks of what a fool he had been to try and buck the seasons. He goes to his field, digs up two kernels, and feels the devil has cursed him for his folly.
The two boys work on four acres that Per Hansa had broken earlier and suggest to their father that they plant potatoes. Per Hansa is still very unhappy but realizes this may be the only thing to do. For the rest of the week, Per Hansa and the boys plant potatoes. On Sunday, Per Hansa thinks of going to the Sioux River again and getting some seed wheat, but at this moment the boys burst into the hut to say that the wheat is sprouting. Per Hansa rushes out and sees his field is full of green shoots. It is emotionally almost too much for Per Hansa, and he cries softly. When he returns home, the spring is in his step again.
As the spring wears on, the Irish arrive and take up homesteads near the sloughs; later, other Norwegian settlers arrive. The boy, Hans, and the son of an allegedly wealthy newcomer get into a fight over Hans' pony, the one that Per Hansa received from the Indian chief. The boys fight but eventually make up. The new boy's father has large plans for his land. He comes over one day to hire Per Hansa to help in building a house. The man, Torkel Tallaksen, speaks grandly of the things he intends to do and shows his contempt for Per Hansa's sod hut. Per Hansa tells Tallaksen that he has things twisted around, and had better start with essentials rather than building at this moment. But Beret is impressed and tells Tallaksen that his wife must be glad that he intends to build a decent house in this wilderness. Tallaksen's plans go awry when he cannot get men to do his work, and by fall another sod hut is built.
That summer, many caravans pass through the settlement on their way west. They are people of many nationalities who seem strange to the settlement, and they do not stop but roll on westward. But one day a single wagon, with two cows following behind, stops at Per Hansa's hut. The immigrants are Norwegians, a couple with three young children. The wife is evidently insane, for she has been tied to a chest in the wagon. Beret feels an immediate sympathy for the woman and tries to help her. Per Hansa talks with the man and decides he is a drifter. The man tells Per Hansa a sad story of their trip and of the death on the prairie of their youngest boy. When Per Hansa and the man go into the hut, they discover that Beret has put the woman in bed and she is asleep. Later, Beret tells Per Hansa that this experience only fortifies her belief that life on the prairie is impossible.
The strange woman remembers how she felt when she was first brought into the hut by Beret, and how good it was to be looked after and put to bed. Later, she awakens and on a crazy impulse snatches the little girl And-Ongen and runs off into the night. Beret awakens and realizes what has happened. She and Per Hansa frantically begin the search and find the woman on top of the hill, And-Ongen asleep in her arms. The woman is obsessed by the thought of her boy buried out on the prairie, but she is touched when Per Hansa and Hans Olsa make a coffin for her boy and go off to find where he is buried. The men are gone for four days but find nothing.
After the return from the search for the boy's grave, the strangers go west again. Per Hansa is appalled at the lack of planning on the man's part but says nothing. Beret is deeply troubled that she did not do more for the strangers. Per Hansa and the boys are hard at work plowing, but Beret feels only a sense of horrible lonesomeness. After supper they are planning to meet Hans Olsa to talk about a trip in to town, but Beret is unable to shake her mood of deep depression. She feels an evil power has been let loose among them in this terrible wilderness. To shut out the prairie, she covers the windows, and when Per Hansa and the boys return in high spirits, she will have nothing to do with him. As the days go by, Beret feels the evil spirit is always with her. At first, Per Hansa teases her about it, but after a while he is affected by her fears.
As July arrives, the wheat slowly ripens, promising a rich harvest. Per Hansa is pleased with his fields but worried about how Beret feels, and wonders what he can do to cheer her up. Per Hansa has the finest field of wheat in the area, and his neighbors come to marvel at it. His potatoes are growing well, too, and he is generous in giving them to the newly settled Irish. Per Hansa is filled with pride, and when Tönseten tells him it is time to harvest, he says he will hold off a while longer. Tönseten is the reaper for the settlement and finally insists he must start on Per Hansa's land. The harvesting starts and the whole settlement watches. After sundown, they stop for the day and go to Per Hansa's for supper, and everyone is joyous.
The next day, the harvesting is completed and Tönseten feels proud that he has proved his prowess to his neighbors. As for the four acres of oats that Per Hansa had planted, Tönseten says it will be child's play. Per Hansa, Tönseten, and Hans Olsa are all pleased, until Per Hansa notices an ominous cloud formation in the west. In no time at all the storm is upon them, but it is not nature's storm, but a sky full of locusts. The grasshoppers drop down and devour everything in sight while the people of the settlement look on helplessly. They talk of the plagues in scripture until finally Henry Solum brings them back to reality and insists they try to harvest all they can. Per Hansa gets his old muzzle-loader and fires into the flock. This drives them off his land, but the locusts go on to the other fields in the settlement. But the men are stirred to activity and by nightfall finish Per Hansa's oat field; they are gnawed by anxiety and want to start harvesting their own fields even though the wheat may not be quite ripe yet. The others go off and Per Hansa walks home, bothered in mind because he has not seen Beret all day and feels that something is wrong. When he reaches the hut, the door is shut. He shouts for Beret to open it but she will not. Per Hansa is forced to shove it open. Inside it is pitch black and Beret is inside the big chest with the baby in her arms and the little girl And-Ongen at her feet. Per Hansa is horrified. Beret asks him why the devil has not got him yet; she says he has been around all afternoon. Per Hansa's agony at seeing his wife in this state is too much for him and he faints.
The plague of grasshoppers continues through the years from 1873 to part of 1878, then disappears as mysteriously as it had come. Some of the settlers are wiped out but most of them hang on grimly, although they know the locusts will come again. In the meanwhile, new settlers, drawn by the rich soil, arrive and take up homesteads. Beset by the locusts, the people can only put their faith in God.
This chapter is still the saga of Per Hansa, the man of action, and of how good luck accompanies his efforts because he is not afraid to fight his battle against any odds. First, there is what seems to be the tragedy of planting the wheat too soon, but presently this becomes a blessing.
Despite his physical triumphs, however, Per Hansa cannot conquer Beret's fears; she, in her own way, continues to fight, but her fight is against the wilderness — a negative one that she does not wish to win but wants to run away from.
Rölvaag now prepares us for what is to come by introducing the drifting Norwegian settler and his crazed wife. Beret feels an immediate sympathy for the woman, who has lost her mind over the grief of losing her son. Per Hansa's reaction is disgust at the drifter's lack of planning, and he reacts to the visit by getting his friend Hans Olsa to accompany him to try and find the dead child's grave. This is a positive action, but in the meanwhile Beret comforts the sick woman and is further convinced that the Great Plains are no place for civilized people to live. We are led to believe that more-and-more, Per Hansa and Beret are being drawn apart, and Per Hansa is unable to do anything to prevent the schism in their relationship.
Now for the first time a physical act over which Per Hansa has no control strikes him. While — because of his luck — he is not overly affected, the settlement is literally wiped out by the invasion of the locusts. Now Beret is, in a sense, the winner in the conflict of wills. The visitation of the trolls or of the devil that she has feared all along has come to pass, and she is the victor over Per Hansa, who all along has felt that with courage and determination the wilderness can be conquered. Up to this moment he has proved this, but now he is helpless in the face of the plague. Beret is triumphant, but at the cost of her own reason.