Summary and Analysis
Book II: Chapter 3
One day in June, a man driving a dilapidated cart turns up at the settlement and is met by Tönseten. It turns out that the stranger is a minister. The Tönsetens bring out the best things they have to eat and entertain the minister.
The minister smokes his pipe and talks on into the night with Tönseten and Kjersti and finally is shown to bed in the spare sod hut. Tönseten is desirous of having a private talk with the minister but cannot do so while his wife is still awake. Tönseten has something to reveal to the minister that has been torturing him for a long time: as the elected justice of the peace of the area, he had illegally in the eyes of God, in Tönseten's view, married a young couple who now had several children. In the morning, the minister asks detailed questions about the people living in the area. The minister tells Tönseten to get the people together and he will conduct divine services that afternoon. It is decided to hold them at Per Hansa's. Tönseten tells the minister how Per Hansa has prospered but that his wife, Beret, is sorely tried. On the way to Per Hansa's, Tönseten tells the minister about the marriage ceremony he had performed. The minister tells Tönseten that it was unusual but legal and perfectly justified under the circumstances. Tönseten is relieved and overjoyed.
The minister holds a service at Per Hansa's, and the people of the community are much impressed; he speaks of the privations of the tribes of Israel and compares it to the life of the pioneers on the plains. But, he says, they are founding a kingdom. Tönseten is particularly pleased, and feels that so long as he had done no wrong in the past in marrying a couple, there is no reason he should not serve the minister as a sexton. The minister baptizes several children, including Per Hansa and Beret's latest son, Peder Victorious. But as the minister is about to perform the ceremony, Beret breaks down and cries that no child can be called that in this wilderness. Per Hansa manages to calm her down but Beret has been like a mad woman.
After the ceremony, the people remain in the yard for a time, talking about the sermon and about the tragedy of Beret. Inside the house, the minister stays with a few of the women. He suggests that they go home but that one remain to help Beret and that they come often to visit, but singly. The minister then takes the child and goes out to the yard and tells the people to go home and pray. After a while, the minister notices sounds from the stable; when he gets there he sees Beret and Per Hansa seated on a bale of hay. The minister asks if he may stay for supper and Beret goes off to prepare it, while the minister stays in the stable with Per Hansa and asks him to tell the story of what has happened to Beret. Per Hansa tells the tale of how he was the one who wished to go west against Beret's wishes, and of how they had slept together before they were married. He asks the minister what he is now supposed to do when his beloved wife seems to be losing her mind? The minister tells him to trust in God, but Per Hansa rejects this and they have an argument. After a while, both men calm down and Per Hans a says it was wrong of him to bring Beret to this wilderness and finally to name the last born "Victorious." The minister says he does not agree — that it is a wonderful name, and he cannot understand why Beret objects to it. The minister then asks when Beret began to have these attacks, and Per Hansa tells him it started with the coming of the grasshoppers, and of how Beret might have harmed the child had not Sörine been with her, and of other acts of madness. The minister tries to comfort Per Hansa and asks that he have a chance to talk with Beret alone the next day. As the two men return to the hut, Ole comes running to say that Hans is sitting by the Indian mound crying because he is afraid of his mother. Per Hansa goes off into the night and the minister enters the hut. Per Hansa finds Hans and consoles him, then leads him home.
Beret and Sörine are in the hut when the minister enters, and everything is calm. Later, Per Hansa arrives with the boys, and when the minister sees by his swollen face that Hans has been crying, he is troubled and begins to pray. The others join him, and there is a strange peace in the hut. After a time the minister blesses the child he had christened earlier and calls upon him to "become a true victor here." Beret is confused and messes up the sewing she had been working on. The next morning, the minister is cheerful and hungry. After Per Hansa and boys go out, he talks with Beret and tells her he expects to hold a Communion Service in the hut within two weeks. Beret is astonished, but at the same time comforted, and after the minister leaves she is very gentle to the little boy.
During the summer of 1877, a great many wagons come across the prairie. Some go further west, but others settle in the area. The grasshopper plague is still on them, but the farmers manage to salvage something; the livestock and poultry holdings continue to grow. And then the railroad comes as far as Luverne and it looks as though before long it will reach Sioux Falls. That summer, a number of houses, including Hans Olsa's, go up in the settlement. The trees that had been planted on the barren plains also flourish.
The weather is beautiful on the day of the Communion, and many people from the various communities in the area are on hand. The minister is sorely troubled because he does not feel that the Lord has given him the faith he needs to comfort these folk in the wilderness. But he goes through the Communion and feels that possibly he has brought something to the people who have taken part in it. The minister is troubled and feels that he is not fulfilling his part but carries on, and in the end tells a very commonplace story instead of giving a sermon. After the Communion, the minister gets in his ancient cart and leaves, saying he will be back in a month. He feels that he has completely failed the people.
Now the time has come when Hans Olsa builds himself a real house and not just a sod hut. He and Sörine have some arguments about its arrangements but in the end Hans Olsa gives in, for he has learned that Sörine is pregnant. Things have been going well for Hans Olsa, but he is worried about Beret and Per Hansa, for he has seen what Beret's madness has done to their life. He asks his wife if they should offer to take the little boy and bring him up, but Sörine says that while she has no objection, she doubts if it will be possible.
Beret sits in the old sod barn that Per Hansa long since had made over into a workshop and storehouse, and sews a shirt for her baby, while Per Hansa repairs the roof of the new barn. She thinks of how Per Hansa can manage his work but of how lost she is. At the same time, she remembers the minister and how he had relieved her from so many of her burdens, and she daydreams of her son becoming a minister himself. Beret imagines that her mother will be coming from Norway and she can tell her that her grandson will become a minister. She is brought out of her reverie by the arrival of Hans Olsa and hears him talking to Per Hansa about taking the child if she were to have another spell. She hears Per Hansa say that it is not possible, that she needs the child with her and that it has been his fault in bringing her to this wilderness. Beret is happy at what Per Hansa has said, and she listens no more. She goes into the house and showers her affection on the little boy.
As she plays with the little boy, Beret feels drowsy, and in time she sleeps. When she awakes, she is struck with wonder at where she is, and feels she has been away a long time. She gets food for the child but has to search for things. She is overjoyed at a thought of returning home. When she finally sees Per Hansa, he looks at her as though she were some stranger, and when she gets hot milk for him, he is unable to speak to her. Beret is worried that Per Hansa has a cold and insists that he go to bed; but Per Hansa gets up quickly and plays boisterously with the little boy. Beret looks on, smiling.
The coming of the itinerant minister to the settlement is significant in showing the deep religious faith of the pioneers in the wilderness. Here again, however, the individuals act differently to the ministrations of the man of God. Tönseten, the weak man among the first group, is delighted because the minister assures him that he has committed no sin in marrying a couple in his capacity as justice of the peace.
Per Hansa is pleased that the minister sees no wrong in naming his son "Victorious," but his need for the minister is minimal. On the other hand, Beret is comforted by his visit and seems to feel a ray of hope. But in the final analysis, it is not the minister but Per Hansa who unconsciously brings Beret out of her madness, for when she overhears Per Hansa talking with Hans Olsa about the possibility of the latter taking over the care of her little boy, and by the conversation realizes how deeply her husband loves her, she regains some of her sanity.
The point should perhaps not be over-emphasized, but here again Rölvaag brings out the different approach Per Hansa and Beret have to problems. The man of action, the good man Per Hansa, does not need spiritual comfort; he is strong in his own convictions. On the other hand, the sensitive Beret needs a crutch. She finds some of it with the minister, but ultimately what saves her is her knowledge that she is dearly loved.