Summary and Analysis
Book II: Chapter 4
Many were the tales told of the pioneers on the Great Plains, of the years of travail, of how some could not stand it and went mad. All the forces of nature seemed to be turned against the settlers. But the people kept coming, and they felt that nothing was impossible.
During the winter of 1880-81, it snows 40 days twice, from the middle of October until April, and seldom ceases. The suffering is great, for all kinds of supplies give out. One settler, Torkel Tallaksen, grinds his own flour, and borrows coffee grinders from his neighbors. When his son is returning Tönseten's mill, he falls in a snowdrift and loses it. The greatest tragedy is the lack of fuel. Whole herds of cattle die that winter, and many people, too.
Hans Olsa has acquired a large herd of cattle, and has managed to keep them well fed into February, and figures the winter will surely be over soon. On the 7th of February, a snowstorm comes up and Hans Olsa thinks it best to go out and look after the cattle. He finds that the shed he had built for them is in bad shape and that the cattle will not survive unless he can repair it at once. He gets to work and manages to patch it up, but it is night by then and he has a hard time driving the cattle into the shed. Hans Olsa is exhausted by this time and realizes he cannot find his way home in the dark and the storm, and he decides to stay with the animals. Then he notices that he is frost-bitten and must get to a house or he will be dead by morning. With an effort of will, he starts off into the night.
Hans Olsa staggers into his house in the early hours of the morning, too exhausted even to take off his clothes. Sörine tries everything she can to help him, but Hans Olsa is now a very sick man. For two days the blizzard rages, but when it abates, Hans Olsa tells his daughter, Sofie, to go and get Per Hansa. Per Hansa decides that they must get help from an Irish woman who had settled nearby and is known for her healing knowledge. Per Hansa goes to fetch "Crazy Bridget." The old woman prepares poultices to put on Hans Olsa. Per Hansa goes off to look after Hans Olsa's cattle and to do necessary chores at his own place. In the evening, Tönseten drops by, and when Per Hansa tells him the news, he goes off to see Hans Olsa and is troubled. Tönseten tries to be cheerful but fears the worst.
Beret, who has come to Hans Olsa's, is disgusted because Tönseten, in her opinion, is unseemly in the presence of death. Beret sits by Hans Olsa's bed, and when he awakens after a fit of coughing she tells him he should prepare himself for the afterlife. But Hans Olsa is not quite ready to die yet, and does not take kindly to the suggestion. Beret thinks of how she and Hans Olsa grew up together in Norway, and she is grieved to think she will not see him after death because he will die before receiving Holy Communion. Hans Olsa asks if it might be possible to get him a doctor, but Beret is more interested in getting him a minister. Beret kneels by the bed and prays. At dawn, a settler comes and pleads for Beret to come with him because his wife is expecting a baby. Beret reluctantly goes with him.
Later, Per Hansa drops into Hans Olsa's to see how things are going and arranges with the Solum boys to look after the herd. The people of the settlement are hard at work now that the storm is over, and they help each other in any way they can. Hans Olsa's condition is serious, and he asks Per Hansa to stay with him. Hans Olsa awakens late at night and tells Per Hansa what he wants done after his death; he asks Per Hansa to take on various responsibilities for his family. Per Hansa feels that Hans Olsa wants to tell him something else, and eventually realizes that Hans Olsa wants a minister but is reluctant to ask him to go for one because of the weather.
All through the summer and into early fall, Per Hansa had driven himself and the boys. He was happy that Beret was better and did not worry about her growing religious concern; he looked upon her still as a frail child. However, shortly before Christmas they had a falling out over the subject of daily devotions, and Per Hansa was not pleased at how Beret spoke of him as a sinner in her prayers.
At dawn Per Hansa returns from the bedside of Hans Olsa and says that someone must go for the minister. Beret tells him he must go, for unless the minister comes Hans Olsa will die in sin. Per Hansa says that if this is so, Hans Olsa will have a lot going along from the settlement. Per Hansa goes on to say that with the weather as it is, it would be impossible for anyone to cross the prairie, but Beret keeps after him. Per Hansa storms out of the house, furious that grown people — Hans Olsa and Beret — are acting so stupidly. Later, he goes with the boys to look after Hans Olsa's cattle, and he feels a little better, but when he goes home he finds Sörine there, and she tells him that the woman Bridget has been to see Hans Olsa and has said that there is no hope of recovery. Sörine says that she realizes it is impossible to travel anywhere, but she implies that Per Hansa should try. After supper, Beret says she is going to Henry Solum to try and get him to fetch the minister for Hans Olsa. Per Hansa flies into a rage, tells her to stay in the house, and leaves.
Per Hansa is in a rage but cools down quickly. He puts on his skis and goes off to see two men who have settled in the district recently and are expert ski smiths. Meanwhile, Beret is agitated because she now realizes she has said too much. In about an hour, Per Hansa returns with two pairs of skis. He says goodbye to the boys, who are playing and pay little attention to their father. As Per Hansa leaves, he thinks that he sees Beret looking after him from a window. He pushes westward although it is a test of will not to turn back. Beret rushes out of the house and calls to Per Hansa, but he has gone beyond the range of her voice. Per Hansa drops in at Hans Olsa's and talks for a while; he says he is going for the minister and Hans Olsa is tearfully grateful. Per Hansa straps on his skis and starts off into the storm. His thoughts are of home, of Beret and the children. He pushes on as darkness falls.
One day in the spring after Hans Olsa has died, some boys come across a haystack. Sitting with his back to the mouldering hay is a man, one pair of skis beside him and the other pair strapped to his back. "To the boys, it looked as though the man were sitting there resting while he waited for better skiing. . . . His face was ashen and drawn. His eyes were set toward the west."
As we come to the end of the book, the settlers are still fighting the elements; the grasshoppers are gone, but now the terrible winter has come.
Per Hansa and Hans Olsa, the strong ones in the settlement, have been doing well, but now Hans Olsa is struck down, and the only man of action left is Per Hansa. We gather that while he feels deep sympathy for his old friend, his concern is for Hans Olsa's physical rather than spiritual being. But on all sides — and even from Hans Olsa himself — he is beset by those who consider Hans Olsa's spiritual welfare more important. Beret, as her former actions have shown, is obsessed by the idea that Hans Olsa will die in "sin." Per Hansa is infuriated by this statement, for he considers his best friend the finest of men, but when he finds that Hans Olsa himself is deeply troubled at facing death without religious ministration, he makes the decision to go for the minister although it is obvious that the weather makes it an almost impossible undertaking.
Beret, in her insistence that Per Hansa should go for the minister even though he tells her it is impossible, is a rather unsympathetic character here. It is only after Per Hansa leaves that she apparently has a change of mind and heart. When she rushes out into the blizzard to call him back, we are led to believe that she now realizes what she may be losing. But it is too late, just as it is too late for the boys to say a fond goodbye to their beloved father.
Per Hansa dies alone — very much alone — and the tragedy is complete. The indomitable man has been ground down by fate.