Thursday, March 12, 2009

Giants in the Earth: O.E. Rolvaag

New York: Harper and Row, Publisher. 1927/1955.

Why read it? Novel. The most vivid description of the experience of pioneering I have ever read. The hardships, both physical and mental, can be felt personally by the reader in a way that history books cannot convey the reality of the experiences of real, live human beings. Beret’s [Per Hansa’s wife’s] irrational fear of the land and the climate: she had come from civilized places to an endless, unforgiving landscape with nothing but a far distant empty horizon. Per does everything he can to overcome her depression, but in the end, she depresses his enthusiasm for farming, and he realizes that not everyone can take on the challenge of being a pioneer. He feels great guilt and helplessness in having brought Beret to this new land. Finally, at her plea, he goes off to find the minister and succumbs to the latest in raging blizzards that seem to be, with the plagues of locusts, part of the land’s venomous hatred for the newcomers.

Vernon Louis Parrington summarizes the novel effectively: “If in one sense the conquest of the continent is the great American epic, in another sense it is the great American tragedy. The vastness of the unexplored reaches, the inhospitality of the wilderness, the want of human aid and comfort when disaster came, these were terrifying things to gentle souls whom fate had not roughhewn for pioneering…. Beret, the wife of Per Hansa, brooding in her sod hut in Dakota, afraid of life and of her own thoughts … is a type of thousands of frontier women who—as the historian Ridpath said of his parents—‘toiled and suffered and died that their children might inherit the promise.’ ”

Sample Quotes:

Per Hansa: “My experience has been that it is mighty easy for one to talk about things he has not tried…. I have sweat blood over this thing—and now I’m no longer equal to it. …have you ever thought what it means for a man to be in constant fear that the mother may do away with her own children—and that, beside, it may be his fault that she has fallen into that state of mind?” p. 374. ………. “She realized now the great forethought he had shown last summer in building the house and stable under one roof… undoubtedly had the warmest house in the neighborhood, and then she enjoyed the company of the animals as she lay awake at night; it felt so cozy and secure to lie there and listen to them” p. 223. ………. “…she’s always had the heavy heart to fight against.” p. 376.

“The urge within drove me on and on, and never would I stop; for I reasoned like this, that where I found happiness others must find it as well.” p. 405. ………. “It seemed to the minister as if the sum total of human tragedy sat talking to him.” p. 372. ………. “The only thing he felt sure of was that he wasn’t on the right track; otherwise, he would have come across the traces of their camps…getting to be a matter of life and death…to find the trail—and find it soon.” p. 16.

“But here he was, the newcomer, who owned nothing and knew nothing, groping about with his dear ones in the endless wilderness.” p. 16. ………. “How will human beings be able to endure this place…. There isn’t even a thing that one can hide behind.” p. 29. ………. “No one put the thought into words, but they all felt it strongly; now they had gone back to the very beginning of things….”

“The faces that gazed into one another were sober now, as silence claimed the little company; but lines of strength and determination on nearly every countenance told of an inward resolve to keep the mood of depression from gaining full control.” p. 32. ………. “Could no living thing exist out here, in the empty, desolate, endless wastes of green and blue?” p. 37. ………. Beret: “Oh, Per, it’s only this—I’m so afraid out here…. It’s all so big and open…so empty.” p. 42.

Anyone who reads American history has to read this novel, which is an example of how good literature, even when dealing with tragedy, makes life worth living—the pioneers who worked and died so that their children could inherit the “promise.” Another novel that makes the same point is Willa Cather’s My Antonia (An’ toe nee’ uh). RayS.

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