Book Review: Giants in the Earth by O. E. Rolvaag

Are you looking for a light and cheerful winter read? Well, this isn’t the one! It’s brilliant — like snow-blind brilliant. It’s human, but in the most tragic sense. It’s spellbinding like a breathtaking winter sunset when it’s far below freezing.

Most Americans are familiar with THE LONG WINTER by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Pa’s optimism almost fails him when the winter gets long. Ma Ingalls is quietly long-suffering, and we never really get to know her in the way we do Pa. Now imagine something different; not an adult child’s rosy recollection of the past with lovely pictures done by Garth Williams, but a story about the tension between optimism and pessimism, the pioneer and the settler, love and ambition. Imagine a natural beauty extreme and terrible. And a man full of optimism and courage saddled with a faithful heart.

A new country seems to follow a pattern. First come the openers, strong and brave and rather childlike. They can take care of themselves in a wilderness, but they are naive and helpless against men, and perhaps that is why they went out in the first place.

John Steinbeck

Per Hansa, convinces his beautiful and pregnant wife Beret to trek to South Dakota at the height of the immigrant movement in the late 1800’s with a small group of fellow Norwegians. She makes little real resistance but is already troubled by a sense of dread relating to the sins of her past. We meet the growing family, already separated from the others and lost. Beret is a woman of fertile beauty, but like the prairie she is temperamental and dangerous.

Per Hans is a giant. He lives in a fairytale and in many ways brings this magic to life, but Beret is the prairie, the killer of optimistic men. There are other women married to lesser men who wish they had a man like Per Hansa. Again and again, he navigates the oceans of prairie, surviving blizzards, locusts and wheat killing frosts, but Per Hansa really can’t manage his wife. No one can.

A man may shoot at clouds of locusts and scatter them for a season, but human nature is harder to tame or even to understand. It’s the same with life. We build fairytale dreams, but locusts still visit us now and again. Beret and Per Hansa are the extremes we each hold at tension in our psyche. We all can relate to the horror of being trapped in our homes with no end in sight. In Beret’s case the snow and the endless sweep of grass keep her from the civilized world. We know that even invisible agents can do the same to us even now.

Per Hansa sees an opportunity in every problem. Beret sees doom and lives it each day. When her husband whitewashes the walls of the sod hut they live in to make it look more like a real home, she turns her eyes to the dirt floor, unable to bear another white thing that reminds her of blizzards and the unpredictable nature of life.

When a minister arrives he offers advice to Per Hansa: to love is to sacrifice.

And so Per Hansa does.

Anyone who’s read other more romanticized takes on the immigrant journey needs to read this. It’s wonderfully written and full of the pathos of life.

For further reading:





2 responses to “Book Review: Giants in the Earth by O. E. Rolvaag”

  1. What a glorious assessment of the book and the realities of life on the frontier. You write so splendidly. Glad you enjoyed the book. It made my visit to South Dakota more meaningful. (And the Norwegians are still there.)


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