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Greenlanders

A book by Jane Smiley

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Well-crafted historical tale -- true to its origins!

  • Aug 8, 1997
Rating:
+3
Interesting how perceptions and ratings vary re: the same material. Contrary to some, I found this book to be a fine historical piece. Written in saga form (to evoke the people & times it is intended to describe), this novel captures the clean-lined, flat beauty of saga prose. The story itself reflects the last 50 years or so of the Norse colony in Greenland as it slides into oblivion beneath the combined weight of a dramatically colder climate and its consequent abandonment by Europe.

Increasingly beleaguered by a climate which has shrunk the growing and grazing seasons and has made it more difficult to attempt the ocean passage to Greenland using the available seagoing technology of the times, the Greenlanders soon found themselves facing another threat as well: the Eskimos who moved down into their territory, attracted by the colder climate. The inevitable culture clashes result, leading to violence which can only end in one way for the Greenlanders who cannot compete in this new environment with the nomadic, hunting culture of these other peoples. The Greenlanders, mainly farmers and marginal hunters, can no longer grow enough food to survive nor can they sustain themselves entirely by hunting because of the rigors of doing so in an increasingly colder world. At the same time, the Black Death in Europe has caused the Europeans to briefly turn inward, exacerbating the dwindling trade connection which the Greenlanders had come to be increasingly dependent on, absent the ability to survive as subsistence farmers on the farthest edge of the "European world".

The story follows the coming of age of a young Greenland girl, Margret, who is one of the last representatives of her modestly prosperous farm family. As she grows to womanhood she sees the steady and inexorable decline of her way of life all about her, while doing her best to hold things together. We see the Greenlanders feuding among themselves, as these Norse folk were wont to do in other venues, their conflicts and momentary triumphs in dealings with the Norwegian traders who visit them less and less often, their voyages to the North American coast (in search of valued timber and the long lost country of "Vinland the Good"), and, finally, their ill-fated contacts with the newly arriving Eskimos. In all, a good tale and true to its sources (both Icelandic sagas and the Eskimo legends which have come down to us from the indigenous peoples of Greenland who still recall their first encounters with the Europeans).

Although I prefer more action in my stories, this one was a powerful protrayal of a people and a time now lost to us beneath the ice and snows of Greenland -- even as the first tentative steps were being taken by Europeans to cross the Atlantic in more southerly climes with more lasting results.

SWM

A few other good saga-based novels:

Saga: A Novel Of Medieval Iceland (A superb novel of old Iceland, based on a sub-plot in Eyrbyggja Saga.)

The Golden Warrior: The Story of Harold and William (Unmatched novel of Norse and Anglo-Saxon conflict in medieval Britain.)

Two Ravens (Saga-like tale tracing certain familial and cultural fault lines in old Iceland.)

The King of Vinland's Saga (A saga that might have been, recalling the Greenlandic-Norse incursions into North America -- full disclosure: this one's mine.)

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About the reviewer
Stuart W. Mirsky ()
Ranked #230
I'm a retired bureaucrat (having served, most recently, as an Assistant Commissioner in amunicipal agency in a major Northeastern American city). In 2002 I took an early retirement to pursue a lifelong … more
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Wiki

In this vast, intricately patterned novel, Smiley accurately captures the voice of the medieval sagas. Understated, scattered with dreams and warnings, darkened by the brooding sense of unavoidable disasters to come, it is the tale of a Scandinavian settlement that lasted perhaps 500 years. With a meticulous attention to detail, the novel brings daily activities to lifefrom cheese making to hunting walruswhile examining the passions of a people under stress. The action centers on the family of Gunnar Asgeirsson. Gunnar's sister Margret is married off to Olaf, but he fails to consummate the marriage, and Margret begins a clandestine affair with a Norwegian sailor, Skuli Gudmundsson, who has stayed on in Greenland as a household retainer. Violence and tragedy ensue, and as Margret's unhappiness increases, her character hardens, and she offers her labor as an itinerant servingwoman. Although Margret is not always onstage, the novel spans the years of her long life. A foil to Margret, but no luckier, is Gunnar's wife, Birgitta, who is gifted with second sight. It is she who sums up the overriding sense of futility: "We have come to the ending of the world, for in Greenland the world must end as it goes on, that is with hunger and storms and freezing." Like the original Norse sagas, The Greenlanders roves restlessly from one folk group to another. Many of their destinies interlock, and certain exterior forces prey upon them all: the harsh climate; the marauding "skraelings," ...
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Details

ISBN-10: 044991089X
ISBN-13: 978-0449910894
Author: Jane Smiley
Publisher: Ballantine Books

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