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The Greenlanders by Jane Smiley

The Greenlanders (1988)

by Jane Smiley

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Smiley has written a work of historical fiction about 14th-15th century Greenland that is slow, detailed, bleak and ultimately an unforgettable reading experience. Life in Greenland over this time period is waning. By the end of the 15th century, no evidence of these settlements exists, so the entire book is shadowed by the end of times for this people. Characters die left and right; life is hard to the point of almost no scenes of joy. The constant death seems to make characters not even connect to each other because they know they will be separated. Life revolves around the arrival of ships from Iceland and Norway. These come less and less frequently and the news they bring is mainly of widespread death in Europe. Greenland waits for a Bishop, receives one, and waits again in vain when he dies. They’ve been forgotten by the Pope and are on their way to being forgotten by all of Europe.

The book is written, especially in the beginning, with lots of myths and stories of past Greenlanders inserted. It’s obvious that the ancestors of the Greenlanders were much more adventurous than they are now. The previous generations used to travel to Vinland and Markland and north into Greenland. These trips are never attempted anymore. In fact, there are not even any large boats by the end of the book. Other things they lose over the course of the book are their knowledge of the laws usually enforced at the Thing, as well as contact with the church.

Smiley’s writing style is bleak and spare, just like the events of the book. Though many of the actions are dramatic, the writing stays detached and with painful slowness reveals the reactions and feelings of the main characters. It took me a long time to warm up to the pace of this book, but by the end I can’t imagine it being written any other way. Smiley doesn’t help the reader, the book is only divided into 3 large sections with no chapters to pace the book. I had a hard time with this, especially for the first third of the book. When I compare this book to The Long Ships or Kristin Lavransdatter, it suffers a bit since those books I found more engaging with easier characters to connect with and love. In the end though, I feel like I know what life was like for the Greenlanders - in fact I feel liked I’ve actually lived it. I also felt a deep connection to several of the characters, despite the slow reveal of their personalities. ( )
  japaul22 | Jun 7, 2014 |
This is a long novel laid in 14th and 15th century Greenland, and showing the dying out of Greenland as the people were defeated by the vicissitudes of the climate. The story follows a couple of generations, and shows the degeneration of Greenland society as its isolation from Europe and the worsening climate overtook the people and the rule of law disintegrated. It is written in a style supposedly imitating Scandinavian epic style, and I presume that the depiction of life in Greenland in that time accurately reflects conditions in the period. It would have been nice if there were a bibliography showing what the author relied on in composing the novel. It is a pretty bleak setting and I did not find the book good reading and was glad to get to the end, finally. ( )
1 vote Schmerguls | Mar 25, 2014 |
It's as if I were reading a religious tome, or maybe one of the original Sagas, in its original, as an acolyte. Each reading session, days and nights slipping by, eking me only incrementally forward, impossible to make this story take anything but the amount of time it needs to take. It will stymy speed-readers. With only three chapters in nearly 600 pages (abstractly: "Riches", "The Devil" and "Love"), scant paragraph breaks and copy as dense as the weight of a damp Greenland winter. Smiley's novel unwinds as a single, admirably constant, thread. It will require attention and persistence.

But, in short, it is worth it. Each petty squabble, each encroaching superstition, each abandoned farmstead among the vulnerable, thin band of Norse emigrants who constituted the titular Greenlanders increases the grey, windswept, taut feeling that these people are on their way to their own (undisclosed and historically mysterious) end. You can't let it go. You have to come along with it, yourself getting gritty winter-sand blown into your hair and eating sourmilk and dried bilberries and sharpening old inter-family feuds.

I mean, from the outset, it's hopeless. This arrogant clutch of 14th-century farmers bring incompatible Scandinavian farming techniques and undiluted disdain for the indigenous "skraelings" (Eskimo or Inuit), who continue sleek and fleshy as the Greenlanders dwindle and starve. Epidemic after gruesome epidemic decimate the steaders. They kill amongst themselves for honor or anger or fear. The land refuses to give and each year the crops and livestock weaken more. Ships stop coming, and the Greenlanders—no trees—cannot build their own.

Many of the people in the multi-generational story here are real. You can look some of them up. They happened. The place-names where they lived and worked still vaguely discernible on the land. Though they are completely vanished now, Smiley makes each of their life stories utterly plausible, such that you are confused as to where fiction stops and the surreal, remote, but *real* history of the failed colonies on Greenland begins.

It is haunting and cold-feeling and bleak. It never wavers from its calculated, saga-style prose. But it can't be ignored, and draws one back night after night until the end finally comes. ( )
  lyzadanger | Dec 22, 2013 |
Life was truly hard for these folk of the 15 century in Greenland. We can only imagine the harshness of the climate and the topography. Ms. Smiley does a very good job of portraying this with the minimialist style she uses for this book. As hard as life was for these folk, they still knew how to love, laugh and have fun sometimes. They were entirely fatalistic in their responses to everything that is thrown at them - starvation, death, killings and above all else - rumours. None expected life to be easy, and knew that death is as much a part of life as anything, so they determined to make the most of what time they had. I found the characters intriguing in this story. They are dour, yes, but they also display a great deal of empathy and humour. This is a very good tale, and it certainly gives a new look at another part of our great world. ( )
  Romonko | Sep 26, 2013 |
Fully absorbing, almost to the point of claustrophobia. I started reading this in hardcover and raced, hypnotized, through the first 400 pages in one night. Just bought it in paperback and finished; it occurred to me that, had I written The Greenlanders, I would have (characteristically) had it all end in emptiness, just darkness and nothing. So it's a good thing I didn't write it, okay? ( )
  amelish | Sep 12, 2013 |
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par munu eftir, undrasmatigar, guttnar toftur, i grasi finnask, paers i ardaga, attar hofdu. Afterwards they will find the chessmen, marvelous and golden in the grass, just where the ancient gods had dropped them. "Voluspa" ("The Sayings of the Prophetess")
This book is fondly dedicated to Elizabeth Stern, Duncan Campell, Frank Ponzi, and to the memory of Knud-Erik Holm-Pedersen.
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Asgeir Gunnarsson farmed at Gunnars Stead near Undir Hofdi church in Austfjord.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 044991089X, Paperback)

--The New York Times Book Review
Jane Smiley, the Pultizer Prize-winning author of A Thousand Acres, gives us a magnificent novel of fourteenth-century Greenland. Rich with fascinating detail about the day-to-day joys and innumerable hardships of remarkable people, The Greenlanders is also the compelling story of one family--proud landowner Asgeir Gunnarsson; his daughter Margret, whose willful independence leads her into passionate adultery and exile; and his son Gunnar, whose quest for knowledge is at the compelling center of this unforgettable book. Echoing the simple power of the old Norse sagas, here is a novel that brings a remote civilization to life and shows how it was very like our own.
"TOTALLY COMPELLING . . . FASCINATING . . . In the manner of the big books of the nineteenth century, in which complex family and community matters unravel--Dickens, Dumas, Tolstoy--The Greenlanders sweeps the reader along. . . . Jane Smiley is a true storyteller."
--The Washington Post
--USA Today
--The New Republic

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:41:34 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

The Greenlanders is the compelling story of one family--proud landowner Asgeir Gunnarsson; his daughter Margret, whose willful independence leads her into passionate adultery and exile; and his son Gunnar, whose quest for knowledge is at the compelling center of this unforgettable book.… (more)

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