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The Greenlanders by Jane Smiley

The Greenlanders (1988)

by Jane Smiley

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History has been something of a passion for me since I was very young and first read about the tombs of the Egyptian Pharaohs, the ancient temples and cities of the Aztec, the Khmer buried under jungle vines, and the crumbled ziggurats of Sumer. As I grew up I fell deep into the larger stories and overarching, serpentine narrative we call history, but always I was most attracted to the doomed and lost civilizations, the dwindling and disappearance of Norse Greenland being among them.

Historical fiction is a tricky genre and one rarely pulled off successfully, prone as it is to sensationalism, but Jane Smiley is a careful student. Not only does she seem to know as much about the realities of life, great and small, for the Greenlanders, she makes perfect use of their style; she tells their story in their own voice.

The idea of a novel written with the detached air and reporting style of the Nordic Sagas is daunting, to say the least, but the somber tone it lends to the story does it justice. From the beginning, the novel dwells on loss and the theme that even in times of prosperity, things had once been much better and brighter. There are no trees for timber, no source of iron, grains cannot grow, priests grow old; there are many things that must be replaced through distant trade. The arrival of ships becomes a rarer and rarer event, almost every season seems to bring about hardships that leave more steadings abandoned, forever.

I say that the style is detached, but that is not to say that the characters never express their feelings, on the contrary, the Greenlanders' love and enmity, envy and hope, is present along with a great solidarity that allows them to keep farming and living, whatever their hardships. It is important, too, that Smiley gives a voice to the women, their own dealings with each other and men, their sense of duty, and their own desires and failings.

'The Greenlanders' is a novel full of sadness, but its never self-pitying or melodramatic. It happens that the winters grow colder, that there is conflict with the Skraelings, that the soil no longer supports as much livestock as it once did. The bindings of law and religion, without their keepers, twist, or disappear. I can well understand why this should be one of Smiley's least-popular novels, though I haven't read anything else by her, because it is, for all its elegance, a harsh book in many ways. The contemplation of how easily situations and civilizations fall apart, leaving behind the well-meaning but doomed individual, is not something that is easily recommended to others. ( )
  ManWithAnAgenda | Feb 18, 2019 |
A masterly crafted yet tedious book. ( )
  Sean_Murphy | Dec 23, 2017 |
A masterly crafted yet tedious book. ( )
  Sean_Murphy | Dec 23, 2017 |
Wonderful saga, GoT without the violence and pornography. Offers lots to think about re life, death, civilizations, nature of man, our perceptions of God. Written 30 years ago, have read other books by Smiley Annie inclined to read them all. Received many good reviews at the time. ( )
  patsemple | Dec 30, 2016 |
You think you got problems? Try living in Norse Greenland in the Little Ice Age. If you don't kill enough seals at the autumn hunt, you and your family might starve over the winter. That is if you don't die of the "vomiting ill" or get axe-murdered by a neighbor over some stupid feud. Geez.

This prodigious novel reads sometimes like a fantasy, the culture and everyday lives of the people being so strange. And at times like a "lost colony" SF novel, the community so isolated that a ship from Europe arrives only once every ten years or so (and when it does, it's a mixed blessing).

But mostly it reads like the Icelandic sagas that author Jane Smiley seems to have deliberately used as her model: rich interwoven story lines, fierce and stoical characters, straightforward prose that never rises from its matter-of-fact tone no matter how harsh or horrendous the events it tells.

I found the book slow at first, but eventually got caught up in all the strangeness and the fates of the characters. (And boy, are they fated!)

A profound, high-quality historical novel. Not recommended if you're already depressed.
( )
  JackMassa | Nov 23, 2016 |
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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 Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:15:43 -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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