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The Greenlanders by Jane Smiley

The Greenlanders (1988)

by Jane Smiley

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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. ( )
  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 |
How do I love this book? Let me count the ways. Smiley creates memorable and believable characters and a vivid sense of a place and a time; she writes in a style that calls to mind the language of Norse sagas yet is eminently readable; she interweaves stories of many different characters over several generations with wonderful pacing; and she creates a real sense of unease and even impending doom.

As the title implies, the novel tells the tales of Europeans living in Greenland towards the end of their settlement there. It is not known why these settlements disappeared in the 14th and 15th centuries after lasting since the 10th century when Norwegians and Icelanders (also, presumably, originally from Norway) first arrived; theories include the coming of the Little Ice Age, increasing conflicts with the Inuit (called "skraelings" by the Greenlanders), and environmental degradation due to agriculture and the cutting down of the few trees that were there. In the novel, there is a severe shortage of wood, winters seem colder than in earlier times, and famine regularly strikes.

All this is background to a saga of a people who, although they lived a long time ago in a harsh and unforgiving environment with limited technology, are not all that different from us in their feelings and behavior. The story focuses on the family and descendents of Asegeir Gunnarson: how they interact with each other and with the larger community of which they are a part. There are many tragedies, both those caused by implacable nature and those caused by human pride and hurt feelings and anger and desire and all the other emotions we are prone too. People die a lot, sometimes through dangerous activities like hunting seals, sometimes in childbirth, sometimes by murder, sometimes by disease or by starving or freezing to death. The characters are vividly portrayed, especially the ones who are in some way different, who don't quite fit the mold, the ones who don't enjoy the social realm and feel more at home in the wilderness with the plants and the animals.

The people know that times are changing: they catch fewer seals and reindeer in the semiannual hunts; the winters are colder; the wood is all gone and people fight over driftwood; the land will only support sheep and not cattle; the lawspeaker no longer remembers all of the laws and takes only one day to recite them instead of the previous three days; ships from Iceland and Norway no longer arrive, and thus there are no replacements for the religious and civic leaders; people's farms (steads) can no longer support them and they have to seek work as servants to others; and more. And yet they stay and figure out ways to survive, because they have no other choice.

Another aspect of this novel is the way it integrates people telling tales and sagas into the novel itself; sometimes, indeed, people tell their own stories as if they were someone else's. And the church, and priests, and a bizarre (and probably crazy) "prophet" play important roles too. As life becomes more challenging, people are more responsive to these gloomy prophecies and more willing to take revenge without the benefit of law.

This is a melancholy book, the story of a dying culture and of people who cannot find happiness. But it is also full of life, full of people who jump from the page, full of people living a life that seems completely realistic although so far away. It is completely absorbing.

I've had this book on my shelves since the late 1980s, and I owe my reading of it now to the enthusiastic review below by AnnieMod. This is one of my best reads of the year so far.
12 vote rebeccanyc | Jul 17, 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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