Sunday, September 26, 2021

Jane Smiley, "The Greenlanders"

Another entry from my old web site, a review of one of my favorite books:

I have long been fascinated by the Norse sagas. These great works of prose, written in Iceland in the 13th and 14th centuries, describe the deeds of the Vikings in their heroic age between 800 and 1050 AD. They are full of striking characters, human drama, and historical detail. I would say they are my favorite historical sources; I recommend Egil's Saga as the most accessible work of medieval literature for a student or a casual reader. And yet even I sometimes find the sagas hard to read. They were, after all, written 700 years ago, by people with very different ideas of what a story should be like, and they are strange to our ears. Their style is simple, almost spare, and events sometimes follow one after another without much reflection or explanation. The most famous sagas are those that concern the settlement of Iceland, and in these the authors flaunt their knowledge of genealogy in numbing parades of names and relationships. To read the sagas we must cross through an effort of will the barrier of time, and while that brings rewards of its own, it does not make for easy reading.

The gap between the sagas and the modern reader has now been bridged magnificently by Jane Smiley in The Greenlanders (1988). Smiley is best known as the author of books about contemporary Iowa, but though I enjoyed the first two books of hers I read that did not prepare me for the way I was swept away by this one. I have been completely absorbed in it for two weeks, and I felt great pangs of loss when I finally read to the end and had to close it and put it aside.

Smiley has adopted enough of the Sagas' rough, simple language to convey the feel of reading the originals, yet not so much as to erect any barriers between the modern reader and her story. She makes liberal use of some conventional saga phrasings, such as "People said..." and "It was the case that...." She uses some of the same scenes and literary devices as the saga writers, such as prophetic dreams, and descriptions of what characters see when they look over their own homes. Like the great sagas, her story is structured around a family and their disputes with their enemies. Yet The Greenlanders is a thoroughly modern novel. Smiley's characters have the psychological depth and the complexity of motivation that modern readers expect, and Smiley has a keen eye for the ironies of her story. With her guidance, it takes no effort at all to travel back across the long centuries.

The Greenlanders is the story of a family, the Gunnar's stead folk, and especially of a brother and sister, Gunnar Asgeirson and Margaret Asgeirsdottir. They live in Greenland near the end of the Norse settlement there; they are born in the 1350s, and the book ends not long after 1408, the date of the last written record of the Greenland settlement. Smiley weaves into the story the few events that are known to have taken place in Greenland in that time, and some of the characters have historical names. The lives of Gunnar and Margaret intersect with this historical narrative, but their story is composed mainly of family events: marriages, births, deaths, the loss of a farm field. The drama in the plot comes from a series of struggles over land and honor between neighboring families, and within the folk of Gunnar's Stead. These feuds, though, never really dominate the story, but blend in with the unending series of tragedies that define life in this harsh land: hard winters, epidemic disease, famine, isolation. In less skilled hands these hardships would be grim and depressing, but Smiley makes them seem like life as it must be, as a background against which every victory, even merely to live through the winter, stands out as a luminous wonder.

One thing Smiley adds to the standard saga narrative is the tale of two priests who come to Greenland with the last bishop, leaving behind the cathedrals and universities of Europe for a hard life ministering to the hard people of Greenland. While many of the people in the sagas are Christians, it cannot be said that the sagas' writers paid much attention to the spiritual side of life in their writing. Smiley does full justice to the role of Christianity in medieval life, and she portrays her priests and their struggles of faith with the cold eye of a great novelist. I enjoyed the doings of these priests nearly as much as the main narrative, and I think the add to the extraordinary historicity of The Greenlanders.

Surely of all humanity's experiments, the Norse settlement of Greenland is among the strangest. These Vikings lived as farmers in a land too cold to grow a single grain of barley or rye, or even a cabbage. They depended almost entirely on their cows, sheep, and goats, and on the seals and reindeer they hunted in season. In winter they walled their animals into their barns (a door would let out too much heat) and fed them such grass as they had managed to harvest from their meadows; often by the time the snow melted in the spring the animals were so weak that the men carried them out into the fields. The technology of medieval Europeans depended almost entirely on wood and iron, but Greenland offered none of either. Everything from the beams of their houses to their spoons had to be brought by ship. In return the Greenlanders offered walrus tusks, narwhal horns, white falcons, and woolen cloth, but they never had enough of these things to secure their comforts. All around them were Inuit who lived in a way well adapted to the rigors of the northlands, but the Norse had little interest in imitating their neighbors. They clung to their old ways, until, for reasons we still do not understand, they disappeared entirely from their land.

Smiley makes the harsh world of the Greenlanders entirely believable, and I found it thrilling to lose myself in that world with her. Gunnar Asgeirson and Margaret Asgeirsdottir will be among my friends now for as long as I live, and their marvelous story will be with me awalys. I am awed by this achievement, and I cannot recommend The Greenlanders highly enough. 

March 23, 2001 

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