Books: Giants in the Earth

Inspired by my good friend Nate, I’m planning on blogging more about what I’m reading. Kicking that off is a book that I read earlier in the year, meant to write about, but didn’t actually get to at the time. Better late than never!

The book is Giants in the Earth, by Ole Edvart Rolvaag. Nate recommend it, and given how highly he spoke of it, I couldn’t refuse. It falls well outside my normal reading, and that made it even more fascinating and unique. Written in the early 20th century in a dialect of Norwegian, even the translation is clearly a work from another time and culture. For the first couple pages the wording and pace seemed odd, but after a while the rhythm gained familiarity. In the end, it became an integral part of the story, evoking the setting and pace of life in ways that more modern structure and syntax wouldn’t have.

Giants in the Earth tells the story of Norwegian settlers coming to the Dakota prairie. It follows one particular settlement, and focuses mostly on a single family–Per Hansa, his wife Beret, and their children. It goes into great detail about the day to day struggles they faced just living on the plains of Dakota. Normally, I wouldn’t associate this with an exciting read. However, the book manages to bring alive the toils of simple survival in those times. It taps into something primal, and suddenly how they constructed shelter, how they sowed crops, how they fought against the elements becomes vitally important and engaging.

Beyond that, the story also had a surprising darkness. Often we get a picture of the hardy American pioneers suffering through adversity with a moral fortitude that isn’t realistic. It simply isn’t human to be in the type of pain and difficulty those people endured and not at least wonder whether you made the right choice, worry for your life, or wish you could be somewhere else. Giants in the Earth portrays that vividly. Here’s a pioneer story fraught with depression, home-sickness, fear, even thoughts of suicide and murder. I’m a sucker for a grim book, and this worked powerfully to transform how I think about those people who headed out west into danger.

And the ending… wow. No spoilers, but suffice to say, you ought to read this book.