An overview of the novel the greenlanders by jane smiley

Then through Europe swept the Great Death. Stephen, Gunhild and Gunnar went on skis across the fjord and over the hills to Thjodhilds Stead, and Gunhild stayed there, as a maiden, and came home no more.

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When you read the above quote you feel the sorrow and grief of the mother who is losing her child — even though she reasons with herself that this is a step all mothers must take. Toward the novel's end it closes with a tale about to be toldthe citizens of this bereft country, severely diminished, dazed by events, their collective memory perhaps more somber than ever, realize that ''hunger and disease had come and gone before, and now that the great hunger was over, men saw that such things happen in the natural round of events, for the world is by nature fallen from Paradise, and the Lord has made no promises about repairing it for the pleasure of men, but asks men to use the world as a tool for repairing their own souls.

Though they could get along fine with a thin lifeline, they could not get along with no lifeline at all. But the life and death of the Greenland colony is, in its own way, presented as merely another chapter in the war that has raged between men and their baser instincts since the establishment of civilization.

The characters are the Nordic immigrants who settled in Greenland, the events taking place in the s, centuries after Viking exploration. Margret, distant and imperial, falls into a marriage of convenience with an oafish farmhand whom she eventually cuckolds in favor of a Norwegian nobleman.

In this regard the narrative has few modern corollaries. Each long chapter, ''Riches,'' ''The Devil,'' ''Love,'' has its expansive theme, just as the theme of the Great Extinction runs through the entire novel.

Smiley began research for ''The Greenlanders,'' including review of the historical literature, examination of archeological remains and a visit to the giant island.

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The book culminates in the death by burning of Gunnar's only son Kolgrim for the specious crime of witchcraft, an actual event recorded in the few surviving chronicles of the Greenlanders' final years. Eventually, at the end of The Greenlanders, the reader is left with a society on the brink of total destruction, dissolved into sharply atomized family units huddling in the darkness and waiting for the last sheep to die, or to be taken in a Skraeling raid, or to freeze in a harsh winter, or to be murdered by a jealous neighbor There are couples that separate and take other spouses or women who manage alone.

Meanwhile, Asgeir Gunnarsson is at odds with his strange neighbors at Ketils Stead. Centuries of attempting to adapt European-style farmholding to the tenuous ecology of the fjords gradually weakened the already-fragile ecosystem. Smiley began research for ''The Greenlanders,'' including review of the historical literature, examination of archeological remains and a visit to the giant island. While, certainly, the myths and legends that compose the corpus of Tolkein's work are fantastic evocations of imagination and eschatology, they are informed by the same pre-modern resources that live and breath through The Greenlanders, the poetic eddas and French romances and Germanic sagas of Northern Europe. Thus, after a death-filled battle with the skraelings: ''Folk in every district spoke about this attack until Yule, through Lent, and past Easter, for it was the greatest event to take place in Greenland for many years, and now folk looked upon the skraelings with renewed fear and contempt. But a book like this is rare in any era. His specialty was Scandinavia. Bandits and false prophets arose, placing an even greater strain on ever-dwindling communal resources. There are neighbors who step in and help when they need not. Sometimes I felt that each conversation was a crisis, or provoked one, that each utterance would sink under its own menace, or wisdom. Aesgir Gunnarson's two children, laconic Gunnar and willful Margret, form the center of the narrative. With the full hindsight of history we are allowed to see the shape of our actions, but only in the brief bloom of our lives are those actions permitted to carry their small meaning.
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The Humble Book Giant: Review: "The Greenlanders" by Jane Smiley