Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Greenlanders, A Review

This book was given to me by a friend who, knowing I was studying Old Norse and reading the Icelandic sagas, thought I might enjoy it.
Jane Smiley is known more for her novels than her academic work, although she has a PhD. It is clear that she knows her way around an Icelandic saga or two because this novel has the right feel to it and there is attention to the little details that make a story feel 'true'.
Greenland was settled by disgruntled Icelanders lead by Eric the Red. This novel portrays their descendants after the medieval warming spell has come to an end. The winters are harsher and, with every passing year, it becomes harder to keep body and soul together. The original Greenlanders disappeared; the people of European descent who live there now are the result of the Danish king's re-assertion of his claim to the territory in the 18th century. It is not known what happened to the colonies. Several theories are that they were wiped out by disease, lack of access to grains and vegetables and the resulting malnutrition left them vulnerable to malnutrition, raids by hostile Inuit wiped them out, raids by English pirates wiped them out, or that they gradually intermarried with the Inuit and were absorbed by them. Smiley includes a little of all the theories in her tale about the waning days of the Greenland colonies, circa 1400 a.d..
At first, there were so many characters and the story changed its focus to include so many different families and homesteads, I was not sure if anyone was the main character but, closer to the end, it becomes clear that the fading fortunes of the Greenlanders are told through the life of Gunnar Asgeirson. Asgeir, his father, feels adventurous enough to get on a ship to Iceland, while there still was trade with that country, and returned two years later with Helga Ingvadottir as his wife. An old woman in the neighborhood of his homestead, who has the reputation of being a witch, is slighted when she comes to Asgeir's farm and asks for some of his milk. Helga denied her the milk, needing it for herself as she was pregnant with Gunnar. From this little incident and the subsequent bad luck which began to dog Asgeir and his family, it is thought that the old woman had cursed the son and his entire family. Asgeir killed her, hoping to bring an end to the curse but it is only the beginning of cycles of revenge, jealousy and blood feuds that eventually embroil the entire colony and nearly destroy them all.
I shall comment in subsequent posts about various points of interest in the story but, since this is a review, I shall only say that I enjoyed the story. Some might find it too slow going for their liking. It does take a while to warm to its subject and uneducated palates might fail to appreciate the how true to the sagas the story is and how true to the temperaments of its Norse subjects. I found nothing jarring in it and I would recommend it to anyone who wants to know more about Greenland history and culture in the late Middle Ages but does not want to read a history book or peer reviewed article.

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