The Greenlanders

The Greenlanders - Jane Smiley I recommend this book to those of you seeking immersion into the world of medieval Greenland. The characters are the Nordic immigrants who settled in Greenland, the events taking place in the 1300s, centuries after Viking exploration. These people must cope with cold and a native population that is so strange that these creatures are seen as demons. These people, the indigenous Inuits, are called skraelings. It is a world of hunger and hard times, adultery and murder, illness and death and lawlessness. Death, death and more death….. and of course religion. The Norwegians settled here to trade, to hunt and to farm. The Thing and the Bishop and his priests were the ultimate authority of power, and it isn’t easy reading of their ways.

I have never run into the style of writing found in this book. To help you determine if you will enjoy it, I have included a quote:

Then she turned to Gunnar and declared that as a child of but fifteen years, Gunhild could not be asked to keep two things in her mind at once, namely the Thjodhilds Stead way and the Lavrans Stead way. And since one had to make way for the other, it was necessary that the old go out and the new come in. The result of this was that on the feast of St. 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. And this was also the case, that in the disorder of departure, she never once looked over her shoulder, nor did she see her brother and sisters and mother waving aéfter her, but she only went forward, looking for her new home, and this came to Birgitta as an unaccountable grief, no matter how she prayed and told herself that this was the pain of bearing daughters, and folk must always accustom themselves to it. (41%)

The language is different. There is an absence of dialog. There is a distance between the “storyteller” and the listener. There is a formality to expressions that reflects the atmosphere of the times. The reader is always looking on rather than partaking of the events. Nevertheless, as the story proceeds you very definitely come to care for the characters. 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.

Although the events are tragic, there are also characters that are happy and satisfied with their lives. There are characters that will astound you with their strength, others with their individuality. There are couples that separate and take other spouses or women who manage alone. That is no small task. There is feuding and injustice and then there is kindness. There are neighbors who step in and help when they need not.

You will feel immersed in another world. You will understand what their life really was like. Mostly it was grim. You see their world with their eyes and their sensibilities. You come to understand how the skraelings could be dangerous; how the priests were worthy of respect and that sometimes one simply had to see that people were punished. I f you didn’t see this was done yourself, nobody else would. The Pulitzer prize-winning author, Jane Smiley, plops you down in another world where the mindset is initially completely foreign and strange. You come to think as they do. However, the book will not fit everyone. The writing takes getting use to and the characters are numerous. They are listed in the front. Don’t expect a lot of laughs. Do expect total immersion in another time and place.

In my view this book deserves five stars for the author’s ability to transport the reader to a completely foreign place and for that place to become real. I have chosen nevertheless to give it three stars because I personally had a hard time with the language style, even though it had to be exactly as it was to properly conjure that world. I did have trouble reading this book; I can only give it three stars.