Places: Giants in the Earth

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: I de dage, 1924 and Riket grundlœgges, 1925 (English translation, 1927)

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Regional

Time of work: Late nineteenth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Great Plains

*Great Giants in the EarthPlains. Also known as prairie land, the largely flat grassland region of central North America spanning the region between Oklahoma and central Canada that is used for extensive cattle ranching and grain crops. To Per Hansa–a former fisherman–the prairie appears a sea of grass. At sunset its glowing rim resembles the horizon of a vast ocean. His wagon leaves a track like the wake of a boat, closing in rather than widening out astern.

As the novel opens Per Hansa has temporarily lost his way. Calming his anxiety he dreams of opportunities the prairie offers–on this land he could build a kingdom of his own. His wife, Beret, finds the immensity of the prairie frightening. To her, the landscape appears cold, bleak, and full of terror. She is uneasy in a world so different from the beloved Norway she has left behind and fearful that trolls might lie in wait within this strange new environment.

In the second half of the novel, after Beret gives birth to Peder Victorious (whose story continues in Peder Victorious, 1928), the Great Plains environment becomes increasingly hostile. The problems afflicting the settlement convince Beret that trolls are at work; the prairie is attacking the intruders. Rölvaag makes use of disasters that actually struck Dakota’s pioneers. The grasshopper plagues of the late 1870’s devastated many settlers. All who lived through the powerful winter snows of 1880-1881 remembered that year with horror. The incredible snow winter is the inspiration for Rölvaag’s final chapter, “The Great Plain Drinks the Blood of Christian Men and Is Satisfied.” Per Hansa, seeking a minister to attend a dying friend, ventures into the snow and is not found until spring. He is sitting frozen against a haystack, facing west.

Spring Creek

Spring Creek. Fictional settlement in what became South Dakota, located near the border with Minnesota, some twenty-six miles north of Sioux Falls. The site is close to where O. E. Rölvaag’s father-in-law homesteaded in 1873, and Rölvaag consulted him frequently for details of life on the prairie during the 1870’s and 1880’s. The novel includes his descriptions of building sod huts as temporary homes, of disastrous grasshopper plagues, and of uneasy relations with Indians.

Per Hansa is proud of his accomplishments at Spring Creek: successfully planting crops; building a two-room sod hut, one room serving as a barn to protect his animals during the winter; and establishing friendly relations with local Indians. He glories in the successful establishment of a new society in the wilderness by Norwegian immigrants. In contrast, Beret becomes increasingly disenchanted, disgusted by life on the prairie. To her it appears that people are becoming beasts, living like animals as they burrow into the soil to build sod huts. Ignoring the customs of the home country, they no longer seem ashamed to sin.

*Norway

*Norway. Although none of the novel takes place in Norway, the culture and society from which its immigrants come provide essential background. Rölvaag implicitly structures the westward movement of Per Hansa and his friends as a parallel to the Viking conquest of Iceland and Greenland. Beret is particularly sensitive to the losses entailed in frontier living; she is driven insane by the lack of order and familiar customs. Beret cherishes a seventeenth century chest that belonged to her great-grandfather. The major physical piece of Norway she carries with her to America, the chest embodies the country and traditions she reveres. When she fears she will die in childbirth, she hopes to be buried in this chest; when the locust plague descends on Spring Creek, she hides within it. When a Norwegian Lutheran minister visits the settlement, Beret’s chest becomes his altar and communion table.

BibliographyGross, David S. No Place to Hide: Gothic Naturalism in O. E. Rölvaag. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1993. Relates traditional gothic tradition to Rölvaag’s use of the frontier as a gothic setting of terror and wonder, which is especially a problem for Beret. Includes treatment of frontier and immigrant life.Reigstad, Paul. Rölvaag: His Life and Art. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1972. Examines Rölvaag’s novels in a biographical context, revealing the forces and influences that shaped Rölvaag’s work. Relates the treatment of folklore, myth, and Norwegian religious beliefs and values to Rölvaag’s early life and experiences in Norway, and the plot incidents to his father-in-law’s stories of Dakota frontier life. Analyzes where in the plot reminiscences are superseded by imagination.Schultz, April. “To Lose the Unspeakable: Folklore and Landscape in O. E. Rölvaag’s Giants in the Earth.” In Mapping American Culture, edited by Wayne Franklin and Michael Steiner. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1992. Treats Rölvaag’s use of landscape and its relationship to folk myths of the Norwegian immigrant community, and how these shape plot events.Simonson, Harold P. Prairies Within: The Tragic Trilogy of Ole Rölvaag. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1987. A good look at Beret, the central character, especially how her religious values and her fearful attitude toward frontier space affect all three novels.Sledge, Martha. “Truth and Fact: The Rhetoric of Fiction and History in Immigrant Literature.” South Dakota Review 29, no. 2 (Summer, 1991): 159-169. Compares Rölvaag’s treatment of immigrant life to that of other Scandinavian writers.
Categories: Places