Giants in the Earth: A Saga of the Prairie, by Ole Edvart Rolvaag
Giants in the Earth (published 1925) is the first book in a trilogy about the Norwegian settlement of the Dakota Territory, written by the Norwegian-American author Ole E. Rolvaag. O.E. Rolvaag (or Rølvaag) is a Norwegian who emigrated to the United States in 1896, and eventually became a professor at St. Olaf's College in Minnesota.
Ole Edvart Rolvaag
(Rølvaag) was born in Dønna, Norway in 1876. At 14 years of age he joined his father and brothers in the Lofoten fishing grounds, where he worked until he emigrated to the United States in 1896.He settled in Union County, South Dakota and worked as a farmhand until 1898.
With the help of his pastor, Rølvaag then enrolled in school. The wooden cabin where Rolvaag wrote Giants in the Earth sits on the Augustana College campus in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. In 1901 Rolvaag graduated from Augustana Academy in Canton, South Dakota. He earned a bachelor's degree (1905) and a master's (1910) from St. Olaf College in Minnesota. He was a professor at St. Olaf College from 1906 and Head of the Norwegian department from 1916 until his death in 1931, aged 55.
Giants in the Earth was originally written in Norwegian. The two other books in the trilogy are Peder Victorious and Their Fathers' God.
Ole E. Rolvaag, a Norwegian-American, is known by very few readers in Norway and the rest of Scandinavia. This is a pity. Rolvaag is a major author, and his books, especially this trilogy, deserve to be much more widely known than they are. It is hard to say what the reasons for this sad state of affairs may be, but is it likely that lacking promotion of his books by the publisher is a major factor in this.
Giants in the Earth is a beautifully written book about the experiences of the early Norwegians who settled in the vast prairie of the Dakota Territory during the latter half of the Nineteenth century. This book is truly an American classic, especially for those of Norwegian or Scandinavian descent or those who've lived in the Great Plains. It appears to be a realistic description of the life of the early settlers. It conveys their sense of isolation and desolation, as well as of the hardships inherent in pioneering so far West with so little resources. It is a tale of hard work, ingenuity, and discipline. Their resilience in the face of relentless hardship, adversity, and deprivation is stunning, as is their belief in a better life.
O. E. Rolvaag's characters are unbelievably rich and have considerable psychological depth. The primary characters are Beret, the troubled homesteader's wife, Pers Hansa, her resourceful and cunning husband, their neighbor Han Olsa and his able and gentle wife Sorrine. Per Hansa is the focal figure of this group.
In Giants in the Earth Rolvaag brilliantly describes both the psychological effect of early prairie life and the Norwegian immigrant culture of the time. Per Hansa is a man with tons of energy and enthusiasm, who thinks outside the box and refuses to give in. He is a natural leader and a symbol of the pioneering spirit. It is hard not to love Per Hansa and the settlers even as they deal with squatters, locusts, sod houses, and the endless winter of the northern Plains.
Those who have read and enjoyed the quartet of books written by Swedish author Vilhelm Moberg, known as the Emigrant-series (see review here), about the early Swedish settlers of Minnesota, will enjoy O.E. Rolvaag's books. And, indeed, all those who likes lyrically written historical fiction. And, it really ought to be read by all those in Scandinavia who have family members that emigrated to America. Few other books come even close to this one when it comes to expressing the experiences of those that departed. In Giants in the Earth, pioneer life is interpreted with compassion, understanding and consummate art – it is a truly epic of pioneering and a pleasure to read.
Peder Victorious, by Ole Edvart Rolvaag
Published in 1928, this novel is the second in the trilogy about the Norwegian immigrants to Dakota. Peder Victorious continues O. E. Rolvaag's saga of the Norwegian settlers in the Dakotas. While Giants in the Earth tells the story about how the Holm family and the other immigrants struggled to build a homestead and a new life, Peder Victorious focuses on how the American-born children searched for a new national identity, often in at odds with the traditions their parents had taught them and fought to uphold.
In this book, we meet again are all the pioneers of the earlier novel several years later, Per Hansa's Beret and their children, Syvert Tonseten and Kjersti, and Sorine. The struggle against the land has been won. Now the second struggle begins: that of adapting, to become Americans.
The development of the Spring Creek settlement in these years is manifested in the rebellious growing up of Peder Victorious. Out of the inevitable conflict between this first-generation American and his still Norwegian mother, Rolvaag built a powerful novel of personal growth, guilt, and victory.
It is, to some extent, a tale of parents who made their children part of a world to which they themselves could never belong. Peder Victorious is a powerful novel, written by a brilliant author. The conflicts between the first and second generation are described bby O.E. Rolvaag with penetrating psychological insight. Peder Victorious is a significant contribution to the literature and cultural history of the Mid-West, and a fantastic book.
Their Fathers' God, by Ole Edvart Rolvaag
Their Father's God is the third and final book of the trilogy. Against a backdrop of hard times, crisscrossed by Populists, antimonopolists, and schemers, O.E. Rolvaag brings the struggle of immigrants into the twentieth century. In Their Fathers' God, the first-generation Americans enter a world of ruthless competition in the midst of scarcity.
Susie Doheny, an Irish Catholic, and Peder Holm, a Norwegian Lutheran, fall in love and marry in South Dakota in the 1890s. Soon their marriage is tested by drought, depression, and family bickering. Susie believes they are being tested by their fathers' God. The main subject of the book is the series of challenges Susie and Peder face as they try to reconcile their different religious beliefs (Susie is Catholic; Peder is Lutheran but also skeptical of religion in general) in their new marriage.
I have to say that I didn't like Their Father's God nearly as much as the two previous ones. Actually, I don't think I liked it. The characters in this book simply are not likeable. And the huge dramas about some minor religious issues just didn't make much sense to me. My feeling is that many of the conflicts that drive this book are time-specific in character, and Rolvaag doesn't manage to make them sufficiently universal to be of much interest to readers today.