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Book Review: Giants in the Earth

I am in my fourth year of teaching freshman composition at a local community college as a part-time instructor.  This semester, I chose Willa Cather’s My Antonia and O.E. Rolvaag’s Giants in the Earth as our class novels.  While my classes’ reactions to the novels were mixed, I found both novels interesting and compelling for their depiction of humanity and its potential for both triumph and despair.

O.E. Rolvaag’s epic Giants in the Earth is the story of Norwegian settlers who make their way across the prairies to finally settle in the Dakota Terriotory in the latter part of the nineteenth century, where they try to subdue the land and make it prosper.  On one hand there is Per Hansa, the indomitable man who embodies true pioneer spirit and will stop at nothing to find success.  In contrast to him is his wife, Beret, who slips into depression and madness as she finds so much about life as a pioneer to overwhelm and frighten her.  The story is peopled with other pioneers who react in various ways to their climate and environment, but in the end they all work together to build a successful community together.  The story chronicles the challenges and triumphs of this little band of pioneers while simultaneously giving the reader a picture of the psychological makeup it takes to settle and subdue a new land.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel.  Although I read it in translation from the Norwegian, I found it both easy to read and, at times, beautifully written.  Despite the fact that it is a lengthy novel (about 500 pages), it is a relatively quick read because it is really just a day-to-day accounting of the pioneers’ lives.  There is much to love and admire about the characters.  The ending of novel is one of those that makes me throw down the book and sigh deeply.  You cannot spend so much time with these characters without becoming at least a little bit attached to them.  If you like pioneer stories of courage and character, you will enjoy this book.

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