Pulitzer Prize winner and bestselling author Jane Smiley's The Greenlanders is an enthralling novel in the epic tradition of the old Norse sagas.Set in the fourteenth century in Europe's most farflung outpost, a land of glittering fjords, blasting winds, sun-warmed meadows, and high, dark mountains, The Greenlanders is the story of one family-proud landowner Asgeir Gunnarsson; his daughter Margret, whose willful independence leads her into passionate adultery and exile; and his son Gunnar, whose quest for knowledge is at the compelling center of this unforgettable book. Jane Smiley takes us into this world of farmers, priests, and lawspeakers, of hunts and feasts and long-standing feuds, and by an act of literary magic, makes a remote time, place, and people not only real but dear to us.
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September 13, 2005
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Excerpt from The Greenlanders by Jane Smiley
Asgeir Gunnarsson farmed at Gunnars Stead near Undir Hofdi church in Austfjord. His homefield was nearly as large as the homefield at Gardar, where the absent bishop had his seat, and he had another large field as well. From the time he took over the farm upon the death of his father, this Asgeir had a great reputation among the Greenlanders for pride. It happened that when he was a young man he went off on the king's knarr to Norway, and when he returned to Gunnars Stead two years later, he brought with him an Icelandic wife, whose name was Helga Ingvadottir. She carried with her two wallhangings and six white ewes with black faces, as well as other valuable goods, and for pride folk said that Asgeir was well matched in her.Asgeir built a special pen for these Icelandic ewes at the edge of his second field, and this pen was visible from the steading. Each morning Asgeir liked to open the door of the steading and gaze out upon his ewes cropping the rich grass of his second field, and when Helga brought him his bowl of sourmilk, he would turn and set his eyes upon her elaborate headdress and the silver brooches that lay against her throat. Thus he would contemplate his luck. About this time, Helga Ingvadottir gave birth to a child who was named Margret, and who was a sturdy, quiet child and a great source of pride to the mother.Also visible from the door of the steading was the turf hut belonging to Thorunn Jorundsdottir, and the bit of land surrounding this hut cut a notch in the Gunnars Stead property where it met the property of Ketil Erlendsson, Asgeir's nearest neighbor. This Thorunn was an old woman, who kept one cow and only a few sheep and goats. She supplemented her meager provisions by going about to nearby farms and begging for some of this and some of that. She was also given much to whispering, and folk in the district were not disinclined to hear what she had to say, although they were disinclined to speak of it.There was nothing about this Thorunn that Helga Ingvadottir cared for, neither her whispering, nor her begging, nor the sight of her hovel on the horizon, nor the way that the one cow and the few sheep and goats often strayed among Gunnars Stead beasts. One day Thorunn came to Gunnars Stead, as she was in the habit of doing, and asked Helga for some of the new milk. Helga, who was standing in the doorway of the dairy, with basins of new milk all about her, refused this request, for recently she had felt another child quicken within her, and it was well known among the Greenlanders that a woman hoping for a boy child must drink only new milk. Thorunn glanced about at the basins of milk and went away muttering. Later, when Asgeir returned to the steading for his evening meat, Helga spoke bitterly against the old woman, until Asgeir demanded silence.But it seemed the case that Thorunn had indeed cursed the Gunnars Stead folk, for not long after this, one of Asgeir's horses stepped in a hole and broke his leg, and had to have his throat cut, and then, after the servants had filled in the hole, another of the horses stepped in the same hole, and broke the selfsame leg, and had to have his throat cut, as well. And then Helga Ingvadottir came to her time, but the birth did not go well, and though the child lived, the mother did not. This was in the year 1352, by the reckoning of the stick calendar at Gardar.Asgeir named the child Gunnar, for there had been a Gunnar or an Asgeir at Gunnars Stead since the time of Erik the Red, when Erik gave his friend Hafgrim all of Austfjord and the northern part of Vatna Hverfi district, the richest district in all of Greenland, and Hafgrim gave a piece to the first Gunnar, his cousin. The child Gunnar was not especially small and not especially large. His nurse was a servingwoman whose name was Ingrid. Margret was by this time some seven winters old.The child Gunnar did not grow well, and when he should have been walking, he was only sitting up, and when he should have been playing with the other children about the farmstead, Margret was still carrying him about in a sling upon her back. Asgeir regretted naming the child Gunnar, and spoke of changing it to Ingvi.Asgeir Gunnarsson had a brother who also lived at Gunnars Stead, who was named Hauk. Hauk had no wife, and was very fond of all sorts of hunting and snaring and fishing. He had been to the Northsetur, far to the north of the western settlement, where Greenlanders liked to hunt walrus and narwhal and polar bear, such large animals as were very valuable to the bishop and to the ships that came from the archbishop of Nidaros and the king in Norway. He sought the icy, waste districts both summer and winter, and his skills made Gunnars Stead especially prosperous. He spoke little. Asgeir said his brother could make the killing of a polar bear sound like a day at the butter churn. Hauk was the taller of the two brothers, very straight-limbed and fair-looking. Asgeir often urged him to find himself a wife, but Hauk said nothing to these suggestions, as he said nothing to most suggestions. He was well liked among the Greenlanders for his skills, and not blamed for his independent ways, for the Greenlanders live far out on the western ocean, and know what it is to depend upon themselves in all things.One day Asgeir gathered together a group of men. Toward dusk, they surrounded Thorunn's little steading and called her out. When she came, carrying a basin and muttering in her usual fashion, Asgeir said that he was tired of her curses, and he killed her with his sheep-shearing knife. Gunnar was three winters old. Now he began to walk and to act more like other children. Asgeir stopped talking of changing his name to lngvi. Folk in the district said little of this killing. Thorunn had a niece with a young daughter who lived in Petursvik at Ketils Fjord, far to the south, but no male relatives to exact revenge. It was clear enough that she had put a spell over the child, and many praised Asgeir for his decisive action, including especially Hauk Gunnarsson, who had been away in Isafjord and not present at the killing. After Thorunn was buried near Undir Hofdi church, Asgeir sent his servants to her steading and had them tear it down, and he gave the cow and the sheep to Nikolaus, the priest at Undir Hofdi church, along with all of Thorunn's house furnishings. In this way, the boundary between Gunnars Stead and Ketils Stead was straightened, and the unsightly steading could no longer be seen from the doorway at Gunnars Stead. After these events, it seemed to Asgeir that he had renewed his good luck, and he was much pleased with himself.It was Margret's habit and pleasure as a child to walk about in the hills above the farmstead looking for herbs and bilberries, and most of the time she would carry Gunnar with her in a sling, for at eleven winters of age she was tall and strong, taller than Ingrid by far and not so much shorter than Asgeir himself. It happened on one such day a year after the killing of Thorunn the witch that Margret strayed beyond her usual range, and Gunnar, tired from playing among the tiny, trickling streams and tangles of birch scrub, fell into a deep sleep. It was well past the time for evening meat when Margret carried the sleeping child back to the farmstead, and she looked for a beating from Ingrid, but instead she found the farmstead deserted and everything quiet.The nurse Ingrid was a great storyteller, and she had told Margret many stories of the skraelings and their evil ways, and of the sad lives of little girls whom the skraelings stole and took with them into the north, farther north than the Northsetur, where Hauk Gunnarsson hunted for walrus and narwhal. Now Margret sat with her back against the turf of the steading and contemplated how the babies of these little girls would never be baptized, and would be taken out in the dark of winter and left to the elements. These little girls would be beaten if they dared to pray, and would have to submit to any man who wanted them. They would never bathe from year to year, and would wear only animal skins, and when they died they would have no final sacraments, and so they would spend eternal life in the same darkness and cold, and with the same sort of devilish companions as the skraelings. The fact was, that it was not unusual for Margret to give herself over to thoughts such as these, for though they frightened her, they also drew her. It made no difference that Asgeir laughed at Ingrid's tales, and declared that she had never seen a skraeling in her life (for the skraelings did not come near the Norse farms and never had), nor that Hauk Gunnarsson himself had frequent intercourse with the demons, and admired their hunting skills and the warmth of their garments. On the other hand, Margret had heard Asgeir and Ivar Bardarson, the priest who had Gardar in his charge until the coming of the new bishop, speaking of what had befallen the western settlement, for Ivar Bardarson had taken some men and gone there in a boat and found all of the farms abandoned and all of the livestock dead or scattered to the wastelands. And she had heard them mention skraelings more than once. She got up, ostensibly to find Gunnar some bits of dried fish and butter, for he was whimpering with hunger, but really to look around the corners of the steading. There was no one, man nor demon, to be seen. Dusk was falling. She sat down and took Gunnar upon her lap. He began to eat, and she dozed off.The two children were awakened by the glare of torches and the sound of Asgeir's rolling voice. "Well," he said, "here are the only folk along the whole of Einars Fjord who know nothing of the great event." He smiled in the flickering light of the torches. "A ship has come, my daughter, and though it brings no bishop, we will not send it back for one without unloading it first."Now folk crowded into the steading, not only Gunnars Stead folk, but Ketils Stead folk, too, for this event was interesting enough to draw the whole neighborhood together for talk and speculation. Gunnar sat open-eyed at the bench while Margret, Ingrid, and the servingmaids dished up sourmilk and other refreshments for the guests. Ketil Erlendsson spoke up. "Even so, it is but a single ship, and not sent of the king, either.""Nor of the bishop," said one of the other men.Asgeir said, "But it is large enough for there to be a bit of something for each of us." He laughed. "Something, it is certain, that we did not know we needed before this."Now a man spoke whom Gunnar had never seen before, dark and sour-looking, with odd, crinkly hair. "The news is that King Magnus has given the throne to King Hakon now, though Magnus still lives." He spoke angrily, and Gunnar's cousin, Thorkel, said with a grin, "Erlend Ketilsson, you sound as if he might have given the throne to you, had events gone another way." Gunnar had heard the name of the man, Erlend Ketilsson, many times, and widened his eyes in the flickering light to get a good look at him. His gaze seemed to fall upon Erlend like the touch of a hand, for the young man turned at once and stared back. Now Gunnar raised his palms to his face and pulled his cheeks down, until his eyes were staring out of the sockets, then he thrust forth his tongue, nearly to the roots. It was the work of a moment. Thorkel saw him and laughed aloud. Erlend scowled. Ketil said, "That won't be the only news, you may be sure, and the rest of it will be worse.""Few goods and bad news," said Asgeir, "but I am content. That is enough for me, if there is nothing else." The other men nodded and ate up the sourmilk and went off.The next day, all the Greenlanders flocked to Gardar to catch sight of the Norwegians and to trade the goods they had been hoarding for many years. The captain of the traders, a Bergen man named Thorleif, seemed to laugh all the time. He roared with laughter at the sight of the Greenlanders' tradegoods: sealskins and walrus tusks and lengths of homespun fabric, piles of sheepskins and reindeer skins and long twisted narwhal tusks. He came near to folk and peered at them, then laughed. The sailors seemed too sober by comparison, and hardly had a word to say. They stared at the Greenlanders, in fact, and stood like dolts around the Gardar field, as if they had never seen a cathedral, or a byre, or a hall such as the great Gardar hall, or sheep and goats and cattle grazing about the hillsides, or horses in their pens, or the landing spot, or the fjord itself, or the high dark mountains that rose all about. When Ivar Bardarson brought out cheese and sourmilk and boiled reindeer meat and dried sealmeat--a feast, in the view of most of the Greenlanders--they gazed at that for a long time before they began to eat it.Asgeir said to Thorleif, "Are your men such farmboys that they've never seen wealth like this before?" and Gunnar thought Thorleif would choke from laughing at this joke."Nay, Greenlander," he finally replied. "It is only what they have heard about this place. Some folk say that all Greenlanders are a little bluish, which is why you are called Greenlanders. And other folk say that you live on a diet of ice and salt water, and such a diet sustains you through your being accustomed to it."Now Asgeir grinned a wide grin, and said, "These things may be true of Herjolfsnes men, for they live far to the south and keep to themselves. You will have to see for yourself.""Perhaps I will. Our voyage was not so short that I can return this summer, as I had hoped." Thorleif looked about and laughed again. Asgeir said, "Most folk do not laugh at the prospect of a Greenland winter."