The Greenlanders

by Jane Smiley

Hardcover, 1988




New York : Knopf : Distributed by Random House, 1988.


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 far-flung 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 longstanding feuds, and by an act of literary magic, makes a remote time, place, and people not only real but dear to us.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member AnnieMod
The designation "novel" covers a big range of narrative styles - and the sagas tend to be credited there. "The Greenlanders" is a saga - it is not a story with a plot and main characters, it is the story of a place, of a nation, of a time. Characters appear and disappear, people die (even people
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that feel like being the main characters), people appear out of nowhere and names repeat themselves. It is like real life - you don't have people that are invincible and people do not get named conveniently (or show up only after their story is revealed). And somewhere amidst all these people is the story of the Greenland settlement at the times of the Black Death, the last years of the a previously prosperous life. The saga spans decades - in some instances years pass in a sentence; in some instances pages are spent on the same minute or hour.

And in that story emerges a nation that does not exist anymore, a style of life that had disappeared anywhere else and that is on the verge of extinction. Because even if Greenland's original settlers belonged to a different nation, their almost full isolation and their way of life turns them into something new... which by the time the novel opens is already something old and dying.

The details of the daily life are excruciating and at the same time you do not feel as if you are reading a history book instead of the novel you expected. Even though there are main characters emerging in the book, part of the beauty of the book is that you never know who will die or when or how.

It is a very dense read - even if you want to read fast, the text slows you down with the details, the prose and the style. But in a good way - in the way in which good non-fiction slows you down when it gets technical. And still it remains a fascinating fiction. Although it is not an easy read emotionally either - deaths, hunger and human stupidity is part of the book - whatever nature does not manage to take away, humans do. The foreigners that at the beginning of the novel are a good omen and carry happiness by the end of the novel turn into the worst thing that could have happen to the community - first by just influencing it and then by effectively destroying it. It is a dying world - with the Earth going into the small Ace Age, Greenland becomes too cold and inhospitable. And yet - noone gives up - it is only the external influence that manages to break up everything.

And somewhere amongst that saga are the stories - people telling stories - of heroes and real people, of their life and the life of others. And midway through the book, some of the stories are the stories of the people that tell them, the same stories we already read. And yet - they are different - because stories belong to the teller... and every time a story is told, it changes.

It is a marvelous novel - but only if someone is prepared for the style and the scope.
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LibraryThing member wandering_star
This book tells the story of a whole community - the descendants of Norse settlers in Greenland over the last half of the 14th century. It is a story of slow decline (with the occasional brief reversal in fortunes). The Greenlanders are suffering from the onset of the Little Ice Age, which makes
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the summer growing season shorter. At the same time, the community is increasingly isolated from the rest of Europe - Norway is in the grip of the Black Death, and is losing interest in its far-flung colony. (Without any trees themselves, the Greenlanders cannot build ocean-going ships).

The story is told as a saga, with language and scope to match. It took me about 100 pages to get used to the style - initially I was quite frustrated by the scale, and kept waiting for a main character to emerge. (That was fairly fruitless - at one point it felt as if as soon as someone developed a personality they died.) But once I accepted that wasn't going to happen, I could appreciate the skill and subtlety of the narrative. The life of the community is fantastically well-imagined, and the saga style is well executed. It gives the reader a strong sense of the cycles of life: whether these are cycles of vengeance (the core of the first part of the book is a running vendetta between two neighbouring families), the cycles of the seasons, or the way that different people go through similar events, emotions and choices.

There is a real focus, as well, on stories - people tend to tell a story when they want to give advice, warning or comfort to another (for example, a woman's lover tells her stories of people whose affairs, while adulterous, are clearly seen favourable by the fates).

In fact, one of the best things about the saga style is that there is very little psychological description - we have to work out the motivations largely from what people say or do. So, for example, sometime after a marriage of convenience, we are told: "she went to him and sat close beside him in a way that was unusual. Now Olaf looked at his wife and laughed and said, "Have you been trying your own potions, then, so that you have blinded yourself to my low brow and swarthy looks?" Margret had no answer to this, and Olaf went outside". This is all there is to tell us that the marriage is never consummated.

This book might not suit everyone. But if you have the time to give yourself over to it, I think it is a very rewarding read.
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LibraryThing member alaskabookworm
Immediately upon finishing Sigrid Undset's "Kristin Lavransdatter" I picked this book up to read. Chronologically, it picks up right where "KL" leaves off, except this middle-ages novel is set in Greenland, rather than Norway. This is a slow-going book, and exceedingly grim at times, but a
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masterpiece nonetheless. Smiley is an impressive, expansive writer; one of my favorites for her repetoire and methodical research. It really isn't until the end of this book that the reader infers who is really telling this story, and why its being told. But Smiley convincingly maintains the cadence and voice of the period the whole way. I was very impressed with this book and was surprised not to be able to find more acclaim for it on the Web. When I finally finished, I had spent six weeks reading books set in 14th Century North Atlantic. It was a bit hard to come back to the present.
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LibraryThing member bragan
The story of three generations or so of Norse families in the slowly declining Greenland settlement in the late 14th and early 15th centuries. I say "story"... Truth is, it doesn't necessarily read very much like a novel. In some places we get dialog and insights into specific characters' points of
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view. In other places, it reads more like an overview of history, and in others more like we're among these people listening to news from the neighbors, and all of these different things just blend seamlessly into each other, page after page.

And there are a lot of pages. Nearly 600 of them, full of the ordinary and extraordinary details of people's lives, their disputes and loves and mistakes and changes of heart, their physical and mental illnesses, their hardships and hopes and tragedies and moments of pettiness and violence and beauty. It's compelling stuff, and through it all, these people, for all their differences from us, feel absolutely like real people.

This is not a fast-reading book. It's the kind of book that really only works, I think, if you just let it unspool at its own pace and take you along for its slow but immersive ride. And you know what? I think it did me an incredible favor with that. I feel like lately I've been feeling sort of stupidly stressed about my reading life. I'm not reading as many books as usual! I'm not making sufficient progress through my out-of-control TBR shelves! Whatever I'm reading, I'm constantly distracted by thinking about what I'm going to read next! Or, rather, I was. This book just sort of demanded I let all that go and just relax and enjoy the journey. Which, after all, is what pleasure reading is supposed to be about. And whaddaya know? It worked.

Rating: Slightly to my surprise, I'm giving this one 4.5/5. Sometimes, you just get the right book at the right time, and you have to show it some appreciation for that. Plus, the ending was so poignant that it's left me with unexpected emotions that still seem to be lingering after I've turned the last page and shut the covers.
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LibraryThing member Schmerguls
This is a long novel laid in 14th and 15th century Greenland, and showing the dying out of Greenland as the people were defeated by the vicissitudes of the climate. The story follows a couple of generations, and shows the degeneration of Greenland society as its isolation from Europe and the
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worsening climate overtook the people and the rule of law disintegrated. It is written in a style supposedly imitating Scandinavian epic style, and I presume that the depiction of life in Greenland in that time accurately reflects conditions in the period. It would have been nice if there were a bibliography showing what the author relied on in composing the novel. It is a pretty bleak setting and I did not find the book good reading and was glad to get to the end, finally.
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LibraryThing member lyzadanger
It's as if I were reading a religious tome, or maybe one of the original Sagas, in its original, as an acolyte. Each reading session, days and nights slipping by, eking me only incrementally forward, impossible to make this story take anything but the amount of time it needs to take. It will stymy
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speed-readers. With only three chapters in nearly 600 pages (abstractly: "Riches", "The Devil" and "Love"), scant paragraph breaks and copy as dense as the weight of a damp Greenland winter. Smiley's novel unwinds as a single, admirably constant, thread. It will require attention and persistence.

But, in short, it is worth it. Each petty squabble, each encroaching superstition, each abandoned farmstead among the vulnerable, thin band of Norse emigrants who constituted the titular Greenlanders increases the grey, windswept, taut feeling that these people are on their way to their own (undisclosed and historically mysterious) end. You can't let it go. You have to come along with it, yourself getting gritty winter-sand blown into your hair and eating sourmilk and dried bilberries and sharpening old inter-family feuds.

I mean, from the outset, it's hopeless. This arrogant clutch of 14th-century farmers bring incompatible Scandinavian farming techniques and undiluted disdain for the indigenous "skraelings" (Eskimo or Inuit), who continue sleek and fleshy as the Greenlanders dwindle and starve. Epidemic after gruesome epidemic decimate the steaders. They kill amongst themselves for honor or anger or fear. The land refuses to give and each year the crops and livestock weaken more. Ships stop coming, and the Greenlanders—no trees—cannot build their own.

Many of the people in the multi-generational story here are real. You can look some of them up. They happened. The place-names where they lived and worked still vaguely discernible on the land. Though they are completely vanished now, Smiley makes each of their life stories utterly plausible, such that you are confused as to where fiction stops and the surreal, remote, but *real* history of the failed colonies on Greenland begins.

It is haunting and cold-feeling and bleak. It never wavers from its calculated, saga-style prose. But it can't be ignored, and draws one back night after night until the end finally comes.
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LibraryThing member gregory_gwen
You might think that the story of the Norwegian immigrants to Greenland would be depressing and boring. But Jane Smiley brings them vividly to life! A great historical novel.
LibraryThing member AuntJha
I remember reading this the summer after Tim was born. The language was difficult to understand at first, but once I got used to it I found myself using it in conversations.
LibraryThing member readingrat
This book turned out to be quite the undertaking. The way the book is constructed (dense type with no chapter breaks) didn't work really well with my "stolen moments" reading style. The story wasn't poorly written, however I frequently found myself distracted from the story by the very smallest of
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things. I would put the book back down at the end of my "stolen moment" and find I had only read one or two pages at most when I would have finished a chapter in most other books. That made this book go on forever - so glad it's done.
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LibraryThing member booksinthebelfry
I think this book is a stark but lovely masterpiece. Alas, no one else to whom I have ever recommended it (including my doting husband and an entire book group) has even finished it, let alone agreed with my opinion of its literary merit. Who can say why I was so transfixed by Smiley's lyrical
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evocation of a closed medieval society? Perhaps it was just one of those cases of the right book at the right moment for the right reader....
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LibraryThing member dawn-michelle
I have to sympathize with "booksinthebelfrey", I was completely captivated by this book, and I can't fully explain why. The stark tone matched the setting and the characters perfectly, and it reads very much like the original sagas, giving the feeling that you're reading an original medieval work.
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It appears to have been very well researched, with actual places, people, and events from meager contemporary reports being the basis for the story.
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LibraryThing member linguist2005
First off, I really liked it. It was a lot of work and it took me forever to finish it, but I am really glad you recommended it. Probably one of the most dense books I have ever read. I am not sure why I use that word, I certainly don't mean 'dense' in the 'thick-headed' sense, but more in the
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every word matters and there is hardly a wasted breath sense. I am not ever sure that every word did matter, but the writing style was so uniformly distant (which I grew into) that someone's sudden and tragic death was given the same attention as someone's breakfast. Consequently, I was often stunned when someone who I really liked (Hauk) up and died suddenly.

The detail was stunning and the way she was able to bring these peoples' culture and dispositions out was excellent. Too often I find my historical fiction/fantasy characters acting with a very modern American/European mindset. The Greenlanders she depicted were so brilliantly and harrowingly detailed, that I felt like it was a first hand account (her style imitated such an account to a high degree, that helped too). I liked how characters, who on the surface looked boringly simple (like Margaret and her emotionless reactions), were actually so complex that I wasn't even sure I was understanding all the clues I had been given. Then again, maybe I was looking for something that wasn't there... but I don't think so.

The only negative thing I have to say, and I don't think it is truly negative, is about the pacing. I think because it was a dense book, with only 3 or 4 chapters, it was hard to get into it if I only had anything less than a half hour to commit. Sadly, this has often been the case because of school. Consequently, I gave up reading it for short stints and only read it before bed when I could commit at least a half hour. I think this made me enjoy it more because I was allowed to truly sink into the story and stop reading when there was a natural change in scene or even the rare section/chapter break. So, this is not a criticism, but just a warning I suppose. I would tell people to only read this book when they have serious time to dedicate to it. A lot of serious time.
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LibraryThing member LTFL_JMLS
You might think that the story of the Norwegian immigrants to Greenland would be depressing and boring. But Jane Smiley brings them vividly to life! A great historical novel.
LibraryThing member Smiley
Good historical fiction about medieval Greenland and the colony that was eventually abandoned there. Well rounded female characters.
LibraryThing member olgalijo
I you're thinking about reading "The Greenlanders" you should brace yourself for a heady and slow read. This does not mean at all that it isn't enjoyable, but it needs to be tasted carefully. The narrator is delightful from my point of view. He is given the personality of a greenlander, although he
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does not participate into the story. He explains events from a greenlander's point of view, which explains much better why some actions led to certain developments. This saga is well worth the time, but you will need patience.
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LibraryThing member creynolds
I just finished this book for the second time and was just as captivated as I was before. The writing style takes some time getting used to, but then becomes a means to transport the reader into a different time and place. In fact, my daughter just read some of the earliest novels written in her
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college English class and her description of them brought this spare prose to mind. I agree with another reviewer that often historical fiction simply places modern day people in historical settings, but Jane Smiley here made me feel like she captured the people as they were. Yet they had familiar human strengths, failings and desires. This is not a book for a casual reader because it is so carefully written that it needs to be read carefully (you'll understand when you read it) but the payoff is tremendous for the reader who puts in the effort.
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LibraryThing member Romonko
Life was truly hard for these folk of the 15 century in Greenland. We can only imagine the harshness of the climate and the topography. Ms. Smiley does a very good job of portraying this with the minimialist style she uses for this book. As hard as life was for these folk, they still knew how to
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love, laugh and have fun sometimes. They were entirely fatalistic in their responses to everything that is thrown at them - starvation, death, killings and above all else - rumours. None expected life to be easy, and knew that death is as much a part of life as anything, so they determined to make the most of what time they had. I found the characters intriguing in this story. They are dour, yes, but they also display a great deal of empathy and humour. This is a very good tale, and it certainly gives a new look at another part of our great world.
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LibraryThing member bdtrump
An incredibly rich book. Smiley writes in the form of a saga, where many years pass and dozens of characters are covered. Though the book is dense at times, and may require a bit of fortitude to soldier through, the ending is well worth it: an interpretation of how the legendary Greenland
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settlements declined and fell in the early 15th Century. Smiley's work is a must read for any lover of historical fiction.
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LibraryThing member patsemple
Wonderful saga, GoT without the violence and pornography. Offers lots to think about re life, death, civilizations, nature of man, our perceptions of God. Written 30 years ago, have read other books by Smiley Annie inclined to read them all. Received many good reviews at the time.
LibraryThing member JackMassa
You think you got problems? Try living in Norse Greenland in the Little Ice Age. If you don't kill enough seals at the autumn hunt, you and your family might starve over the winter. That is if you don't die of the "vomiting ill" or get axe-murdered by a neighbor over some stupid feud. Geez.

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prodigious novel reads sometimes like a fantasy, the culture and everyday lives of the people being so strange. And at times like a "lost colony" SF novel, the community so isolated that a ship from Europe arrives only once every ten years or so (and when it does, it's a mixed blessing).

But mostly it reads like the Icelandic sagas that author Jane Smiley seems to have deliberately used as her model: rich interwoven story lines, fierce and stoical characters, straightforward prose that never rises from its matter-of-fact tone no matter how harsh or horrendous the events it tells.

I found the book slow at first, but eventually got caught up in all the strangeness and the fates of the characters. (And boy, are they fated!)

A profound, high-quality historical novel. Not recommended if you're already depressed.
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LibraryThing member iansales
I’ve no idea why I decided to read this. I must have seen an approving mention of it somewhere, because it’s not the sort of fiction that usually crosses my path or appeals to me. It is pretty much straight-up historical fiction about a community in Greenland during the early decades of the
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second millennium. And it’s written in a style appropriate to the material. Which means it is has a sort of saga-like approach to its story. While this gives the prose verisimilitude, it does mean that no sooner have you begun sympathising with a character then they are killed off. And then characters mentioned in passing several chapters earlier appear and occupy centre-stage in the narrative. It’s not like it’s even focused on a particular family, even over several generations, which would limit its cast and make it more manageable. It is actually a about a community, spread across several steads, into which people from other steads, often distant, are married or adopted. It gives the narrative a meandering character, which certainly suggests the annals of a mediaeval Greenlandic community, but makes for a difficult read for those expecting a story. I can’t vouch for the verisimilitude or historical accuracy, although it seemed very like what it would have been like to me based on what little I know. It’s an excellent novel but it is, to be honest, a bit of a slog, and it’s hard to feel any real empathy with any of the characters given they don’t stay around very long. Worth reading, but with caveats.
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LibraryThing member japaul22
Smiley has written a work of historical fiction about 14th-15th century Greenland that is slow, detailed, bleak and ultimately an unforgettable reading experience. Life in Greenland over this time period is waning. By the end of the 15th century, no evidence of these settlements exists, so the
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entire book is shadowed by the end of times for this people. Characters die left and right; life is hard to the point of almost no scenes of joy. The constant death seems to make characters not even connect to each other because they know they will be separated. Life revolves around the arrival of ships from Iceland and Norway. These come less and less frequently and the news they bring is mainly of widespread death in Europe. Greenland waits for a Bishop, receives one, and waits again in vain when he dies. They’ve been forgotten by the Pope and are on their way to being forgotten by all of Europe.

The book is written, especially in the beginning, with lots of myths and stories of past Greenlanders inserted. It’s obvious that the ancestors of the Greenlanders were much more adventurous than they are now. The previous generations used to travel to Vinland and Markland and north into Greenland. These trips are never attempted anymore. In fact, there are not even any large boats by the end of the book. Other things they lose over the course of the book are their knowledge of the laws usually enforced at the Thing, as well as contact with the church.

Smiley’s writing style is bleak and spare, just like the events of the book. Though many of the actions are dramatic, the writing stays detached and with painful slowness reveals the reactions and feelings of the main characters. It took me a long time to warm up to the pace of this book, but by the end I can’t imagine it being written any other way. Smiley doesn’t help the reader, the book is only divided into 3 large sections with no chapters to pace the book. I had a hard time with this, especially for the first third of the book. When I compare this book to The Long Ships or Kristin Lavransdatter, it suffers a bit since those books I found more engaging with easier characters to connect with and love. In the end though, I feel like I know what life was like for the Greenlanders - in fact I feel liked I’ve actually lived it. I also felt a deep connection to several of the characters, despite the slow reveal of their personalities.
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LibraryThing member ZeljanaMaricFerli
This is a 4 star read for me, but what an incredible reading experience. Smiley writes in the style of old Norse sagas which is hard to get into, but addictive once you get used to it. It is like a magnificent weave is being created in front of your eyes and you get into the characters' lives and
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then out and back in again.
These people, who really come to life in the book, sometimes die so easily and there is no dwelling upon it. It is a fascinating style that mirrors the harshness of the environment and the constant struggle and nearness of death the real Greenlanders were used to. This is a difficult book to read also because the reality is so unpleasant and the book makes it almost too real for the reader.

A space-time machine.
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