Giants in the Earth
By Christine Gunderson
This month we’re discussing books that changed our perspective.
For me, that book is Giants in the Earth by O.E. Rolvaag. Giants in the Earth is to the northern plains what To Kill a Mockingbirdis to southern fiction. It’s a masterpiece.
Giants in the Earth is the saga of a Norwegian immigrant named Per Hansa and his wife Berit. They leave Norway and emigrate to the Dakotas where they endure blizzards, crop failures and other terrible things I won’t give away because I’d like you to read this book for yourself. I promise you won’t regret it.
Giants in the Earth changed my perception of my heritage. Before I read it, I desperately wanted to be Irish, Italian or English. Especially Irish. Scarlett O’Hara was part Irish. Anne of Green Gables had intense red hair. These heroines were “spirited” and stamped their feet in adorable spunkiness when angry. They had fiery tempers. I wanted to be just like them.
If I couldn’t be Irish, I wanted to be Italian. All that opera and good food. And again, license to have a big personality. Or I wanted to be an English aristocrat, part of some ancient tradition, able to trace my ancestors backward in time for centuries.
Instead, I got stuck being Norwegian in a community where everyone else was Norwegian too. Unless they were Swedish. Or maybe Danish.
Where I grew up, people with fiery personalities were considered cranky and little off balance. No one had red hair. We drank weak coffee. I don’t think I tasted garlic until I went to college. We were all meat and potatoes all the time, unless it was Christmas, when we ate a Norwegian delicacy called lutefisk with is essentially fish soaked in lye. It smells, well, like garbage and has the consistency of jellyfish. It’s like Norwegian haggis.
So, for a girl who desperately wanted romance and drama in her life, the worst possible scenario was to be Scandinavian on a farm in North Dakota eating lutefisk.
And then Mr. Hillier, my wonderful high school English teacher, assigned us Giants in the Earthand everything changed.
I had a few facts about my heritage before I started reading. I knew my great-grandfather had been a farmer and sheep herder in Norway and spent part of his childhood up in the mountains worried about being eaten by bears as he watched over his flock.
I knew two of my grandparents couldn’t speak English until they started their education at a one room country school. I knew my grandfather quit school in eighth grade to help on the farm. I’d heard stories about blizzards and droughts and bad years, but the magnitude of grit and character it took to endure all this didn’t sink in until O.E. Rolvaag brought it to life for me in Giants in the Earth.
I finally understood the amazing courage and desperate poverty that drove my great-grandfather, and still drives immigrants today, to leave a country, a family, and a language behind to come to America.
I understood how daunting it must have for those first immigrants to gaze across an endless ocean of grass and see nothing. No people or signs of civilization. Just open prairie until the earth meets the sky.
I understood how the relentless wind and isolation could drive someone to madness. I understood the Job-like anguish of breaking your back to plant a crop and then watching powers beyond your control sweep it all away.
Because of this book, I finally understood who I was and where I came from. And I understood that I was strong.
This knowledge has helped me in so many ways since. In publishing especially. I write a book and it gets rejected. So, I write another book. And I’ll keep writing until I write something so incredible no one can turn it down.
Per Hansa didn’t give up because it was hard. I won’t give up either.
I want my children to know something special is embedded in their DNA. We don’t eat lutefisk at Christmas, not because it smells like garbage, but because I can’t find a place that sells it in the D.C. area where I now live.
And when my kids whine, I remind them that the descendants of people who crossed the North Sea in open boats to raid monasteries do NOT need snacks to sustain them on the drive to Target.
Someday when life gets tough for my kids, I hope they’ll remember that their ancestors didn’t give up when the blizzards hit, and the crops failed. Or that homework is a privilege unavailable to kids who have to drop out of school to help their families, like my grandfather did.
So, I’ll take a shield maiden over Scarlett O’Hara any day. I don’t even wear green on St. Patrick’s Day anymore. The rest of the world can pretend to be Irish for a day, but I don’t need to borrow anyone else’s heritage. My descendants were giants in the earth.
Christine Gunderson is a former television anchor/reporter and former House and Senate aide who lives outside of Washington, D.C. with her husband, children and Star, the Wonder Dog. When not writing, she’s sailing, playing Star Wars trivia, re-reading Persuasion,or unloading the dishwasher.