In The Greenlanders, Jane Smiley has written a fascinating historical novel set in fourteenth century Greenland, a richly detailed account of the mysterious decline and fall of an isolated Scandinavian culture. Smiley centers her story on the experiences of a single family, tracing their fortunes over three generations. The implicit questions raised by the fate of the Greenlanders seem pertinent to our own age. How does a culture become extinct? What happens when a society becomes too inflexible to adapt to changing conditions?
After Eric the Red discovered Greenland in 982, it was colonized by Norse settlers from Iceland, who settled in two regions along the fjords called “the western and eastern settlements.” For about five hundred years, these Norse settlers raised cattle and sheep, fished, hunted, and traded with Europe, until ships no longer arrived and the colony was isolated from its cultural roots. Famine, disease, and colder winters gradually decimated the small Greenland colony, which could no longer provide for itself.
Smiley’s narrative evokes a clear sense of the Greenlanders. Through her portraits of farmers, herdsmen, hunters, priests, and lawgivers, through accounts of their feasts, marriages, love affairs, hunts, and feuds, Smiley brings to life an extinct culture, yet one that seems surprisingly like our own. Living in a harsh but beautiful region of tall, dark mountains, steep pastures, and deep fjords, far removed from European culture, these are a sturdy, self-reliant people accustomed to holding their own opinions and doing as they please. Gradually, they are troubled by new apprehensions: The winters seem harsher, the food supplies dwindle, the skraelings, or Eskimos, attack more frequently, the bishop from Norway never returns, there are outbreaks of lawlessness and witchcraft, trading ships no longer arrive from Europe, the colony is sacked by English pirates. Is this God’s judgment for their sins? Have they been abandoned? Is this the end of the world? Are they facing the extinction of their culture? Who will tell their story? Why should they disappear after centuries of relative prosperity?
This desire to be remembered motivates Gunnar Asgeirssson to learn how to prepare parchment, so that he may “tell all the folk of the world . . . what is really the case with us.” The narrative advances by a cumulative unfolding of the intertwined stories of the Greenland community. The novel’s opening is rather simple and matter-of-fact: “Asgeir Gunnarsson farmed at Gunnars Stead near Undir Hofdi church in Austfjord.” It concludes just as simply: “And the children peeped out of the bedcloset, and Gunnar told his tale.” In between lie 558 pages of closely woven narrative, the saga of a fictional world as rich and varied as that of any of Honoré de Balzac’s historical novels. “Because a lot of the characters were historically attested,” Smiley has explained in a Publishers Weekly interview, “they really seemed to come to me as living things outside of myself. I felt as though I were bringing to light the story of a lost people, as if I’d known those people and was finally telling their tale to the world in the ways that they deserved to have it told.”
There is nothing postmodernist or minimalist about Smiley’s fictional technique. Her novel is firmly rooted in her thorough knowledge of the Icelandic sagas and her meticulous historical and archaeological research, which took her to Greenland while she was writing the book. “I found the sagas fascinating as examples of absolutely pared-down narrative,” Smiley remarks. “I decided that they were really about cause and effect more than anything else, because some little tiny cause would always lead to cataclysmic effects, and the saga would map out these effects, both geographically and historically.” Her novel is divided into three long chapters, “Riches,” “The Devil,” and “Love,” which serve as thematic metaphors for the three generations of Greenland life that she chronicles.
The Greenlanders is a chronicle of the events occurring within the lifetimes of Margret Asgeirsdottir, born in 1345, and her brother, Gunnar Asgeirsson, who was born in 1352. The narrative takes their family from the relatively properous years of the...