The Greenlanders

by Jane Smiley

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 453

THE GREENLANDERS immediately takes the reader back to another time and place: “Asgeir Gunnarsson farmed at Gunnars Stead near Undir Hofdi church in Austfjord.... 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.” The style is that of the Scandinavian sagas, in which concrete bits of information mix with superstition, in which joy and sorrow, violence and visions are recounted in the same matter-of-fact tone. Smiley’s success is such that the reader takes in the story much as her characters listen to tales throughout THE GREENLANDERS--with complete belief in the world of the story.

The novel is centered on the children and grandchildren of Asgeir Gunnarsson, making THE GREENLANDERS a true “saga"--the story of a family. The life of Margret Asgeirsdottir provides a time frame; the story begins with her birth and ends at her death. During that time, the culture of the Greenlanders begins to unravel. The lives of Margret and Gunnar, her brother, exemplify some of the changes. Margret is one of the last women to know the old patterns of weaving and the properties of various herbs. Gunnar, however, who was a lazy child, neither learns to farm well from his father nor to hunt like his uncle, Hauk. This failure to pass along is pervasive among the Greenlanders, affecting every aspect of life, and it foreshadows the complete disappearance of their society. Priests do not know all the words to the mass. The new lawspeaker knows only a third of the laws and neglects to teach anyone else those he does know. The Thing, the meeting at which disputes are settled peaceably according to law, ceases to be well attended and finally erupts in the violence it was meant to prevent.

In an interview with PUBLISHER’S WEEKLY, Smiley said, “There’s the sense that if we in our time knew how they in their time somehow managed to let go, somehow managed to lose control, then it would help keep us from losing control of our own situation.” THE GREENLANDERS is not simply a modern novel dressed in historical clothes. Smiley has done a remarkable job bringing to life her characters and their ways. They are not twentieth century people, but their experiences parallel our own, and they haunt the reader.

Sources for Further Study

The Atlantic. CCLXI, May, 1988, p. 94.

Booklist. LXXXIV, March 1, 1988, p. 1049.

Chicago Tribune. April 3, 1988, XIV, p. 5.

The Christian Science Monitor. September 7, 1988, p. 18.

Houston Post. May 15, 1988, p. F10.

Kirkus Reviews. LVI, February 15, 1988, p. 240.

Library Journal. CXIII, April 15, 1988, p. 96.

The New Republic. CXCVIII, May 16, 1988, p. 36.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIII, May 15, 1988, p. 11.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIII, March 25, 1988, p. 50.

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