As you read the reviews on Bookshop Talk, you'll notice that every review is positive. No, we're not a bunch of literary
pushovers who love everything we pick up; we just see no point in telling you about a book if we didn't like it.

June 28, 2012

GREENLANDERS by Jane Smiley, 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 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. (Goodreads)

Reviewed by Jessica Day George, Author and Bookshop Talk Host

I would see this book around when I worked in a bookstore, and being a Scandinavia junkie, I would often look at it, feel the  cover, try to figure out what it was about.  It has a beautiful cover, very evocative . . . and also slightly obtuse as it doesn’t give you any solid information about the book.  And I didn’t read it.

Then I came across the title in an article about “Hard to Find Books That Should Be Classics.”  The Greenlanders, according to the author of the article, was one of the great works of historical fiction, as well as being beautiful written and was considered an inspiration by other authors of note.  And I didn’t read it.

Listen, the book is pretty thick, and has fairly small type.  There are no pictures, okay?  I knew eventually I would be in the mood for that book, I just didn’t know when.

So then I came across a like new copy at a library sale for a dollar, and I bought it and proudly put it on the shelf of my “fancy” book case alongside all my prettiest books.  And I still didn’t read it.

And then, suddenly, I WAS in the mood to read it, and it was there and I so totally read it.

And it was amazing.

For those of you who don’t know, the Norse settlement of Greenland lasted about 500 years.  They were cut off from the mainland most of the year, practically nothing grows there except lichen, the Skraelings (Inuit) were constantly attacking them, yet for five centuries they thrived . . . and then they suddenly didn’t.  The Norse settlement was almost entirely wiped out after 500 years, by a combination of famine, plague, and senseless murder, taking them from viable community to a wasteland in a matter of seasons.  Jane Smiley perfectly captures the ending of this society, viewed through the eyes of Margret Asgeirsdatter and her brother Gunnar. She shows us every aspect of life medieval Greenland: weddings, funerals, births, holidays, epidemics, extremes of weather and extremes of humanity.  There are crimes committed, family feuds, witch hunts and whale hunts.  It’s a big, sprawling epic in every sense of the word.

If you have any interest at all in Scandinavia, I urge you to read this book.  If you like historical fiction of any kind, I cannot recommend it highly enough.  If you like well-written, “literary” fiction, you should find a copy.  If you like to read books of ANY KIND, you need to try this book.  It was just so fabulous!

Market: Adult Historical Fiction
Language: None
Violence: Some, including swordfights, and people being killed by arrows or spears, none of it is graphic.
Sensuality: A bit of “rolling in the hay” (lichen, actually), not graphic.
Mature Themes: Adultery, unwed pregnancy, vengeance killings, losing children to starvation or illness.

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