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The Greenlanders
Jane Smiley
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The Greenlanders

3.85 of 5 stars 3.85  ·  rating details  ·  1,247 ratings  ·  194 reviews
Smiley gives readers a magnificant novel of 14th century Greenland. Rich with fascinating detail about day-to-day life, The Greenlanders is also the compelling story of one family. Echoing the simple power of old Norse sagas, The Greenlanders brings a remote civilization to unforgettable life.
Published (first published March 12th 1988)
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(showing 1-30 of 3,000)
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Jul 09, 2013 Chrissie rated it 3 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Chrissie by: Maudie
I recommend this book to those of you seeking immersion into the world of medieval Greenland. The characters are the Nordic immigrants who settled in Greenland, the events taking place in the 1300s, centuries after Viking exploration. These people must cope with cold and a native population that is so strange that these creatures are seen as demons. These people, the indigenous Inuits, are called skraelings. It is a world of hunger and hard times, adultery and murder, illness and death and lawle...more
You don't just read this book. You LIVE it. Who would have thought that the lives of Scandinavian settlers in medieval Greenland could be so fascinating. Life was so hard and brutal. Both the culture and the climate were totally unforgiving. But it's totally fascinating to see how our forebearers lived, and how much of stoic Scandinavian culture remains in families of that heritage today.

The author, Jane Smiley, is an author of stunning brilliance. She carries you to another time and place, such...more
What makes this book unique is also what makes it unapproachable: Namely, it was written in the style of a Scandinavian epic, which is a departure from the narrative graces we're used to. At first, this causes it to seem anecdotal and choppy, and I had a hard time getting into it. After I became immersed in the characters and their lives, however, it quickly gathered momentum and drew me in. Though it follows a large cast of characters, I did not find myself yearning for more attention to some a...more
History has been something of a passion for me since I was very young and first read about the tombs of the Egyptian Pharaohs, the ancient temples and cities of the Aztec and the Khmer buried under jungle vines, and the crumbled ziggurats of Sumer. As I grew up I fell deep into the larger stories and overarching, serpentine narrative we call history, but always I was most attracted to the doomed and lost civilizations, the dwindling and disappearance of Norse Greenland being among them.

I really don't even remember when I read this book... that said, it was one of the most beautiful books I've read. Jane Smiley is an expert in Icelandic literature and sagas, which I know she once taught at University of Iowa (she may still). She chooses to use the prose style of these epic sagas to write her own saga of 14th c Vikings attempting to colonize Greenland. This makes it a bit difficult to get into right at first, but just like with any writing style, you quickly adjust. Just give it...more
This is very different from the other Jane Smiley books I've read. I'm knocked out that she can write in such different styles, and I loved this book.

Norse people settled on Greenland for about four hundred years, until the Little Ice Age made it impossible for them to survive there in about 1400. I was surprised when, about a hundred pages in, I found myself getting completely absorbed in this book and its world. It's told in what can seem like a kind of flat style, maybe like Saga stories from...more
Note: this is a personal and somewhat rambling review.

The Greenlanders was one of the great reading experiences of my adult life, and I have to confess that "great" reading experiences have become few and far between the older and more jaded I get. I had heard of the book for several years prior, and I knew that at some point, the time would ripe. I find that certain books reward a structured, self conscious approach to being read, The Greenlanders being a case in point. I am not sure why, it ce...more
What a truly amazing book. Written in a style reminiscent of the Norse sagas, beautifully detailed and epic in scale, this is the only book I've ever found that captures what it must have been like to live in one of the farflung Viking colonies of the Middle Ages. Greenland is a terribly inhospitable place, but I had no idea how inhospitable before I read this. They were completely unable to cultivate any fruits or vegetables or wheat. Their diet consisted of meat, from both wild and domesticate...more
I loved this book--really, really loved it, didn't want it to end. Since I can't abide Jane Smiley's other books* I couldn't figure how I would so love one but so hate the others. I was literally afraid to read it again, fearing that I might notice on the second reading loathesome qualities I'd missed the first time around, that I'd read shallowly and under the influence of my love for Sigrid Undsett's Kristen Lavransdatter, which I also loved.

But after years and years of this wondering and wor...more
Elizabeth Urello
I loved this book so much! As with all books I really love, I can't say exactly why it was so absorbing. A lot happens, but not in a page-turning way, it's not funny at all, and while you do come to know and care about the characters, they are held at a certain remove from the reader. But it's nearly 600 pages of awesomeness about a lost society I'd never had any interest in before, and I loved every word of it. It's about endurance and survival in a hostile landscape, in which human emotions -...more
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.

This 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 Europ...more
Although I struggled to stick with this book in the first 100+ pages, but I had read really good reviews on it so I stuck with it. Soon I was hooked and I am glad I did. The most interesting aspect of this story was the influence the Greenland's relative isolation had on their morals and religious beliefs. The oral preservation of laws that tried to maintain their original ties to other norther countries maintained some continuity until lawspeaker Bjorn failed to pass them on and even failed. As...more
Aug 17, 2007 Andrew rated it 2 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Historical Fiction Fans
This books begins with a strong premise, and interesting humanity-versus-nature story chronicling the decline of a settlement in Greenland, circa fifteenth-sixteenth century.

It would seem that whomever is responsible for editing this book needs to review basic paragraph structure and narrative flow. Jane Smiley patches snippets of dialogue and multi-year story events together between characters that may only appear once or twice.

The character relationships are especially murky, due to the Norweg...more
For a modern book, this struck me as a lot like the old icelandic/greenlandic stories that I've read. Of course, that is both good and bad as far as my personal tastes go. I cannot fault the characterization, depth of detail, or scope. However, it just goes on and on and on and on and on. You sometimes see entire lives in a couple of pages, but that's only a tiny portion. It is extremely dense, but I have to wonder if some of that could have been cut. It makes it seem more like the old Norse tal...more
Emma Deplores Goodreads Censorship
The Greenlanders is an exceptionally well-written bit of historical fiction, detailing the little-known history of the Norse settlement in Greenland from the mid-14th to early-15th century. While the story focuses primarily on one family, there is no real protagonist, and the narrative slips in and out of the lives of many members of the small community.

Smiley (no relation of mine, sadly!) consciously adopts the style of an oral epic, paying attention to the rhythm of the prose and repeating ce...more
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Sara  (
I read this in 2001 by stealing it from my then-roommate when she wasn't reading it. I don't know why, but I've been thinking about this book a lot. Even though it is long and I have so many other books I want to read, I am feeling compelled to go out and get a copy and read this wonderful book again. I remember that it was completely engrossing and surprising how major plot twists that would normally come at the end of a book would crop up abruptly and surprisingly everywhere. I felt immersed i...more
I really really wanted to read this book - I generally like Jane Smiley's work, and its historical fiction! About Northern Europe no less!

But in the end it was just...ponderous and dull. And frankly, I couldn't care less about any of the characters - not the unfaithful wife, the family she left behind, the crazy priest...not anyone. They were just all so dull. Even as Smiley so painstakingly - in so much detail - talked about the harshness of their life and their winters I still didn't care.

This may be my new favorite novel. It was hard going at first, but Smiley's strange, impersonal way of telling the story really got under my skin. I read it six months ago and it still comes to mind constantly.

What did I like about it? The pared-down world of the Greenlanders, the subtly wrought characters, specific, gorgeous detail, and the emotion, which was somehow both stifled and explosive. There is something incredibly moving about their painful struggle to survive and their ultimate fail...more
Oct 30, 2007 Tiffany rated it 3 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: fans of Icelandic sagas
If you've read an Icelandic saga, you've got a leg up on most readers who attempt this vast, multi-generational tale. Smiley works the style as best she can, making it only slightly palatable to a modern reader (the sagas rarely give us the why--just the what and how; Smiley gives us a bit more psychological background for her characters), although not to the point of modernizing the dialogue, which is more than a bit stilted.

There was much I enjoyed. The way events happened that were not explai...more
How many chances am I going to give Jane Smiley?

I had to drag myself through this 700 page epic about 14th century Norse people in Greenland. The first few hundred pages were utterly confusing - with dozens of significant and insignificant characters (and no way to distinguish the two) with similar names. If I had only kept a cheat sheet, I'd have done a lot better.

There were moments in this rambling book that were really interesting. The story spans generations of an unlucky family and the core...more
I'm not sure why this book is so readable, but it is.
This is the story of an isolated society, where the Pope's and King's power barely reaches and about one ship a decade sails in. What happens to a small population over the course of about 70 years with almost no outside influences? A single man or the weather of a single season can have a huge influence.
The story is told like an account of local news, with few intimacies or dialogues. Usually the thoughts and feelings of the characters are w...more
It took me forever to finish this book. It was very long, with a cast of thousands, many of whom died in the course of the novel, but I'm glad I stuck with it. Smiley managed to make the dialogue sound pre-modern but not quaintly archaic. The anthropological detail about the subsistence level existence--famine, accidents, plague--was amazing. In a way, it is part novel, part historical ethnography. Smiley also makes the psychology of the characters seem both odd and familiar. Over the long arc o...more
I really wanted to like this book, to continue my months long delve into medieval historical fiction. I read about fifty pages in and could not take it any more. This book is very dry. It reads like an account from a very boring town gossip (this person was the son of this person, went to this persons farm, did this, the other person said this, years later this happened, blah blah blah). Fifty pages in and one of the "major" characters (according to the back of the book) dies, and I couldn't car...more
Sep 16, 2010 Leslie rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Leslie by: Lauren P.
Shelves: own
I've been meaning to read this book for years and finally took the plunge. As sweeping and epic as it is, it took me quite a while to finish it. It's written in a formal, archaic, almost scriptural-language and is therefore difficult to just pick up when I have a minute, which is how I tend to be reading these days. That said, it is completely amazing. The lives that the people in this harsh place lived so long ago is pretty unfathomably difficult, with death and hunger facing them at every turn...more
This books was captivating in a way that caught me off guard. First of all, it's written in a prose style very different from other novels, but which feels entirely natural for the subject matter. It reads like history, a true Scandinavian family saga. But if you don't enjoy history for history's sake, you might not like the book. It doesn't have a traditional story arc, and didn't exactly keep me riveted to the pages. It can be somewhat ponderous and dense. But overall, I enjoyed sliding into i...more
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 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 g...more
Every winter these people wall their animals in and pretty much themselves also and almost starve to death, every year and then some stuff happens and some other stuff happens, most of which is umimportant and goes nowhere and then they wall up their animals and themselves and almost starve to death again and year after tedious year this is the plot.
(Likely well-researched and the writing is well-done, but still it is dreadfully boring)
What an unusual and intense novel, but a very compelling one to read. This large book (558 pages) depicts the lives of the inhabitants and the natural elements surrounding the Fjords of Greenland during the 1300's and early 1400. The landscape is raw, harsh, brutal, and sometimes quite beautiful while the people mirror the scenery. They spend the summer and fall gathering and hunting supplies and food for which they barely survive the winter. Their diet consists mainly of various meat (seal, rei...more
I forced myself to plug away at the Norse-epic-style prose (in which paragraphs may be pages long, and dialogue appears only sparsely) by telling myself, hey, it's a deliberate stylistic choice! She's being true to her genre! But in the end, it was a plodding, boring story about only vaguely interesting characters who had the bad habit of randomly dying or being killed just as I started to get interested in them.
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Jane Smiley is a Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist.

Born in Los Angeles, California, Smiley grew up in Webster Groves, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis, and graduated from John Burroughs School. She obtained a A.B. at Vassar College, then earned a M.F.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Iowa. While working towards her doctorate, she also spent a year studying in Iceland as a Fulbright Scholar...more
More about Jane Smiley...
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