Chrissie's Reviews > The Greenlanders

The Greenlanders by Jane Smiley
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Jul 09, 13

bookshelves: greenland, hf, kindle, sample-ok, 2012challenge
Recommended to Chrissie by: Maudie
Read from May 25 to 31, 2012

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 lawlessness. Death, death and more death….. and of course religion. The Norwegians settled here to trade, to hunt and to farm. The Thing and the Bishop and his priests were the ultimate authority of power, and it isn’t easy reading of their ways.

I have never run into the style of writing found in this book. To help you determine if you will enjoy it, I have included a quote:

Then she turned to Gunnar and declared that as a child of but fifteen years, Gunhild could not be asked to keep two things in her mind at once, namely the Thjodhilds Stead way and the Lavrans Stead way. And since one had to make way for the other, it was necessary that the old go out and the new come in. The result of this was that on the feast of St. Stephen, Gunhild and Gunnar went on skis across the fjord and over the hills to Thjodhilds Stead, and Gunhild stayed there, as a maiden, and came home no more. And this was also the case, that in the disorder of departure, she never once looked over her shoulder, nor did she see her brother and sisters and mother waving aéfter her, but she only went forward, looking for her new home, and this came to Birgitta as an unaccountable grief, no matter how she prayed and told herself that this was the pain of bearing daughters, and folk must always accustom themselves to it. (41%)

The language is different. There is an absence of dialog. There is a distance between the “storyteller” and the listener. There is a formality to expressions that reflects the atmosphere of the times. The reader is always looking on rather than partaking of the events. Nevertheless, as the story proceeds you very definitely come to care for the characters. When you read the above quote you feel the sorrow and grief of the mother who is losing her child – even though she reasons with herself that this is a step all mothers must take.

Although the events are tragic, there are also characters that are happy and satisfied with their lives. There are characters that will astound you with their strength, others with their individuality. There are couples that separate and take other spouses or women who manage alone. That is no small task. There is feuding and injustice and then there is kindness. There are neighbors who step in and help when they need not.

You will feel immersed in another world. You will understand what their life really was like. Mostly it was grim. You see their world with their eyes and their sensibilities. You come to understand how the skraelings could be dangerous; how the priests were worthy of respect and that sometimes one simply had to see that people were punished. I f you didn’t see this was done yourself, nobody else would. The Pulitzer prize-winning author, Jane Smiley, plops you down in another world where the mindset is initially completely foreign and strange. You come to think as they do. However, the book will not fit everyone. The writing takes getting use to and the characters are numerous. They are listed in the front. Don’t expect a lot of laughs. Do expect total immersion in another time and place.

In my view this book deserves five stars for the author’s ability to transport the reader to a completely foreign place and for that place to become real. I have chosen nevertheless to give it three stars because I personally had a hard time with the language style, even though it had to be exactly as it was to properly conjure that world. I did have trouble reading this book; I can only give it three stars.
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Comments (showing 1-22 of 22) (22 new)

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Chrissie THIS one I am thinking of buying, so please let me know. I have been given conflicting info. I can buy it at BookDepository :0) !


Chrissie Gaeta, I have heard really good things about this book. Let's see what you think. Don't be negative from the beginning. MAYBE it will be good. I try to always go into a book with the idea I will love it. That is what I think when I buy them at least. I am going to try and wait on buying this one....


Rebecca Huston I slogged through about three hundred pages of this one before I gave up. The horror of it all was that I really, -really- wanted to read it, but it just was weighted down with so much detail, and run on paragraphs, that it turned quickly into a chore. But that's just my opinion.


Chrissie Doesn't sound good...... I am getting so many negative votes here! Will this be another book I shouldn't buy?


Rebecca Huston I'd suggest getting it from the library. Unless it is a really cheap copy.


Chrissie Yeah, tell me where there is an English library in Brussels. I would love to know about it!!!

Brussels has other stuff, so I am not complaining, Rebecca.


Chrissie Wow, that sounds good! As I said, I had heard praise for the book. That is why I added it. It is hard to decide what to do when some friends like it and others don't..... How much have you read?


Chrissie So a vote of confidence from you! Have you read Undset's Kristin Lavransdatter? Is this as good?


Chrissie Thanks for your help, Gaeta!


Chrissie This is the thing....there is currently a sale at Book Depository, but it is only 10% and really I should read the books I have already purchased. I have about ten books on my wish-list there. The sale is almost over. I have to decide soon.

I understand that what I will think of this book is still up for grabs. My gut feeling is that I want to give it a chance. I am curious about reading about Greenland, but I should not buy more books.


Chrissie Yup!


Rebecca Huston I slogged through this one when it was first released, but gave up when a paragraph about a spoon and its casing took up more than a page. The cover was beautiful, however.


message 13: by Chrissie (last edited Jul 10, 2013 01:15AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Chrissie Rebecca, difficult reading, but it really portrayed well the culture, place and time. I just corrected a typing error that I found in the review; I read it quite a while ago. I really don't think on should pick a book by its cover....on the other hand it seems to be important at GR where many people insist on using the cover as a link.


message 14: by Chrissie (last edited Jul 10, 2013 03:21AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Chrissie I cannot say I do, but some covers I like a lot and that does add to my enjoyment. I love this one: Local Wonders  Seasons in the Bohemian Alps by Ted Kooser.


message 15: by Chrissie (last edited Jul 10, 2013 05:32AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Chrissie I would not recommend it just for the cover, but it WAS very good.


message 16: by Dhanaraj (new)

Dhanaraj Rajan Chrissie wrote: "So a vote of confidence from you! Have you read Undset's Kristin Lavransdatter? Is this as good?"

They say it is one of the best. Even Jane Smiley had a great admiration for Undset. We will be reading KRISTIN next month as a READALONG.


Chrissie I am not sure I want to read Undset now. When I moved to Sweden I read constantly Scandinavian literature until it became just too much. It has a particular dark style that becomes repetitive, read after read after read. The STYLE is just not something new for me to taste.


message 18: by Chrissie (last edited Sep 18, 2014 10:39PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Chrissie A tip - when you read it get one translated by Tiina Nunnally, a superb translator.


message 19: by Dhanaraj (new)

Dhanaraj Rajan Chrissie wrote: "A tip - when you read it get one translated by Tiina Nunnally, a superb translator."

I have hoarded all the books available in English of Undset. And the KRISTIN that I have is by Tiina Nunnally.


Chrissie I will keep that in mind, but you see that for me Greenlanders was more interesting because it is NOT part of Scandinavia. If you live in Sweden you get deluged with everything Scandinavian.


message 21: by Dhanaraj (new)

Dhanaraj Rajan Chrissie wrote: "I will keep that in mind, but you see that for me Greenlanders was more interesting because it is NOT part of Scandinavia. If you live in Sweden you get deluged with everything Scandinavian."

That is understandable. I really like Scandinavian Literature of the 19 and early 20th century. They preserve the oral tradition (Saga) and the development from the ancient societal customs to modern life also offers an interesting experience.


Chrissie I agree with what you say, but I am saturated. ;0)


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