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The Greenlanders

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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 far-flung 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.

584 pages, Paperback

First published March 12, 1988

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About the author

Jane Smiley

113 books2,010 followers
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. From 1981 to 1996, she taught at Iowa State University. Smiley published her first novel, Barn Blind, in 1980, and won a 1985 O. Henry Award for her short story "Lily", which was published in The Atlantic Monthly. Her best-selling A Thousand Acres, a story based on William Shakespeare's King Lear, received the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1992. It was adapted into a film of the same title in 1997. In 1995 she wrote her sole television script produced, for an episode of Homicide: Life on the Street. Her novella The Age of Grief was made into the 2002 film The Secret Lives of Dentists.

Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel (2005), is a non-fiction meditation on the history and the nature of the novel, somewhat in the tradition of E. M. Forster's seminal Aspects of the Novel, that roams from eleventh century Japan's Murasaki Shikibu's The Tale of Genji to twenty-first century Americans chick lit.

In 2001, Smiley was elected a member of The American Academy of Arts and Letters.

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5 stars
1,028 (37%)
4 stars
869 (31%)
3 stars
520 (19%)
2 stars
210 (7%)
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109 (3%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 426 reviews
Profile Image for Henry Avila.
450 reviews3,232 followers
August 30, 2022
The frigid unceasing winds from the Arctic sweeps down from the north without mercy on the helpless frozen people of bleak Greenland though accustomed to cold the Vikings, many are descendants of Eric the Red and son Leif Erickson discoverer of America, well European explorer, however never this bone chilling temperatures, falling on their shivering bodies causing them such agony they become numb. The time the mid 1300'rds as the inhabitants a few thousands try to survive another relentless winter's weather, the storms plunging snow flakes, wondering if starvation or the ice will kill all. Greenland is not quite an accurate condition of the territory but Erik the Red needed settlers to the remote last European outpost in the west. Asgeir Gunnarsson a prosperous landowner, (well for the Norwegian colony) Helega an Icelandic wife with independent daughter Margret, Gunnar his lazy son and numerous other children most will not survive to adulthood. A few patches of green, the towering white mountains in the background , raising sheep, cattle and goats for the lucky in small farms, hunting seals and whales , fish a little nevertheless the natives are much more able as hunter- gatherers. The two groups at first stay away from each other still trading trinkets when the need requires yet the Inuits are clever for surviving eons in the harsh land. Never going hungry while many settlers die. Conflicts occur often, yet more between the Europeans and they build rock churches in both the western territory and eastern sides of Greenland. Priests and even a bishop preside in the simple made structures there. Every year the population decreases, ships become scarcer from Norway and Iceland as prices decline for the products of the large island. Asgeir has not many friends outside his family a cousin Thorked lives close by. Somehow he develops enemies, jealousy, land disputes, and a mad butcher who roams the wilderness, deadly feuds both with natives and whites in a country where the rich abide and the less fortunate do not during the long, bitter winter months. A false prophet causes uneasiness, the madman still rambles in the wilds butchering the weak. Anyone with knowledge of history can guess the outcome in this great novel, you feel like you're in trouble as death can strike any minute and surviving the only thing important. You'll need a warm coat to read these pages...
Profile Image for Alesa.
Author 6 books103 followers
March 4, 2015
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 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 that you feel you're in the minds and souls of the people back then. I didn't know that Greenland was eventually abandoned by the Icelandic and Norwegian settlers in the 1400s. But this book got me into doing research, and learning about the history of the colony there. The book also makes you think about climate change, and how even small variations (little the Little Ice Age) can have drastic effects on human settlements.

This book wasn't exactly fun to read. Rather, it was 100% absorbing. If you loved Kristin Lavransdatter, then this is a must read.
Profile Image for Chrissie.
2,691 reviews1,479 followers
May 4, 2021
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.
Profile Image for Roaldeuller.
30 reviews2 followers
April 5, 2013
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 certainly isn't rational (another example was Wallace Stegner's Angle of Repose). Most books I pick up and start reading immediately, but for certain others, I feel the need to anticipate and postpone.

In this instance, I purchased a used hardback through an Amazon partner. When it arrived it was pleasingly large and heavy with a clear plastic cover protecting the jacket. The cover artwork is excellent, and the bookseller had included an additional bonus of a postcard version of the cover (or perhaps this was included by the publisher - in any case it made a great bookmark!) I set the book aside for several weeks on my bedside table to let the idea of it grow in my mind, occasionally picking it up just to enjoy the heft, and eventually, the time was right and I dove in.

When I did start to read it I was immediately captivated. It is not an easy read as some reviewers have pointed out. The prose style is that of an actual Norse or Scandinavian saga, the dialog can seem stilted, and the overall tone is stylized, spare, and stark. Smiley frequently reuses certain phrases - "there came a time" for example - reinforcing the sense that one is listening to an oral story. The characters can be difficult to keep track of. Simple events (harvests, meals) are described with the same dispassionate tone as murder. If you read quickly or skim at all, you can miss vital developments.

Despite its challenges, The Greenlanders richly rewards a reader's efforts. After the first few pages, I had sunk into it's mood, my inner ear adapting to the pacing and style of the prose, surrendering to the almost Biblical voice. I have a similar reaction to Shakespeare or Melville - difficult at first, but then as I get accustomed to the rhythm, it is as though I enter a different world. So as to not spoil the plot, I will say only that the story is truly epic in scope, covering decades and taking the character(s) from youth to old age. By the time I was finished, after several late nights of reading, I felt as though I were emerging from a dream. Images from the book remain with me, still vivid in my brain a year later.

I am generally a fan of Jane Smiley, although I must admit that I prefer her less popular books (Moo, Horse Heaven) to her blockbusters (Thousand Acres). The Greenlanders definitely falls among the former. Highly recommended.
Profile Image for nastya .
408 reviews230 followers
November 22, 2021
I've never read anything like this novel even though I've read other epics and medieval norse sagas. This book is only 600 pages long but I'd been reading it for 2 month. This is a slow book, but you wouldn't want to rush it anyway, it is packed with a lot of stories and also it has this detached style of writing as is common in norse sagas. You are never in the heads of our protagonists, you are watching them from afar. But this works brilliantly for the scope and scale of it. We have dozens of characters that you’ll learn to love and hate but our two main protagonists are brother and sister living in Greenland in 1300s. The story follows roughly from their births to them being very old people. These folks have weddings, fights with each other over property and honor, conflicts with skraelings. There's also famines and deaths in childbirths, their life was very hard indeed.
But this book can be not for everyone, so I recommend checking out free samples. Some people said it can be too cold and detached and confusing. But for me it was incredibly engaging and if there were another 600 pages I would've read it gladly!
Profile Image for Meg.
70 reviews6 followers
October 21, 2007
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 and less to others. This was a compelling novel with sympathetic characters that illustrated a lifestyle and hardships very different from those of modern times. Don't be turned off by the chosen framework.
Profile Image for Terry .
394 reviews2,142 followers
November 28, 2018
Wow. I picked this up on something of a whim with one or two reservations (as my GR friend Richard has opined it’s a “stonking wodge of paper” and I didn’t know if the book would hold my interest for the page count), but boy am I glad I tried it. This is an incredible book. Not just because of the great amount of research that I imagine was involved in its creation, but quite simply because it tells a compelling story (or really an interrelated set of stories) that is immersive and vivid. Based on the Icelandic Family Sagas, and written very much in their style, it may take the modern reader a bit of time to acclimate themselves (there are, for example some abrupt changes of scene, or even the casual mention of the death of a character we have been following, as well as the generally laconic style that is often found in the source material), but Smiley does an excellent job in capturing the cadence and voice of the sagas while managing to add just enough ‘novelistic’ detail on the thoughts and actions of her characters to help to fill out the lacunae that might otherwise be found in a more traditional saga. She has, in short, an unerring talent at being able to “see the bones of the story and then to apply muscles and skin to it” as my afore-mentioned friend Richard has so astutely pointed out. She was no doubt aided by the fact that the Icelandic sagas are already known as a literature that appears incredibly modern to contemporary eyes despite their medieval provenance with their focus, partially at least, on the daily lives of ‘normal’ people.

As is perhaps obvious from the title, Smiley takes as her subject the lives of the Norwegian and Icelandic settlers of Greenland and their struggles to survive the trials imposed upon them by both the harsh environment in which they live, as well as human opposition (of both the ‘skraelings’, or native inhabitants of the island, not to mention the perhaps more prevalent and dangerous existence of their own poor decisions and internal conflicts). It is a fascinating postulation of the daily (and especially seasonal) lives of ‘normal’ Greenlanders centering on the family of Asgeir Gunnarsson, with special emphasis on his son Gunnar, daughter Margaret, and subsequent grandchildren. Underlying the tales of daily life that follow, and informing all that happens, is the enmity that lies between this family and their local rivals, and the intertwined tragedies that shape their lives as a result. This is not to say that the lives of others, including the putative leaders of the Greenlanders, are not also taken into account, but it could be argued that the relative poverty of all of the Greenland settlers, especially as time wore on and the tenuous sea connection to the rest of Europe all but disappeared, made the distinction between great and low somewhat less noticeable.

The story makes explicit the casual cruelty of which humans are capable. All of the characters suffer due to the harsh realities of their world, and all too often because of the enmity or carelessness of others, but I must say that poor Margaret Asgeirssdottir suffers so continuously and tragically that you’d have to have a heart of stone to not be moved by her life even though told in the matter-of-fact manner of the sagas. It sometimes seems as though the very understated nature of Smiley’s delivery of these events paradoxically makes them resound all the more fiercely in the reader’s mind. For all of the harsh realities and tragic events that occur, however, this isn’t misery porn and the book is often leavened by humour and scenes of love, compassion, and insight.

Smiley’s most exceptional achievement perhaps lies in the development of her characters. I found that all of them became very real to me in short order as I followed them through the years and the vagaries of life in Greenland which affected and changed them. It was really a uniquely moving experience. I was certainly most interested in the lives of the main family that came to centre around Gunnar Asgeirsson, his wife Birgitta, sister Margaret and their children, but really all of the characters whose lives we glimpse in the novel are fascinating and real. It seemed as though I had spent this time with them myself, growing and changing as they did, and I came to feel the victories they had won (few though they may be) and the losses that they had endured were things in which I had also shared. I was, for example, struck by my feelings for Kollgrim Gunnarsson as he grew into manhood and moved towards his inevitable fate even though as a child he was not an especially sympathetic character. Indeed I began to see much of his father in the boy and then found myself almost surprised to consider the elderly Gunnar Asgeirsson, wondering how he had himself so quickly grown from the wayward boy I remembered into a man, much as I might have felt regarding a friend from my youth, or a child I had remembered whom I now saw before me as a grown adult. It is quite a magical feeling of inclusion that the reader (this one at least) feels among these characters.

I highly recommend this book so that you can experience the harsh, but full lives of the Greenlanders as Smiley portrays them and be moved by the wonders and horror of human nature. Humanity with all of its magnificent and ridiculous foibles is on full display.
Profile Image for Emma Deplores Goodreads Censorship.
1,107 reviews1,163 followers
January 8, 2021
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 consciously adopts the style of an oral epic, paying attention to the rhythm of the prose and repeating certain phrases ("It was the case that. . . ."). But there are other consequences of this style as well: there's a certain emotional distance from all the characters, who play their roles in the story but let little of their personalities or emotions shine through, compared to characters in most modern novels. There's also a certain lack of explanations and description, which, while I understand that it was a deliberate choice, bothered me somewhat: it's another way of keeping the reader at a distance.

Which isn't to say that this isn't an enjoyable or absorbing book, by any means. I wouldn't call it a "page-turner," but still didn't want to put it down once I got into it. Not surprisingly, a lot happens in the book, with major events often treated with great detachment, as there's just so much to get through. Memory and the passage of time are dealt with quite a bit; we see events that happened early in the book become legends, while other early events are forgotten about completely and disbelieved when someone mentions them half a century later. We're also witnesses to the slow decline of the Greenlander civilization: before the beginning of the book, one of the two settlements has already been abandoned, and the Greenlanders fold in on themselves more and more as time progresses. Their detachment from European civilization, and the little that we do hear about Europe in the book, provide an interesting backdrop to their daily struggles.

As a literary book, I suppose this one is meant to be able to be interpreted in many different ways, and it's interesting to see how other people here have interpreted it quite differently from me: for instance, I saw the native population as being quite minor and Smiley as deliberately downplaying their role. The "skraelings" remain an enigma, with characters telling us about them far more than we actually see them.

At any rate, I found this to be an admirable book, although I'd advise people to read the preview before ordering it, as it's not for everyone. I round down to four stars not because I found the book to be flawed, but because I found the level of detachment to be a bit much. I understand that the Greenlanders expressed very little, and that they would have found no need to explain things about their culture when they didn't realize that things could be any other way; but the book was neither narrated by, written by or written for ancient Greenlanders, and this kept the book from being as memorable as it otherwise might have been. Still, overall an excellent piece of literature.
Profile Image for Christopher Howard.
73 reviews94 followers
August 25, 2016
My favorite books are the books that I read at the right time. Do those things happen or do we make them happen in our minds? Bitin off more than I can chew about this and that and Beowulf and Salomé and then someone inserts Icelandic sagas and Christian influences–thanks for trying to make some sense of what I'm attempting to say–and then I go off talking about that and then someone says no, Catholic influences and Tolkein and the Apocrypha and hey, are you going to Easter Mass? Well–there's a very good chance of that because I just can't say no to someone who's a historical scholar of some Protestant faith I didn't catch, and I don't feel like disagreeing with her that Jesus's word is the Truth because that's a can of apocrypha I don't even know how to approach, I'm just a skræling over here for lack of lexicon rowing in my skin boat through a fjord of conscious unconsciousness.
Profile Image for samantha.
18 reviews12 followers
February 10, 2008
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 some time - you will be well-rewarded for your patience.

Another aspect of this book that I love is that her knowledge of the subject allows her to really show us what it must have been like to be there, living day to day within the Viking culture permeated by the hardships of Greenland. This is one well-researched book (well, like all of Smiley's work!) concerning the details and minutiae of the period! A must for history buffs
Profile Image for Aubrey.
1,284 reviews730 followers
July 25, 2019
"There is no place for anger in a good wife."
"Then indeed, there is no place for honor or virtue, it seems to me.["]
This is not a work whose worth lends itself well to being expressed through quotes and other breeds of pithy summations. To put it colloquially, this is the kind of writing that evokes such swells of emotion that GoT and co. ape at: a never ending pall of threat of death and worse by the wildest and most inexplicable means and striking down all and sundry, driving religion, driving culture, driving literature and fate, until what is left is little more than the dire inheritance of melancholy that often expresses itself as various "mental illnesses" amongst Nordic descendants. Reading this, I began to understand the terror that births murderous superstition, as the good were drowned in the whimsy of the powerful and the hallucinating starvation over the denial of bigotry. This is no gore porn, but the bane of reality scrambling for a handhold, any handhold, on the surface of a civilization slowly sinking under the weight of famine, disease, war, and death, never cheaply expressed as 'the four horseman' and all the more deeply felt for it. To fight against it would be to rage against history itself, and instead we must sit and consider our comparative wealth against our comparative imprisonment, neither needing to hunt for our own food, build our own villages, deliver our own children, nor, in most cases, being allowed to do so, and, in some vital ways, suffering all the more for it.

This book is no Memoirs of Hadrian or A Place of Greater Safety in terms of linguistic fireworks and other experimental measures, but somehow, between the descriptions of mundane chores and tragic accidents and exterior states sporadically, briefly, and yet brilliantly expressed in bursts of narrative and song and self-harm, it manages to convey the typhoon of human feelings circumscribed by the best tragedies and histories of the stage. It's hard at times to keep track of everyone, patronyms and all, especially for one such as me who never really bothers to put names together with personalities unless there's an especially good reason to do so, but fortunately, the narrative often gave me very good reasons in its masterful balance of free indirect speech between various individuals and the collective consciousness of a community communing with its cultures. There are main characters, but their lives serve as much as a convenient book-ending of beginning and end as they do a narrative focus, and the fact that the story keeps coming back to them seems as much due to the luck that accompanies calm and careful excavation of a village, long buried after a long ago abandonment and near forgotten by modern mythos of how humanity came to be. I can understand why Vollmann cited this as inspiration, and while I don't feel the need to return to that author just yet, I am grateful for the degree of joining that led me to this work. It clarifies Smiley's winning of the Pulitzer Prize for me, although I have little interest in pursuing her work that was awarded such, , for my heart belongs more to the North than it does to Shakespeare, so I'd rather first read through The Sagas of the Icelanders before I take on a piece of fanfiction constructed around the hubris of King Lear.

I really was not expecting this book to be as good as it ended up being, and it just goes to show what a pleasure it is to be mistaken in one's assumptions at times. It makes me especially keen on pursuing King Hereafter, another piece of historical fiction that I've been eyeing for some time, but that's another beast of a book, and I want to do some clearing off of the other two 500+ pagers on my currently reading docket before I pile on another. I could be convinced of reading more of Smiley's work, but the whole farming vibe I get from her really doesn't appeal unless it's placed 600 years in the past and a significant number of latitudes north. Not that I'm looking for a sequel to this or anything, but I do love fiction that demonstrates the subterranean strains of nobility, evil, love, and obstinacy that drives human beings to the brink and back again, and it's easier to achieve such pathos way back when and further on out. Much has changed in the age of the Internet, and yet there is something lacking in this seeming stability of ours where the prophets have been replaced by climatologists and the fire and brimstone has come to literally await even the most staunch of atheists directly on the mortal plain. Smiley doesn't have the answers, but my god can she tell a story.
"[I]t seems to me that folk wish only one thing above all, and that is to have goods for themselves, to hold and to keep, and then they are surprised at the cost of these goods, for this cost is either almost more than they can pay, or more than they can pay."
Profile Image for Bettie.
9,988 reviews15 followers
March 6, 2014

This is a convincing and masterly fictional account about eking out a life on mediaeval Greenland. If you prefer non-fiction then Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed is your best source.

As with Sigrid Undset's 'Kristin Lavransdatter' trilogy, 'Greenlanders' is written in oral-epic-saga mode so it didn't surprise me at all to find a character called Birgitter Lavransdottir (hattip?). Now for the *gasp* statement - I am already (100 pages in) enjoying this more than the eternal hanky-wringing pity-fest of Undset's storyline.

Opening - ASGEIR GUNNARSSON FARMED AT GUNNARS STEAD near Undir Hofdi church in Austford.

From wiki: The Little Ice Age (LIA) was a period of cooling that occurred after the Medieval Warm Period (Medieval Climate Optimum). While not a true ice age, the term was introduced into the scientific literature by François E. Matthes in 1939. It is conventionally defined as a period extending from the 16th to the 19th centuries, though climatologists and historians working with local records no longer expect to agree on either the start or end dates of this period, which varied according to local conditions. NASA defines the term as a cold period between 1550 AD and 1850 AD and notes three particularly cold intervals: one beginning about 1650, another about 1770, and the last in 1850, each separated by intervals of slight warming.

Profile Image for Chavelli Sulikowska.
226 reviews216 followers
May 22, 2016
I ploughed through this epic family saga with something akin to the force with which the Greenlanders forge through snow in hunt of a she bear - testamony to Smiley's skill as an enthralling and compelling story teller. All immersing, I lived every pastoral upheaval, shivered every winter famine and rejoiced at every successful birth with the captivating characters. Raw and brutal, a true tale of human resilience and not for the faint hearted. The Greenlanders is an exceptionally rewarding and thoroughly fascinating read.
Profile Image for Jessica.
Author 28 books5,606 followers
February 4, 2017
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 domesticated animals, cheese, milk, butter and perhaps some wild berries or herbs in the summer. They buttered dried meat to soften it, and made communion wafers out of dried, powdered seaweed mixed with water!

There is an almost claustrophobic feel to the book: they are trapped on this harsh land, never knowing when a ship might come from Norway, and if it would bring any supplies. Their bishops and priests die off, no one can replace them so they are dying unshriven and their marriages go unsanctioned (these are a deeply religious people). Even their lawspeakers die out, so there is no one to mediate disputes or prosecute crimes. Famines come and there is no way to send for help . . . it's a heartbreaking book.

I could go on for hours, but instead I'll simply urge you: read it!
Profile Image for Jack Massa.
Author 19 books25 followers
June 30, 2021
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 Europe arrives only once every ten years or so (and when it does, it's a mixed blessing).

But mostly it reads like the Icelandic sagas that author Jane Smiley seems to have deliberately used as her model: rich interwoven story lines, fierce and stoical characters, straightforward prose that never rises from its matter-of-fact tone no matter how harsh or horrendous the events it tells.

I found the book slow at first, but eventually got caught up in all the strangeness and the fates of the characters. (And boy, are they fated!)

A profound, high-quality historical novel. Not recommended if you're already depressed.
Profile Image for Anna.
56 reviews4 followers
October 27, 2011
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 I read through the generations, I could see different families "value" and role in their community grow and diminish based on the actions of choices they made. This was interesting because less individual value was assigned than in our culture. Always they had a national identity that values supported, always family identity, and after the church lost power and the lawspeaker was murdered, the divided into regions defined by wealth. This was fascinating. I am going to real another Icelandic novel, but I will miss Margaret Gunnardottir!
Profile Image for Deea.
305 reviews85 followers
March 9, 2023
I feel I really hit the nail on the head when I chose to read this book. It was exactly how I had hoped “The Buried Giant” (by Kazuo Ishiguro) to be and wasn’t: a meaty story that got me fully immersed in the Medieval ethos.

I’ve been reading this book for two or three weeks now, but it seems to me that time has stretched, it has become elastic, and I have in fact lived for a lifetime alongside these 14th Century people in the space of these three weeks, getting to feel their joys and sorrows as intensely as they did. And... this was a very rewarding experience.

I knew nothing about Medieval Greenland and I got to learn really many things about their history, their way of life, their beliefs, their struggles, but also about their sagas, their relations with "the Skraelings" (the Inuits), the hardships they faced daily, and about their superstitions.
“Greenland was a place that few came to, a place lost to the considerations of men, especially since the coming of the Great Death and its subsequent visitations.”
I was well-advanced in reading the book and really struggling to remember who was who when a realisation dawned on me: their surnames are formed from their fathers' names followed by the suffixes “dottir” for girls and “son” for boys. So, if Asgeirs has two children, say Gunnar (a boy) and Margret (a girl), they will be called Gunnar Asgeirsson and Margret Asgeirsdottir. Duuuh! It’s the same in Spanish too (Perez, for instance, means the son (“ez”) of Per). This really made figuring out who was who a lot easier.

Greenlanders only had a few visitors in the 14th century (Norwegians and Icelanders mainly) and there was such a long time distance between the visits that the inhabitants kept talking about them for years and years after and their stories gained mythical proportions.

Also, these are not your typical Medieval people. They have almost no wood (the only wood they can get their hands on gets on the shore as driftage), so you might think no people would be burned on the pyre. They have no grapes, no barley, and no beehives, so there’s no alcohol and they can’t blame their misdeeds on having been inebriated. They only have a few weapons left from their ancestors or from the occasional visitors (the iron is scarce in Greenland), so there’d probably be no savage killings either.

Except that, well, they’re Medieval people, and no story about those times would be complete or remotely authentic without witchcraft accusations and their implications, without prophets with highly imaginative minds who have portentous dreams, without religious fanaticism gotten out of hand and savage killings. So, rest assured, these people will be creative enough to find ways to be as humans tended to be back then and they will have their lapses too.

The book is written in the epic tradition of Norse or Icelandic sagas, so the lives of the members or generations of a few families and social groups are chronicled in a lengthy, slow-paced narrative. Sagas are quite old and derive originally from oral storytelling, so they have a certain style and it takes some time to get used to it.

The narration seems detached and emotionally removed from what is happening, but this kind of story is supposed to record or document the facts only, as opposed to subjectively interpreting them, so it makes a lot of sense to be so. And, as one of the characters says, “these tales are meant for speaking”. Once you get into the style of it though, the story really flows.

There are a few other (fun?!) facts that I feel inclined to highlight about these people. So here they are.

They have to make do without bread (there’s no wheat in Greenland either) and the inhabitants eat their butter on dried reindeer meat. Yum, right? Also, their idea of refreshment is somehow different as, remember, there’s no alcohol there either, so visitors will only get a cup of sour milk (that is if people have any to spare). Yum, again.

If people go to any of the few feasts that take place on the island, they’ll have to carry their carved spoons with them and if they just happen to break, bummer, they might either use their fingers to eat or just stay hungry as there’s hardly any spare.

Also, as I’ve already mentioned, the iron is almost inexistent, so again they’ll have to make do with whatever else they have. And this is when bones and tusks come in handy: so their “hooks” will be made from tusks, their knives from bones, and so on. Nothing is ever wasted, every single thing from a slaughtered animal is used, which makes me quite despondent about the contrast with the incessant waste from current times.

As I’ve said, the wood is also sparse, so they have to be creative to protect themselves from the unbearably cold winters: tapestries are put on the walls to keep the wind out, they surround the steadings with turf, they use seal-oil lamps to heat the rooms, and they dry the meat instead of making steaks. Definitely nothing close to "dolce vita" for them! Oh, and I don’t even count the stench they were all probably surrounded by everywhere they went (as apparently seal oil really stinks) when I say this.
This was a fantastic book that will (for sure) stay with me for a long time. I HIGHLY recommend it to anyone who is fond of reading really immersive stories that take place in Medieval times.
Profile Image for Rosamund.
342 reviews22 followers
March 30, 2016
Can't help wondering whether those giving high ratings are simply scared to undermine all the massive amounts of research that must have gone into this. I can totally imagine it being some people's thing, of course, but it's just so... slow. Not a shred of gratification anywhere. From a writer's perspective it's a commendable feat, but it's not readable.

It does have bursts of humour in places where you'd least expect it:

'When she passed a birch tree, she said, "Little birch tree, little birch tree, what dost thou here alone? Once I ate thy leaves, unboiled and unroasted." And the prince looked at her and said, "What?" and she said, "Nothing. I was only thinking of Princess Thorunn."'

Unfortunately, these moments are not enough to carry the book along and make it human enough to care about characters. Of which, by the way, there are many. Not all of them are even named in the "helpful" list at the front of the book. (BTW, what is it about the fantasy / historical fiction genre that requires inordinate, faceless characters?)

I suppose I was expecting something I could really sit down and tackle during the winter months, something I'd be dying to get stuck into again every time I picked it up. Instead, the only thing I think I got out of it was confirmation that living in Greenland in the Dark Ages is every bit as bleak as you would picture it being. I probably would watch this if it was adapted for TV, but as a reader, my needs are vastly different.
Profile Image for Mia.
378 reviews20 followers
May 29, 2019
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 adored.

But after years and years of this wondering and worrying, I read an interview with Smiley in which she said she felt like she channeled Greenlanders, she didn't really write it, not the way she had written her others. Oh, happy day. I felt free to love Greenlanders again.

* I really have tried. I read that dreadful novel about real estate and her memoir about owning racehorses, not just the obvious stuff like A Thousand Acres and Moo. No go.
Profile Image for Nicole.
53 reviews3 followers
August 14, 2007
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 story works. The descriptions of the lifestyle and culture of the Greenlanders also captured my attention. Then the story would crawl all over the place and lose me completely.

Smiley really tried to capture the feel of a Norse epic and lost alot of the readability. I feel like it was an actual accomplishment to finish this book.
Profile Image for Elizabeth Urello.
79 reviews6 followers
May 13, 2012
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 - love, grief, rage, passion - are yet another inevitable, uncontrollable storm to be weathered. In Greenland, if the famine doesn't kill you, a love affair surely will.
Profile Image for Sarah.
600 reviews14 followers
January 9, 2011
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.

(and she never did really quite get the idea of being an oathbreaker!)
Profile Image for Isis.
831 reviews43 followers
March 3, 2009
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.
Profile Image for Laura.
6,845 reviews554 followers
July 28, 2022
What a splendid saga written as an unforggetable tale of old Iceland times.

4* A Thousand Acres
4* The Greenlanders
TR Some Luck (Last Hundred Years: A Family Saga, #1)
TR Early Warning
Profile Image for Diana.
729 reviews69 followers
June 20, 2011
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 Iceland, and there are over a hundred characters with crazy Viking names, so sometimes it's hard to remember who is who. Life was so bleak and violent, and all of the sudden, a character I'd come to care about would get crushed in the ice, starve to death, die in childbirth, or be bloodily murdered. I got caught up in the rhythms of survival in the north, the spring seal hunt, the short summer of constant hard work, the fall seal hunt, Yule, the hungry time of the year. I have a big weakness for historical fiction, and Greenland is such an alien and interesting place. Plus, it's like reading about the Donner Party or that guy who went up to Alaska and wound up having his story turned into Into the Wild-- you know they're doomed, and it's interesting seeing how it's going to play out.
Profile Image for Melissa.
8 reviews1 follower
June 1, 2019
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 care less. No character development. Endless blathering. I cannot believe this book got so many good reviews. There is much better historical fiction out there!
Profile Image for kari.
848 reviews
December 5, 2011
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)
Profile Image for Jan Priddy.
714 reviews134 followers
September 16, 2021
I write this nine-eleven, and so I think back to that morning when I arrived at my classroom door to find a tearful student: "Why do they hate us?" The second tower was still falling.

They don't, I assured her. They object to our money (Towers), our military (Pentagon), and our foreign policies that interfere in the Middle East (White House). I did not dare describe the symbolism at work, not even at the end of that terrible morning. Blood was high, though we had briefly earned the sympathy of the entire world, we would squander it on vengeance.

Greenland has been inhabited at intervals over at least the last 4,500 years by Arctic peoples whose forebears migrated there from what is now Canada. Norsemen settled the uninhabited southern part of Greenland beginning in the 10th century, having previously settled Iceland.

The earlier settlers have a role, but are dismissed by the late-comers as "skaelings"/heathens. The main characters of this epic (set in the decades around 1400) are European Christian brother and sister. Each will live longer than I expected, suffer worse than anyone might hope, and earn my affection and respect. They are hard, violent folk by necessity. They survive in an inhospitable place by growing crops in a 2-month summer, spring and autumn seal hunts, occasional reindeer hunts, and the lucky-but-rare beached whale. Like themselves, their cows go into the bier when the long winter arrives and are generally much emaciated by the time they come back out, assuming they do not starve. The Greenlanders are proud of their stoicism and survival. They mark their year by Christian Saints' Days, but this story is set during the decline of Norse inhabitation. People starve to death, die of diseases (probably food poisoning), and suffer the "joint ill" while gathering what they can find, growing, and suffering. Murder is frequent, torture and abuse of animals is common. Their children die in infancy, sheep and goats are less prized than cows and horses. They meet yearly at the "Thing" where legal matters are discussed and judgements passed. The priests are a holy mess, some well-intentioned but cowardly or weak, one genuinely insane, two selfish and powerful despite being undereducated and not fully ordained.

Kirkus Reviews called it a "bleak, stirring picture of the slow slouch towards the death of a civilization." Yes, and I still loved it. How can anyone find hope among such brutal people and their collapsing culture? I cannot tell you, but I did. This is written very much in the style of the various Norse sagas. (Including the unfortunate use of the word "niggardly" which carries terrible baggage for this reader due to similarly to an offensive English word, but is in fact derived from a completely other source, namely Norse.) There is little analysis in favor of action, characters are seldom reflective, but always scheming.

Another connection I made was to Colin Turnbull's The Mountain People about a people on the edge of extermination, which he offered in contrast to the beautiful The Forest People about the Mbuti Pigmies of what was then the Belgian Congo in the 1950s (now Zaire). Among the drought-damaged Ik culture of Uganda, kindness and compassion disappear in the face of imminent mortality. As a culture and people die, Turnbull's study suggests they lose their humanity.

Smiley demonstrates in epic style that this is not always true.
Profile Image for Kevin Adams.
337 reviews67 followers
November 19, 2022
Easy 4.5 ⭐️

I was transported to 14th C Greenland and I loved it. Jane Smiley told these stories built mostly around Margret and Gunnar Asgeirsdottir/Asgeirsson and their spouses/friends/enemies. They feel as if these stories were just dug up and found. Riveting story telling and once you read it is impossible to stop. While I don’t think I would have done well back then I’m thankful Jane Smiley brought me there for a couple of days. Loved.
Profile Image for Drew.
131 reviews5 followers
August 7, 2022
An absolutely extraordinary book about politics and violence and love and community and sex and climate change. I have no idea how she managed to make it work, and I can't understand why more people don't talk about how good it is.
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