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The Greenlanders

3.89  ·  Rating details ·  2,456 ratings  ·  368 reviews
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 Gunna ...more
Paperback, 608 pages
Published September 13th 2005 by Anchor (first published March 12th 1988)
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Average rating 3.89  · 
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 ·  2,456 ratings  ·  368 reviews

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May 25, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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 yo
Dec 14, 2011 rated it liked it  ·  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
Apr 05, 2013 rated it it was amazing
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
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 ...more
Aug 18, 2007 rated it really liked it
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
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 ...more
Christopher Howard
Jan 18, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
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 ...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 consciously adopts the style of an oral epic, paying attention to the rhythm of the prose and repeating certain phrases ("It was the cas
Feb 10, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fiction-lit
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 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
"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
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
Chavelli Sulikowska
May 04, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favourites, five-star
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 t ...more
Jack Massa
Dec 23, 2012 rated it liked it
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
Oct 09, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: to-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 ...more
Dec 17, 2009 rated it it was amazing
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 wo
Elizabeth Urello
May 13, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: novels
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
Apr 18, 2014 rated it it was ok
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 t
Jun 07, 2011 rated it it was amazing
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
Oct 25, 2012 rated it liked it
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
Jan 08, 2011 rated it did not like it
Shelves: fiction, unfinished
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.

Jan 06, 2009 rated it it was ok
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. ...more
Sep 20, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Aug 13, 2007 rated it liked it
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
Feb 25, 2013 rated it it was amazing
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
Dec 05, 2011 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
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)
Feb 11, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This may be a weird favorite thing to have to say about a book, but it is what I find myself telling people who ask about it. When the heretofore main characters die, their deaths hardly cause ripples in the story. It’s basically, “dude falls into the fjord, and after his corpus is found, it’s placed in the snow pack to be buried in the spring. Next paragraph. Moving right along”. The implication being, the characters have way bigger things to worry about than mere loss of life of one character. ...more
Jennifer Locke
Oct 08, 2014 rated it really liked it
A fun, breezy summer read!

. . . this is NOT. The Greenlanders is a multi-generational epic told in the Norse style of the old sagas. Read the first few chapters of the Bible if you want to get a feel for Smiley's language. There is murder on the third page of this 584 page tome--told as casually as if a character in a modern story decided to take a drive to the grocery store. That's the first of many, many deaths that befall the Greenlanders: of starvation, exposure, childbirth, etc. The Greenla
Sep 05, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: vikings
The sad decline of Greenland's eastern settlement features death by starvation, the vomiting ill, being swept into the sea and drowning, falling through the ice and freezing and drowning, murder both justified and not, wasting away due to emotional trauma, and being burned to death for adultery. But the tone and pace are not as intense as you might expect from this account - instead, the tale is told in measured tones with very little reference to feelings, presumably much like the sagas themsel ...more
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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

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