THE GREENLANDERS by Jane Smiley

THE GREENLANDERS

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Smiley (Duplicate Keys, The Age of Grief, etc.) has produced a bulky, sometimes spectacular saga of 14th-century Greenland--a tapestry of hunger, revenge and the disintegration of social institutions. Since the tenth century, Norsemen had farmed and hunted from spring until fall, trying to amass enough food to survive the winters. Smiley's novel plops down at a crucial turning point: the Plague has hit Europe hard, and contact with the continent (as well as the all-important inflow of churchmen) is falling off. Meanwhile, Asgeir Gunnarsson is at odds with his strange neighbors at Ketils Stead. When Asgeir murders a woman he believes to be a witch, the bishop awards the use of his prime field to his hatred rivals. This bitterness trickles down to the next generation--to quiet Gunnar and his sister Margret, whose ancestral stead is eventually usurped by the politically adept Ketils Stead crowd. Winter starvation has always been common, but a vomiting ill and a string of bad hunts prompts widespread death. Amidst the marriages; births and grievances, the bishop dies. The priests are now a low-profile lot, except for former cowherd Larus, who's turning some heads with his apocalyptic visions. And Bjorn Bollason, the lawspeaker, is benevolent and popular at first, but he gets impressed by talky visitors from Iceland and allows them to burn wild Koll-grim, Gunnar's son, at the stake. The annual "Thing" melts down into a bloody melee, pirates plunder and kill, and the saddened Greenlanders bury their dead. Into this icy historical vacuum--the period between the end of outside contact and the eventual disappearance of the Greenland settlers--Smiley pours a thin-broth existence, flavored in spots by dramatic events and complicated emotional relationships. Particularly interesting: the portrayal of the spiritual life as a bleak--and without priests--unconvincing go-round of tithes and half-remembered prayers. Smiley's uninflated prose lulls at first, but gradually accumulates the incantory power of a strange winter-told tale. A bleak, stirring picture of the slow slouch towards the death of a civilization.
Pub Date: April 18th, 1988
ISBN: 1400095468
Page count: 807pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15th, 1988




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