Giants in the Earth: A Saga of the Prairie

by O. E. Rölvaag. Translated from the Norwegian. New York: Harper & Bros. 1927. 12mo. xxii+465 pp. $2.50.
Giants in the Earth is a moving narrative of pioneer hardship and heroism, told with such obvious veracity that it makes almost all other tales of the Western frontier seem cheap. At times, as in the description of the storm of locusts, of the blizzard, of the coming to the little settlement of a lone pioneer whose wife has gone mad with grief, it rises to great power. And the background of the boundless Dakota prairie, with its mysterious distances and its capacity for evil, is painted with alternating beauty and grimness.
The novel has such real values that to call it a ‘magnificent and powerful epic,’ as the publishers do, or a ‘sustained and powerful tragedy,’as Mr. Lincoln Colcord does in his interesting Introduction, seems a little strained and even a little unfair. It has pathos a plenty, much humor of a homely sort, a group of appealing characters, and, in the story of Per Hansa and his wife, Beret, a narrative that one follows with sympathy and absorption. But the strongest qualities of the novel are neither tragic nor epic. The tragedy of man’s struggle with nature and the epic march of frontier conquest are always in the background, but Per Hansa, the hero, never rises to tragic proportions and his wife is merely pathetic.
Of course, allowance must be made for the fact that the novel is a translation. Its author is a professor in an American college, but he composed Giants in the Earth in Norwegian and it was first published in Norway. There is no indication in the style of this edition that it is a translation, for it reads idiomatically enough, and yet one feels that it somehow falls below the conception and the subject matter. It is hard to tell just what a fine novel loses in translation, but it certainly loses something; and it is possible that the effect of this one is in English very different from its effect in Norwegian. In English its effect is one of ingenuous charm with occasional chapters of great power.
To the thoughtful reader part of the fascination of the book lies in the sturdy simplicity of the characters — brave fisher-folk transplanted from the rugged mountains and wild fjords of Norway to a flat country of immeasurable distances. For them the prairie beyond the horizon is full of an implacable capacity for evil. The trolls live there, and a sensitive, imaginative woman like Beret dwells in perpetual fear of their malignancy. She at last finds comfort in the traditional religion of her folk, but her newly awakened faith drives her husband out on an errand of mercy that takes him straight, to his death. The suggestion is that a true pioneer cannot afford to swerve from a straightforward combat with nature, in which his wits and muscles are immediately engaged and intellectual and mystical refinements only hamper his fighting powers. The study of Per and Beret, in Book Two, is interesting and at times subtle, but the stirring narrative of the ‘land-taking,’ in Book One, is likely to live longer in the mind.
The novel is an impressive and valuable account of one of the great movements in American life, and, although the characters are all immigrants, it is American to the core. These people in their simple and matter-of-fact way are unconsciously laying foundations that have proved lasting. Their moral courage is perhaps the best inheritance that we have received. Other races have contributed their share to it, too, of course, but none with more undeviating heroism or quiet devotion.