When you think about the settlers of the American prairies, you probably picture cowboys, outlaws, or the super-adorable Wilder family from Little House on the Prairie (how great is Pa?). And that view of settler life is all very well and good… but the problem is that it's all very well and good.
But what happens when you get a Norwegian immigrant to write about the same topic? Cold, hard, reality: that's what. Yup, you get a story about the abysmal loneliness of the human condition and the utter indifference of the natural world to all humanity. Sound Scandinavian enough for you?
Although Giants in the Earth is considered a classic piece of American literature, Ole Edvard Rölvaag originally wrote his novel in Norwegian (1924-25) before releasing the English translation in 1929. Throughout this book, you see endless evidence of how the early Scandinavian settlers of America tended to imagine the country in traditional Scandinavian terms. Just watch for all references to trolls, giants, imps, and other creatures from Norse mythology and you'll see what we're talking about.
As we mentioned before, many people think of the settling of America as a glorious and manly pursuit. But these people often neglect to think about just how awful life was for many of the early settlers, especially the women and children who trailed after the men who wanted to tame the land. Throughout this book, as you follow Per Hansa and his long-suffering (and we mean suffering , the kind that would put fellow Norwegian Karl Ove Knausgaard to shame) wife Beret through seven years of sod-busting, you get a good sense of just how vast and empty the prairies would have looked to people who were used to living in cozy, traditional European villages.
By the end of the book, it almost seems as though the vast prairies suck up all the meaningfulness of human life and leave people with no desire to live. Yeah, it's pretty depressing. No wonder this novel was turned into an award-winning opera—there is a ton to sing mournfully about in this bad boy.
But at the same time, O.E. Rölvaag managed to capture and preserve a whole world of early American experience… and undermine a few legends about happy-go-lucky cowboys pioneers whistling as they worked. Any understanding of America today would be incomplete without it.
Giants in the Earth is like a glass of ice water dashed in your face. It's like a fire alarm going off right above your head. It's a triple espresso shot depth charge in a pot of coffee. What we're saying is that this novel is a supreme wake-up call.
You might be thinking, "Wait. I've flipped through this book. It's full of weird Norwegian names and ellipses. It's really depressing. It actually makes me want to crawl under the covers and nap the day away." And that's our point, Shmoopeople. It's a wake-up call from the dream of happy-go-lucky, whistle-while-you-work pioneer families.
The fact that the American West was a really, really hard place to live is now accepted as fact. We have countless movies and TV shows that show us just how stark, violent, and full of loneliness the dream of Westward Expansion was.
But Giants in the Earth was one of the first books out there to buck the stereotype of chipper pioneers having the time of their lives out on the frontier. This novel was on the frontier of exposing how depressing the frontier could be.
And Giants in the Earth is still, believe it or not, applicable in the 21st Century, Today, people still look for new frontiers—like outer space or the internet—because people still want to be trailblazers and do something that no one has ever done before. But books like Giants in the Earth want to make sure that we head for new frontiers with a good idea of what we'll actually be up against. New frontiers might be exciting, simply because they're unknown. But they can also be very lonely and overwhelming places.
Depression among astronauts, for example, is a big enough problem for some companies to design software to help them cope with isolation. And who hasn't felt a little despair after reading some of the horrifying comments that people often leave all over the internet? Brrr. Frontier living, even from the comfort of your own living room, can be chillier than a North Dakota winter spent in a sod hut.
But Giants in the Earth is here to remind us that we're not alone in our loneliness no matter how vast or out of control the world and its new frontiers seem to be. When it comes to exploring new frontiers, feeling overwhelmed is just something that comes with the territory (so to speak).
O.E. Rölvaag at Encyclopedia Britannica
Check out this site for a quick n' dirty look at the man behind Giants in the Earth.
Ole E. Rölvaag at the Minnesota Historical Society
For a quick rundown and a solid list of selected texts, this is the place for you.
Giants of the Earth Heritage Center
The power of O.E. Rölvaag's work is still being felt today. And if you don't believe us, swing by the Giants of the Earth Heritage Center, an organization that specifically uses Rölvaag's ideas to inspire better lives for U.S. immigrants.
The Social Criticism of Ole Edvard Rölvaag
Writer Neil T. Eckstein delves into the ways that Rölvaag's work critiques American history even while it seems to celebrate it. It's definitely worth a look if you want to see a flipside to all the rah-rah of Westward Expansion.
Berdahl Family History and Rölvaag's Immigrant Trilogy
Kristoffer F. Paulson takes a deeper look at the history of O.E. Rölvaag's in-laws and argues that the ancestors of these in-laws gave Rölvaag the inspiration to write Giants in the Earth.
Beret and the Prairie in Giants in the Earth
If you've read the book, you probably know that Beret has a really weird relationship with the prairie landscape in Giants in the Earth. Well here's an article that tries to make sense of some of the weirdness. After all, what's scholarship for if not explaining weird things in books?
Giants in the Earth (Bike-Ride Edition)
This biker drew inspiration from Giants in the Earth while travelling across the Great Plains of America.
North Dakota Has Never Sounded Cooler
Deputy Chief of Mission at the US Embassy in Vienna talks about North Dakota. Stock up on your North Dakota facts here.
Cosmo-Doc on Whether Giants Ever Existed
Well there was never any movie made out of Giants in the Earth, so here's a short segment about whether any literal giants ever lived on our planet.
O.E. Lookin' Slick (with Glasses)
Look at that stare. Isn't it mesmerizing?
Here's O.E. having a pipe with one of his buds.
Time to Let Go
It looks like O.E.'s comb-over was on its last legs when this pic was snapped.