Sunday, November 21, 2010

Review: The Greenlanders by Jane Smiley

Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Alfred A Knopf, 1988

At once harsh and beautiful...

Greenland, at the tip of the polar icecap - a land of glittering fjords, of blasting winds, of sun-warmed meadows and high dark mountains first colonised by the Vikings. Now, in the last decades of the 14th century, their hardy descendants have become a people much accustomed to holding their own opinions and doing as they please.
Fortunate will be these inhabitants of Europe's most farflung outpost for they will be spared the horrors of the Great Plague that decimates Europe - what they won't escape are the effects of the huge climatic changes of the late 14th century.......the onslaught of the Little Ice Age.

Greenland Summer Pasture
 Dependent on their livestock for survival the increasingly shorter summers would have a devastating effect because the farmers could no longer harvest enough hay to feed their animals through the long winters. As the animals died , the herds decreased and the people began to suffer famine, starvation and death.

The ships that came from Iceland and Norway to trade became less and less as the colder weather sent ice drifts further and further south.
Even more threatening to the Greenlanders were the skaelings (Inuits)as they too expanded their hunting territory.

Ice Drifts in Greenland Fjord
 Jane Smiley's brilliant narrative is written in the style of a Norse sage. It's a chronicle of the last fifty years of the Norse settlement, the story of a people struggling to survive but slowing falling prey to material, moral and spiritual decline.
At the heart of the tale is the family of Asgeir Gunnarson......his wilful and independent daughter Margret whose passion for a Norwegian sailor will drive her to adultery and exile. Her brother, Gunnar, thought by folk to be lazy and slow witted. Their children , their neighbours, the community ............the farmers, the priests, the lawmakers - the marriages, the feuds, the feasts and the mesmerizing tales told by the fireside.
And vivid descriptions of the very ordinary ......
"Then Asta went into the steading and carried out all of the skins of the two beds, and laid them on the hillside in the sun. Then she gathered some birch  branches and lashed them together with a willow whip and began to beat the skins so that the fleas and lice rose out of them as well as dirt and dust."

Norse ruins of Hvalsey Church
 The author has created such a wonderful sense of time and place and I became so engrossed that I had to remind myself that the medieval world I so often read about was still out there beyond the horizon.

I'm amazed that this superb work of historical fiction has slipped beneath my radar for twenty years but very glad I found it. I loved it and it will have a well earned spot on my list of favourite historical fiction.

Colourful Reading Challenge.


  1. I'm a big Smiley fan and your post reminded me that I started Greenlanders back in, oh, 1989 or so but I don't recall if I ever finished it. Now I need to track my copy down (it's in this house *somewhere*) and check. If not, I think I'll add it to my TBR.

  2. Sounds fascinating...I'm not familiar with Smiley, so I will have to look into this further. Thanks for the review.

  3. Your review makes me want to re-read this. I love what you said about vivid descriptions of the very ordinary!