Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Written by a Norwegian-born professor of Norwegian at St. Olaf College in Minnesota, Ole Edvart Rolvaag's novel Giants in the Earth (1927) tells of the hardships and triumphs of a group of Norwegian immigrants to the southeastern Dakota Territory in the 1870s. These men and women, who had formerly been fishermen in northern Norway, have to adjust to the vast expanse of the sea of grass in which they find themselves as well as to isolation, loneliness, a harsh climate, and a host culture that regards their national characteristics as a nuisance at best and threatening at worst.

The characters respond to their new circumstances in various ways. Per Hansa, the male protagonist, exemplifies both the daring of a skilled fisherman and the thirst for material advancement of a would-be Yankee. Severely criticized by the author, Per Hansa finally loses his life, in large measure as a result of his hubris. His friend Hans Olsa, in contrast, has neither Per Hansa's intelligence nor his daring, but he steadfastly works his land until struck down by illness. The women characters in the book are neither as daring nor as well suited to Plains life as the menfolk. Per Hansa's wife, Beret, the novel's most memorable character, suffers from a severe depression, which Rolvaag suggests has multiple causes: some of her choices while in Norway, her husband's decision to move the family to America, and the loneliness of the Plains. Although the Norwegian immigrants of Giants in the Earth are ultimately successful in their quest for a new and materially better life, the emotional and spiritual price of their success is very high indeed.

See also LITERARY TRADITIONS: Rölvaag, O. E.

Jan Ivar Sjåvik University of Washington

Haugen, Einar. Ole Edvart Rolvaag. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1983. Paulson, Kristoffer F. "Ole Rolvaag's Giants in the Earth: The Structure, the Myth, the Tragedy." Norwegian-American Studies 34 (1995): 201-15.

Simonson, Harold P. Prairies Within: The Tragic Trilogy of Ole Rolvaag. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1987.

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