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Giants in the Earth

O.E. Rölvaag

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Ole Edvart Rölvaag was born on April 22, 1876, into a family of fishermen on the north coast of Norway. In 1896, at the age of twenty, he emigrated to the United States with only a few pennies in his pocket. He began farming with an uncle in South Dakota and started saving every cent for his education. Like most immigrants, Rölvaag discovered that achieving the American Dream did not come without sacrifice and could not be achieved overnight.

However, Rölvaag remained optimistic for his future despite the fact that he did not enjoy life as a farmer. He finally saved enough to attend Augustana Academy in South Dakota and then St. Olaf College in Minnesota. In 1905, he graduated with honors at St. Olaf and then joined the college faculty. Rölvaag spent most of his adult life as a teacher of Norwegian language and literature and of the history of Norwegian immigration.

In his novels, Rölvaag was primarily concerned with the theme of immigration, which he explored in his largely autobiographical Letters from America (1912) and The Boat of Longing (1921). He took a one-year leave of absence from St. Olaf College and lived in lonely cabin in Minnesota to write the epic that would become Giants in the Earth. He originally wrote all his novels in Norwegian and then helped translate them into English. Two novels, I de dage (In Those Days) and Riket grundlaeges (The Kingdom Is Founded) were first published in Norway in 1924 and 1925. They were then translated into English and published in the United States in one volume, Giants in the Earth (1927).

Giants in the Earth presents an unsparing portrait of Norwegian immigrants struggling to make a new life on the Dakota prairie, a subject Rölvaag knew first-hand. Like the author, the novel is half-American and half-Norwegian in spirit: while it reflects a period of American history, it is told completely through the point of view of Norwegian immigrants. In his writing, Rölvaag was deeply influenced by other Norwegian epic novelists, most notably Knut Hamsun and Sigrid Undset.

The monumental Homestead Act of 1862 provided the major catalyst for the settling of the American West. The United States government encouraged the country's westward expansion by turning over vast amounts of unsettled, public land to private citizens. The government granted 160 acres of land to a homesteader at the end of five years if he lived on the land, built a house on it, and farmed it. Not only did many American families move from the East to the Great Plains, but many European immigrants also took advantage of the opportunity to at last own land for themselves. Like other immigrants, Per Hansa is lured by the promise of a better life in America.

Giants in the Earth is not a primarily a celebration of the American manifest destiny. Instead, the novel is essentially a tragedy because it reveals the human cost of the immigrant experience. The indomitable optimism of Per Hansa, forging a new life for his family in America, sharply contrasts with the pessimism of his despairing wife, Beret, who cannot adapt to life in the New World and longs to return to her native Norway. Because Rölvaag was an immigrant just like his characters, he understood the hardships the pioneers faced coming to settle in a new country. He even dedicated his novel to the spirit of these immigrant pioneers, "To those of my people who took part in the great settling, to them and their generations I dedicate this narrative."

When Giants of the Earth appeared in the United States, it was an immediate success. The novel was praised as one of the most powerful novels that chronicled pioneer life in America. It differed from other immigrant novels because it concentrated primarily on the hardships faced by the pioneers trying to carve a life for themselves in the American West in the nineteenth century. Rölvaag later wrote two sequels, Peder Victorious (1929) and Their Father's God (1931). Rölvaag died in Minnesota in 1931, leaving behind him a rich pioneer literary and family legacy. His son, Karl, later became a governor of Minnesota in the 1960s.

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