Giants in the Earth opens with the narrator describing the prairie setting. The novel takes place in the unsettled Dakota Territory in the 1870s. Per Hansa, his wife Beret, their two sons Ole and Store-Hans, and their daughter Anna Marie (usually called And-Ongen), have traveled for three weeks across the Great Plains, from their home in Fillmore County, Minnesota, to their destination in the Dakota Territory. The Hansas originally undertook the journey in a caravan with several other Norwegian immigrant families. One of Per's wagons broke down, however, and he insisted that the other families continue ahead of him while he repaired his wagon. Per thought that he would be able to catch up to the others in a couple of days.
The truth of the matter is that now the Hansas are lost. Per is no longer sure that they are on the right trail. In fact, there are no roads or trails, or even any signs of civilization on the prairie at all. The prairie is just an endless stretch of grassland, completely devoid of any signs of human life. The narrator refers to the prairie as a sea of grass, and he compares the wagons to ships. The Hansas' meager earthly possessions include two small, dilapidated wagons that are hitched together and move at a snail's pace; the oxen that are used to pull the loaded-down wagons; and a cow named Rosie that provides them with milk.
Per and his eldest son, Ole, walk ahead of the two wagons. Per tries desperately to scan the horizon to find the other wagons. Although he has doubts about whether he will find the other families, he remains optimistic at heart, reassuring both Ole and Beret that they will soon find the others. Meanwhile, Beret drives the oxen and takes care of Anna-Marie between fits of silent weeping. Beret is afraid of the new land and she does not like settling in such an uninhabited area.
As the sun sets, Per decides to stop for the night. Each member of the family performs his or her own chores to ready the campsite: Ole and Hans fetch wood and prepare a fire, Per milks Rosie and makes beds for everyone under the wagons, and Beret makes the meal of porridge and milk. When dinner is over, the family prepares for bed. After making sure that the children are asleep, Beret asks Per if they will ever find the other families again. Per tells her that he is certain that they will.
Plagued by self-doubt, Per is unable to sleep during the night. He senses Beret silently reproaching him for getting them lost and for making her leave her home in Norway. He knows that she did not want to immigrate to America and that she would have much preferred to stay in her home country. Per makes sure that everyone else is asleep, and then he gets up and dresses quietly. He explores the land around his campsite to decide which direction they should take the next day.
Per walks for several miles until he stops at a wooded thicket. He comes upon a clearing where he finds a recently abandoned campsite and some fresh horse dung. Nearby, he notices a creek and sees a dried mutton leg at the edge of the creek. He is overjoyed because he knows that this mutton belonged to his friend Hans Olsa, who was also making the journey West. Per now knows that he has found the right trail. He returns to his camp, where he is surprised to find Beret awake, waiting for his return. She cries and tells him that she is afraid, but he comforts her by telling her that he has found the trail.
Rölvaag provides a description of the landscape at the very beginning of the novel to emphasize the importance of the setting. In fact, we may argue that the land itself is the main character of the novel, as the prairie is the first "character" to speak: "Tish-ah!" said the grass. "Tish-ah, tish-ah!" In this passage and throughout the novel, the land is personified. Rölvaag emphasizes the majestic size of the Great Plains by comparing the prairie to an ocean. He also emphasizes the desolation of the setting by zooming in from a long shot of the unsettled landscape to a close-up of the Hansa family caravan, which he claims could have been dropped from the sky in the first few paragraphs of the novel. Furthermore, the very first chapter and even the first paragraph of the novel reflects the simple fact that the land will remain forever, while the people passing through it will come and go.
Interestingly, Per and Beret are not at first identified by name. They are simply referred to as "the man" and "the woman." In this novel, Rölvaag suggests that Per and Beret represent everyman and everywoman. The author uses his two characters to relate what the immigrant experience was like for millions of others who came to America in the nineteenth century. These immigrants left behind everything that was familiar to them because to pursue a dream of a better life in America. They arrived at Ellis Island, and many of them stayed in the big cities like New York. However, many chose to continue their journey westward, to the unsettled interior of the continent, because the government offered them free land.
The characters of Per and Beret are only lightly sketched in this first chapter, but we already note an obvious contrast in their personalities. We see Per and Beret's sharply contrasting reactions to the environment, which resurface throughout the novel and provide its central conflict. Per is optimistic, continually reassuring his family that they will eventually reach their destination. Beret is pessimistic, harbors a great deal of fear and homesickness. The fact that Per walks ahead of the caravan symbolizes his vision and his optimism, and it also symbolizes his role as the leader of his family. While he has doubts about whether he can find the trail, he remains at heart an optimist, keeping his spirits up not only for his own sake but also for his family's sake. He constantly reassures his family—especially Beret—that they will soon find the other Norwegian families. Finally, Per also walks ahead because it gives him distance from his wife, whom he can feel silently reproaching him for getting the family lost.
We may note that the dialogues between Per and Beret are short and do not express a lot; only the omniscient narrator reveals what the characters are thinking and feeling. We should not assume that the couple does not get along with one another, however; these two people are, simply, not naturally talkative. Per can be thought of as the strong silent type, while Beret may be thought of as the silent suffering type. They act like many married couples do after they have been together for a long time: without speaking to one another, each is able to know what the other is thinking. Beret knows that they are lost because of the way Per acts, even though he keeps reassuring her that they are on the right path. Similarly, Per knows that Beret did not want to immigrate to America and that she came to America only because he wanted to come. However, we must remember that the husband and wife still deeply care for each other, even though their relationship currently contains a lot of tension.