Giants in the Earth
Book I, Chapter IV—"What the Waving Grass Revealed"
Happier than ever, Per believes that life is like a fairly tale. He dreams of the day when he will own a mansion and more land and livestock. Restless, he always works. One day, Ole and Store-Hans find a swamp brimming with ducks, and they excitedly tell their father about it. One Sunday, Per goes with Store-Hans to see the ducks. On the way home, Per makes a startling discovery. He finds a stake in the grass on Tonseten's land. However, the name on the marker is O'Hara, not Tonseten. After the initial shock, Per decides to search Hans's land. Sure enough, he finds another stake. The name on the stake is Joe Gill. Tears come to Per's eyes, and he feels disheartened.
Per knows that other people, or trolls, placed the stakes on the land, and he decides not to tell anyone about what he has found. He looks for a stake on his land but does not find one. He removes the stakes on his neighbors' land and fills the holes that are left behind. Beret, however, can sense that something troubles Per. One day, she finds the stakes in the barn. Later, she sees Per chopping up the stakes and burning them. She realizes that he must be meddling with other people's landmarks—something considered a heinous crime in Norway.
Per sleeps well that night, but Beret cannot sleep because she realizes that Per has committed a sin. During the next few weeks, Per's temper makes him hard to approach. He worries about what will happen when the trolls return to claim the land. Beret finds Per difficult to live with, and her depression grows. She often looks at the lonesome prairie, wondering how human beings can live here.
One day, a large caravan arrives unexpectedly. These newcomers do not approach the Norwegian settlers, however, so Per and Tonseten think that they must be unfriendly. They go out to meet the caravan. Because Per does not know English, Tonseten speaks to them. Tonseten tells Per that the newcomers are Irishmen who claim that the land belongs to them. Per realizes that these people are the ones who placed the stakes in the land.
Per and Tonseten return to their homes. Per feels convinced that the Irish have no legitimate claim to the land because they did not file an official land claim, as the Norwegians have. At home, Per is in a good mood for the first time since he found the stakes. The next morning, Per tells the Solums about the Irish. He asks for their help as translators because both Henry and Sam speak English well. Per then goes to Hans's place, and explains to Hans that the Norwegians must show the Irish their deeds to prove that the land belongs to them, not to the Irish. Per leads Hans, Tonseten, and the Solums over to the Irish camp, explaining his plans. Per tells them that they should ask to see the newcomers' deeds and their stakes.
The Irish do not greet the Norwegians warmly. The Irish cannot produce their deeds or find their stakes, and they accuse the Norwegians of destroying their landmarks. A fight brews between the Irish and the Norwegians. The massively built Hans punches the apparent leader of the Irish and throws him in a wagon. The Irish back down from the fight, and they decide to settle on the other side of the creek.
While the men are gone, Kjersti tells Beret that the Irish claim that the land belongs to them. Beret realizes that the stakes that Per destroyed belong to the Irish. Beret is struck by a sense of horror that Per now wants to drive the Irish away. One evening, Per tells everyone about how he found and destroyed the stakes. Everyone, except Beret, praises him. In front of everyone, Beret reproaches Per for committing a crime.
In this chapter, Per Hansa meets his greatest challenge yet when he finds the land stakes, as he realizes that it means he and his neighbors could lose their land. The chapter begins with the same optimistic tone that has dominated the novel thus far. However, the tone abruptly changes when Per discovers the stakes on Tonseten's land. For the first time in the novel, Per feels imperiled. He removes the stakes and burns them because he wants to protect his friends and prevent the breakup of his community. He knows that the people who placed the stakes in the land may someday return to claim the land as theirs. He knows that he is violating a law by removing the stakes, but he commits the act anyway.
This chapter further contrasts the personalities of Per and Beret. Per is a man of action, while Beret is a thinker, and more passive. Per burns the stakes to save his friends, and he can sleep well because his conscience does not bother him. Beret recognizes that he acts with good intentions but she cannot, in the end, justify his actions. She is the one haunted by his sin because she demands the comfort and order of organized law and religion, and she believes in following the law to the letter. In the first few chapters of the novel, Per has been the main character. At this point in the story, Rölvaag begins to focus more attention on Beret. As the chapter ends, Per and Beret further drift apart in their relationship because they cannot understand one another.
This chapter also reveals Per's role as the leader in his community. He decides not to tell anyone about his removal of the stakes because he wants to shoulder all the responsibility on himself and because he does not like to ask for help. We should note that stakes are found only on Hans Olsa's and Tonseten's land, not Per's land; therefore, Per removes the stakes to protect his friends, not himself. When the Irish return to claim their land, Per takes charge of the potentially dangerous situation because he is both brave and intelligent. In contrast, Hans proves to be strong but mentally slow; Tonseten proves to be talkative and quick-witted, but somewhat cowardly; the Solum boys are still relatively young and timid. Per, therefore, becomes the natural leader.
Many references to Scandinavian folklore, such as the references to the castles and trolls, appear in this chapter. A number of critics, such as Einar Hauges, have pointed out that Per regards himself as a Norwegian fairy tale hero, known as Askeladd or Ashland. Askeladd was the youngest of three brothers, neglected and scorned by them, but the only one of them who overcame the obstacles to find the Castle of Soria Moria—a place that represents perfect happiness in Norwegian folktales—and win the princess of the kingdom. Per often thinks of his land as his kingdom, and he often imagines having to battle adversaries or having to overcome obstacles to protect his kingdom. Per's fairy-tale daydreams represents his euphoric vision for building a prosperous life in America for his family.
This chapter also makes many references to trolls. In Scandinavian folklore, trolls are often giants or dwarfs who can be friendly but are more often evil and hostile creatures. Per refers to the Irish as trolls because he perceives that the Irish pose as threats to his community. The Irish threaten his community because they claim that the land belongs to them. Throughout the novel, Per often refers to the obstacles he must overcome in America—Beret's depression, for instance—as trolls that stand in his path toward the castle of Soria Moria.
It is clear that the Norwegians are prejudiced against the Irish. They even call the Irish trolls because they think that the Irish belong to a lower class than themselves. In nineteenth-century America, ethnic differences such as nationality and religion often separated people, even those who might be considered members of the same race. Although the Great Plains was a mixing bowl of multiple ethnicities, like large cities such as New York, many early settlers associated only with their own group. Members of a particular ethnic group often settled in the same community with one another, just as members of the same ethnic group lived in a same neighborhood—such as Little Italy or Chinatown—in a large city.
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