Giants in the Earth
Book I, Chapter V—"Facing the Great Desolation"
One day in October, Per makes a trip to find wood. Beret grows more somber as her pregnancy advances. When she sees a wagon on the horizon, and she feels like warning the people to turn back and go east. Store-Hans goes out to greet the wagon and comes back to inform everyone that the newcomers are Norwegians. Tonseten is excited about meeting fellow countrymen, and he invites them to spend the night in his sod house. The next day, Tonseten persuades the newcomers to build their settlement along Spring Creek. They listen to Tonseten's arguments and decide to settle on the land next spring.
Per decides to make another trip to town before winter to buy supplies. He makes quite a bit of money selling potatoes to his Irish neighbors and to the newly arrived Norwegians. He loads his wagon with his potatoes and other produce to sell in town. Before he leaves, he tells his sons Ole and Store-Hans to look after the homestead. On the way to town, Per meets a Norwegian couple who have recently moved into the region. Per senses that the couple does not have much food, so he generously gives them some potatoes.
Per enters the town of Worthington, a small frontier settlement recently constructed on the railroad line. He tries to sell his produce, and he finally has some luck when he meets a Danish widow. She trades him three chickens for some potatoes. They have a friendly chat, and she invites him to stay for dinner. Per discovers to his curiosity that the interior of her sod house is whitewashed, and the widow tells him how to make whitewash. After the meal, Per goes to the lumberman to trade some potatoes for lime and lumber. He then goes to the general store to buy his supplies, which include some net twine and rope, calico, cloth, flour, tobacco, matches, kerosene, coffee, molasses, salt, and liquor.
While their father is away, Ole and Store-Hans feel bored. The boys visit Tonseten, who tells the boys that he shot a "bear" and gives them some "bear" meat. The boys ask Beret if they can go out and shoot a bear, but she tells them to stay inside and do homework. Feeling restless, the boys begin fighting. Beret angrily begins beating them with a willow stick—something that she has never done before this time. Beret cooks the "bear" meat. However, the boys tell her that the animal is really a badger, not a bear. Disgusted at the prospect of eating badger, which she considers troll-food, Beret throws out the meal. That night, she cannot sleep because she worries that everyone on the prairie is turning into uncivilized animals.
Beret wants to return to comforts of civilization. She begins packing her big emigrant chest, hoping that she can convince Per to take her back to Norway. Store-Hans asks her what she is doing, and he tries to comfort her. Suddenly, Ole tells her that he sees Per returning. Per returns in a good mood, and his good humor infectiously spreads throughout the house, even affecting Beret a little. Per laughs when his sons tell him about the badger. That night, Per stays awake to knit a net, and he tells Beret that he will use the net to fish and to catch the ducks at the swamp. Beret feels comforted by Per's return, and she sleeps well that night.
In this chapter, Rölvaag continues to explore Per's adjustment to his new environment and Beret's inability to adapt to life on the prairie. Beret becomes more and more haunted by the desolation of the country, and she considers the prairie to be like a desert. Homesick and unhappy in America, she wants to return to Norway because she demands the amenities of order, tradition, and permanent law. While Per is away on the trip to town, Beret snaps and starts to pack up her emigrant chest because she finds life on the prairie unendurable. She feels disgusted with the prairie because she feels that the harsh wilderness is turning civilized men into animals through such acts as breaking laws (removing the land stakes) and eating animal food. Per, on the other hand, adjusts happily to his new environment as he continues to dream about building a kingdom on the prairie for his family. In this chapter, Per reveals to be quite a capitalist, as well as a dreamer, when he tries to sell his potatoes and produce at every opportunity available to him.
Once again this chapter reveals the great contrasts in Per and Beret's personalities. While Beret is an introvert and increasingly turns inward during her depression, Per is an extrovert who enjoys meeting new people. Friendly and generous, Per socializes with several people on his trip to town, such as the Danish widow, the lumberman, and the storekeeper. Per is the type of individual who naturally draws people near to him. After all, he has already taken it upon himself to function as the leader of his community. He also reveals his generous nature in this chapter. When he meets a Norwegian couple who apparently has little food, he generously gives them some of his potatoes.
As the builder and planner, Per embodies the practical and material side of life, while Beret embodies the thoughtful and spiritual side. She increasingly thinks about God when she feels depressed. Per belongs to this New World, America, while Beret belongs to the Old World, Europe. Per constantly looks to the future, represented by his fairy tale daydreams, while Beret constantly looks to the past, represented by her homesickness. In this chapter, Rölvaag begins to examine the hidden chambers of Beret's mind. While Per has been in the forefront thus far, Beret increasingly becomes an important character and eventually becomes the main character in the upcoming chapters.
The incident when Beret cooks the badger meat provides a specific example of the contrast between Per and Beret's personalities. Per laughs at the matter and treats it as nothing, while Beret is deeply distressed by the incident. She cannot believe that she almost ate badger meat, which she views as animal food. She feels upset because she thinks that the settlers will turn into uncivilized beings if they stay on the prairie.
As Per and Beret represent everyman and everywoman, they both represent the two sides of the immigrant experience. Per embodies the indomitable optimism, strength, and courage needed by the pioneers to carve a new life in the new country. Beret, conversely, embodies the homesickness, the longing for everything left behind, and the fear of the unknown that were common to many immigrants. She lacks her husband's sense of adventure and would have preferred to stay in Norway. We should not simply think that Per is right because he is the optimist, while Beret is wrong because she is the pessimist. Per and Beret merely represent different—though equally real and understandable—aspects of the same immigrant experience. After all, every immigrant arriving in a new country must have experienced both courage and optimism along with fear and homesickness. Beret's nature is simply more sensitive and frail than Per's. Furthermore, Rölvaag demonstrates throughout the novel that Beret's fears of the unknown in the new land are valid. We may go so far as to assert that Per and Beret represent the stereotypical personalities of their respective sexes: the masculine Per prefers living a nomadic life of adventure, while the feminine Beret prefers having the comforts of a home and roots.
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