Giants in the Earth
Book II, Chapter I—"On the Border of Utter Darkness"
The full fury of winter hits the Great Plains. Beret regains consciousness from childbirth, but she can hardly believe that she is still alive. Life gradually returns to her as she realizes that she must take care of her family, especially the baby. Per treats Beret kindly, and she feels joy in taking care of the baby, Peder Victorious. The newborn provides a source of amusement for the whole settlement during their first winter on the desolate prairie.
The settlers bear their first winter with social gatherings. With the help of Sorine and Kjersti, Beret holds a party for her neighbors on the thirteenth day after Christmas. Everyone rejoices over the baby, wondering what his future will be. Tonseten feels that giving the child a second name is too extravagant, but Kjersti silences him. Tonseten proposes that the baby will become President, but Hans Olsa suggests that he could become governor instead. Per and Beret listen to the others talk, and they feel happy.
Meanwhile, Henry Solum organizes an informal school for the children. The school moves from house to house every week, giving the adults an opportunity to learn English. At first, Henry does not know what to do as a teacher, so he just tells stories. When Henry no longer knows what to teach, his brother Sam teaches the children songs.
As the winter advances, the settlers begin to run out of supplies. Hans burns hay for fuel, but the men realize that they must make a trip to town to get wood and other supplies. Beret feels afraid every time Per leaves her, but she does not stop him. The men wait for clear weather before they leave, but their caravan gets caught in a blizzard anyway. From their days as fishermen in Norway, Per and Hans have experience fighting storms, but the blizzard is unlike any sea storm they have ever experienced.
The men connect their sleighs with a rope so they will not lose each other in the blizzard. In the rear of the caravan, Per becomes cut off from the others when his rope tears. Per finds himself caught in a fierce storm, lost and freezing as night approaches. He feels drowsy and imagines dying, and he thinks tenderly about Beret. These thoughts of Beret make him determined to stay alive. Per thinks about the Rocky Mountains and how he should have continued west until he reached the Pacific Ocean, where there is no winter. Finally, Per finds safety when he reaches a house.
As Per stumbles into the door with no idea where he is, he discovers that his friends are all inside. The cabin belongs to a Norwegian couple, the Baarstads. The kind couple provides food and shelter for everyone, and Per's spirits return. In the next few days, Per's friends stay in the Norwegian community near the Baarstads' home. The people of the settlement originally came from the Tronder area in Norway. Per makes many friends among the Tronders as they tell stories and fish. During a dance, Per humorously notes that Sam Solum seems interested in the Baarstads' daughter.
After a few days, the men leave and return to their settlement. One day, Tonseten suggests that they all adopt family names according to the American custom. Per Hansa decides to become Per Holm while Hans Olsa decides to become Hans Vaag. Beret is the only one who does not like the idea of changing names. She believes that changing her name would be a sacrilege and that they should not turn away from their roots.
In March, Per hears that the Indians near Flandeau sell fur for a fraction of the selling price in Minnesota. He decides to buy a supply of fur and then resell it for a profit. Against Beret's wishes, Per leaves at once to trade with the Indians. He makes such a big profit from his first visit that he returns twice and altogether makes a profit of $140. Beret, however, does not share her husband's excitement over his financial success.
Like Book I, Book II begins with a description of the vast prairie landscape of the Great Plains, emphasizing the importance of the land to the story. It is significant, however, Book I begins during the summer, while Book II begins during the winter. In the beginning of this chapter, Rölvaag personifies the Great Plains as a monster that increasingly resists the encroachment of man: "Man she scorned; his works she would not brook." We should remember that the prairie itself is perhaps the main character of the novel, and that the personification of the land throughout the novel emphasizes the power of the land. In the beginning of this chapter, Rölvaag imbues the land with elements of Scandinavian folklore, such as magic, hobgoblin sense, and witchcraft, to further suggest the malevolent power of nature.
In this chapter especially, Rölvaag emphasizes the struggle between man and his environment. He emphasizes the harshness of winter—the cold, snow, and silence—on the new settlers, who are still new to the region. The scene in which Per is caught in the fierce blizzard provides a dramatic example of the theme of man against nature. Rölvaag provides an extended, epic metaphor comparing the blizzard to a sea storm. He makes this comparison in order to reference Per's former profession as a fisherman in Norway and to link the harshness of the prairie winter to other hostile acts of nature.
In each chapter, Rölvaag offers a mini-climax followed by a resolution. Beret's labor proves to be the culminating climax of Book I, and the final resolution of Book I seems to suggest that she will survive and return to her old self. In the beginning of Book II, Beret's spirits return somewhat, but her depression eventually recurs. The climax of this chapter occurs during the blizzard, but Per pulls through to safety—this time. We may be surprised that the final chapter does not have such a neat and tidy climax and resolution.
The motif of the West also reappears in this chapter. In the spirit of manifest destiny in nineteenth-century America, the West symbolized the spirit of new life and optimism for pioneers. Per proves time and again to be a natural pioneer who appears to belong in the West, as he constantly imagines going westward. He often looks to the western horizon and imagines traveling westward, as he does in this chapter when he is caught in the blizzard. For him, the West symbolizes optimism. In contrast, Beret belongs to the East, to the Old World of Europe, and she cannot adapt to life on the prairie. Her frail nature demands the comforts of her old country and cannot endure the uncivilized life in the new land. In America, she is paralyzed by fear.
This chapter also examines the increasing Americanization of the Norwegian immigrants. They learn English and, more significant, decide to adopt American last names. Beret is the only one who is not happy about changing her name, as she considers changing one's name a sacrilege and a renunciation of one's heritage. Changing one's name is like changing one's identity, and Beret believes in the sacredness of tradition and roots. Throughout the novel, Rölvaag examines how the immigrants relinquish their very selves to become Americans. During his life, Rölvaag wanted ethnic groups to preserve their heritage, and he thought of himself as a Norwegian-American. In fact, he made a profession teaching Norwegian language, literature, and history as a professor in Minnesota. Rölvaag treats Beret with sympathy because she too wants to retain her cultural roots.
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