Giants in the Earth
Book II, Chapter II—"The Power of Evil in High Places"
Spring comes, and Per sorts his wheat seed, treating the seed like gold. In April, he impatiently plows and seeds his land before anyone else, and the work makes him happy. Tonseten, however, warns Per about the dangers of planting his crop too early. The weather turns cold again, and snow falls. Heartbroken, Per worries that his crop is ruined; he mopes around the house during the next few days.
When the weather finally improves, Tonseten seeds his own land, and Per feels foolish for planting too early. Still worried about his wheat, Per and his two sons plant his potatoes. Suddenly one day, Ole and Store-Hans tell Per that his wheat is sprouting. Elated, Per rushes out to his field and realizes that his seed will still germinate and grow.
During the summer, more and more homesteaders of many nationalities begin to arrive in the Dakota Territory. A newly-arrived Norwegian named Torkel Tallaksen is quite wealthy and vain. Torkel has grand plans because he wants to build a house from lumber, not sod. He even offers Per wages to help build his house, saying that sod huts are not fit for humans. Per tells Torkel that he should put his money into his land, not his house. However, Beret tells Torkel that he has a fine idea in building a wooden house, and she agrees with Torkel that sod huts are uncivilized. Beret's comments hurt Per. Torkel cannot find anyone to help him, however, so he has to build a sod hut like the others.
One day, a wagon stops at Per's home. The immigrants are a Norwegian family that became separated from their caravan. Per sees that the wife, Kari, is evidently insane; her husband has to tie her up with ropes for her own protection. Beret feels an immediate sympathy for the woman and takes her into the house. The man tells Per a sad story. Kari is insane with grief because their youngest son died a few days ago. They had to bury him in an unmarked location without a coffin, and she feels like they abandoned him.
Per offers the family food and shelter. Beret feels further convinced that life on the prairie is unendurable. During the night, Kari snatches And-Ongen in a crazy impulse and runs outside. Beret awakens, realizing what has happened. Beret and Per search frantically for the crazed woman and find her clutching And-Ongen. In order to help Kari, Per decides to make a coffin for the boy and find the grave out on the prairie. Per Hansa and Hans Olsa search for the grave, but find nothing. Kari and her husband then leave to continue their journey. Beret feels deeply disturbed whenever she thinks about Kari. Beret's fears increase, and she continues to cover her windows to shut out the prairie. At first, Per tries to cheer her up, but eventually he only worries about her.
July arrives, and the wheat ripens. In his merriment, Per seems almost to forget about his wife's condition. He feels proud because he possesses the finest field of wheat in the settlement. Tonseten insists that they begin harvesting, but Per asks him to wait until they have a finer crop. Finally, they begin harvesting Per's land. The men talk about the day when they will all be rich.
The next day, Per notices an ominous storm cloud approaching. In fact, the storm cloud proves to be a swarm of locusts. Helpless with fear, the settlers watch the locusts devour everything in sight. Tonseten laments this punishment from the Lord, but Per dismisses any suggestion that God wants to punish them. Per gets his gun and fires at the locusts. The locusts leave Per's land but move on to his neighbors' land. Per feels relieved that his crop is saved, but he worries about Beret. He returns home but cannot find her. At last, he discovers Beret, stricken with fear, hiding with And-Ongen and the baby inside her emigrant chest. Horrified to see Beret in such a deranged state, Per feels his heart sink. Over the next five summers, the locusts continue to torment the settlers.
In this chapter, Rölvaag once again reveals the awesome power and fury of the prairie. Throughout the novel, he emphasizes the hardships faced by the early pioneers from their environment. The first winter proves to be fierce, complete with blizzards and a near-famine. Now, we recognize that summer does not necessarily alleviate the afflictions of the settlers, as a plague of locusts destroys most of the settlers' crops. Throughout the novel, Rölvaag makes the struggles faced by the early pioneers appear epic, but, as an immigrant himself who knew first-hand the difficult life of the pioneer, he portrays events realistically. Indeed, we should note that the first settlers of the Great Plains suffered from high rates of suicide and mental illness, as the hardships that they endured, including loneliness, often proved too much for them.
In this chapter, Rölvaag offers a complete tragedy. The arrival of the Norwegian couple, the arrival of the locusts, and the growing insanity of Beret provide the novel with a tone of gloom and doom. Thus far, we have seen challenges and potential disasters met and overcome, especially on Per's part. In Book I, Per becomes lost but then finds his way again to reach the settlement, he loses his cow but then finds her, and he finds stakes belonging to earlier settlers but removes them and saves his neighbors' land. Furthermore, Beret survives a difficult childbirth. In Book II, Per becomes lost in a snowstorm but reaches safety, and he plants his wheat crop too early but is lucky to see the seeds sprout and grow a rich crop. However, in this chapter, for the first time in the novel, Per is unable to overcome the obstacles he faces. Though he appears to have to power to conquer everything, he cannot conquer Beret's fears and he cannot overcome the plague of locusts.
Rölvaag's introduction of the drifting Norwegian couple in this chapter the foreshadows the upcoming tragedy, the arrival of the locusts and Beret's loss of sanity. Kari functions as a double for Beret, as both women are frail individuals who cannot endure life on the prairie. While Kari goes insane from grief, Beret goes insane from fear and homesickness. Beret's insanity is not as advanced as Kari's, at least at this point.
Ironically, Beret is one who emerges validated at the end of this chapter. She has feared that something evil would happen to the settlers all along, and she has tried to convince the others that life on the prairie is unendurable. When the locusts arrive, Beret's fears appear, to some extent, validated; her fears defeat even Per. When he discovers that Beret has hidden herself in her chest, he feels so horrified seeing his wife insane that he passes out. Throughout the novel, Rölvaag pits Per the optimist against Beret the pessimist. The author forces us to ask if Per is right in thinking that the land will be tamed someday and make the settlers rich, or if Beret is right in thinking that the settlers should have never left their native country.
Beret's emigrant chest, a family heirloom, once again appears as a symbol of her ties to Norway. In this chapter, however, the chest also represents a figurative burial casket. When Beret hides herself and her youngest children in the emigrant chest, she in effect wants to die. In the earlier chapter "The Heart that Dared Not Let in the Sun," we see Beret fantasize about her death and imagine using her emigrant chest as her coffin. In this chapter, she dies in a sense, as she becomes deranged. Using her emigrant chest as a symbolic coffin, she attempts to return to her native Norway.
In this chapter, Rölvaag revisits the motif of the Israelites of the Old Testament. When the fields ripen, the Norwegian men refer to their rich farmland as the "Promised Land," believing that they have already found it. However, the plague of locusts arrive—recalling the seven plagues of Egypt—to remind the immigrants that they still have to overcome more obstacles before they can at last find their Promised Land.
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