It is probably not going to come as too much of a surprise that I enjoy reading books about the Midwest and its history. There are more such books than some might imagine—some of them true classics. One of the classics is the novel, Giants in the Earth, by O.E. Rolvaag. I read this shortly after returning from visiting Sioux Falls, South Dakota, which plays a part in the story—but also has a small park that has preserved buildings associated with the author and the people from whom he learned the stories that are the foundation of the book.
It is difficult to convey how wonderful this book is. Everything–characters, setting, life — is beautifully and lovingly drawn. You feel you really come to know the people and the setting. The stories are fictionalized but are based on the very real experiences, both triumphant and tragic, of Norwegians settling the Dakota Territory in the 1800s–based, in fact, on the recollections of children and grandchildren of the first settlers. The events are both astonishing and ordinary — from locust plagues and record snowstorms (so deep houses were buried) to simple meals and childbearing. The book makes it clear that, even when there weren’t disasters, life in the middle of nowhere was not easy, and harder for some than others.
The book also does an excellent job of reminding us that, in the 1800s, the Old World was very different from what it is today, when sharing a common country didn’t mean you shared anything else, such as dialects, traditions, and livelihoods, but it also shows how life on the frontier caused former strangers to meld together into a new people.
Interestingly, this book was written in Norwegian for Norwegians (though it was translated, happily, while the author was still alive, so he could shepherd the effort, making sure ideas and nuances were saved), so it is in some ways very Norwegian, and yet it is also very American, recounting the daunting task of surviving in the wilderness. (And if you get the version shown above, the intro includes the story of Rolvaag’s coming to the U.S., which is also a remarkable tale.)
The story moves at a leisurely pace. It’s not exactly a page-turner. But it is endlessly fascinating, drawing you in and carrying you along. It is also an important piece of American history, here saved from the excesses and interpretations of TV and movies. Highly recommended.
As an aside, related to the image on the cover: few things seem more representative of the American West than tumbleweeds, and yet these, too, were transplants. They were accidentally introduced by Russians who were settling in South Dakota. The seeds of the tumbleweed had gotten mixed in with the flax seed that they were planting. So while it is iconic today, it, too, is a relative newcomer.