Date of this Version
Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 1, No. 4, Fall 1981, pp. 252-62.
Ole Rölvaag's Giants in the Earth and Frederick Philip Grove's Fruits of the Earth are not obvious choices with which to begin comparing the pioneer fiction of the American and Canadian plains. Giants, translated from the Norwegian, is about Helgelander fishermen settling in the wilds of Dakota Territory in 1873 and, with little more than their bare hands, trying to farm the alien prairie and establish rudimentary institutions of family, church, school, and local government. Fruits, written in English, is about an Anglo-Saxon farmer from Ontario who brings equipment and capital to the task of building an empire just five miles from a railway on the Manitoba prairie in 1900. Even in its English translation, Rölvaag's novel remains "palpably European in its art and atmosphere,"1 creating, as Steve Hahn says, "a reality which is envisioned in terms of Norwegian religious and cultural structures."2 And it is difficult to translate effects from Grove's methodical, naturalistic prose to Rölvaag's style with its lyric flights, its old-world folklore, and its motifs of trolls and magic circles.
Yet the two novels occupy analogous positions in the fiction of their respective regions. Both were written by immigrant novelists who came to the western experience as adults and who wrote extensively in their first languagesNorwegian and German. Both novels were intended to be broadly representative. Rölvaagwas dedicated to memorializing in great literature the American experience of Norwegian immigrants. Grove styled himself the "Spokesman of a Race," by which he did not mean the German (he claimed to be Swedish) but the race of pioneers, drawn from all nationalities and driven by a compulsion to begin anew.3 Possibly because of the writers' declared purposes, Giants and Fruits are in large measure anatomies of pioneering, laying out systematic and minute information about methods, materials, and procedures that are of interest in themselves. Partly because of their careful analyses, both novels are accepted as among the best fictional accounts of pioneering in their regions.
While such similarities might encourage comparison, they remain largely extrinsic. The choice of these novels is ultimately based on something more fundamental. Giants (1925) and Fruits (1933) are pioneering efforts in a literary sense. Rölvaag and Grove were among the first to look realistically not just at the physical but at the mental, emotional, and spiritual rigors of pioneering, or in Rölvaag's words, at "what it all cost."
Fortunately the novels have more specific similarities to lead us to these central concerns. Both are about giants, and in each the same moral ambiguity invests the condition of giantism. Rölvaag's main pioneer, Per Hansa, is a "stocky, broad-shouldered man," much shorter than his enormous alter ego Hans Olsa, but he is capable of titanic feats ofland-breaking and building, and he survives epic journeys through impenetrable blizzards.4 His capability and his indomitable spirit are heroic, larger than life. Grove's pioneer, Abe Spalding, is six feet four, two hundred fifty pounds, a man of unfailing energy and great personal force. The women in his district see him as "a huge figure of somewhat uncertain outlines, resembling the hero of a saga."5 Both men are natural leaders in their communities and thrive on the physical challenges of pioneering. Both seem at times to have an uncanny bond with the soil, even to bear some mark of election in the way they escape general misfortunes of nature. Per Hansa saves his first wheat crop from locusts because he has ignorantly planted unseasonably early. Abe, on little more than a superstitious whim, stacks his 1,200-acre wheat crop and saves it from the rains of 1912, which ruin the crops of all his neighbors.