The Greenlanders took me quite a while to read, and that wasn’t because it wasn’t interesting. My hardcopy book was 558 pages, which isn’t that long a book for me. The type was small, however, and the pages dense, so that I would guess it normally would be closer to 1000 pages long.
This novel is also unusual because it is written in the tradition of the Nordic sagas. Although it centers on the activities of the family of Asgeir Gunnarsson, it also tells of other events taking place in the country, beginning in about 1345 until roughly 1415. Because of this style, the actions of the people are described, but there is little conventional character delineation.
Much of the novel has to do with the events spawned by a feud between Asgeir Gunnarsson’s family and that of their nearest neighbor, Ketil Erlendsson. Asgeir and Ketil are wealthy landowners, but life on Greenland is hard, and no landowner can be assured he or someone in his household will not starve during a difficult winter.
In fact, the Greenlanders don’t know it, but in the mid-14th century, they are at the beginning of a long downhill slide for the country. Although ships used to arrive with relative frequency from Norway or Iceland, at the beginning of the novel, the first ship arrives in 10 years. The Greenlanders hear that much of Europe has been overcome by the plague, and so many people have died that the church has not been able to send priests to Greenland nor has the bishop been replaced.
In fact, Greenland has already suffered some diminishment. There used to be settlers in the Western Settlement but now it is deserted. As time progresses, more and more farms in the Eastern Settlement are abandoned as farmers become unable to support their households. The novel documents famines, illnesses, outlawry, the loss of laws and the country law-keeping institutions as well as weddings, births, and deaths.
Despite its nontraditional approach, I was deeply absorbed by this book and particularly by the events in the lives of Gunnar Asgeirsson, Asgeir’s son, and his daughter Margret Asgeirsdottir. I was particularly struck by how similar the lives of these 14th century Greenlanders were to those of the Icelanders described in Halldór Laxness’s Independent People. I think I mentioned in my review of that book that I assumed it was set in the Middle Ages, only to be floored when I realized it was set in the 20th century.