On my recent shooting trip to Sweden and Norway, I brought along Jane Smiley’s novel The Greenlanders, a work of fiction that traces the lives of a brother and sister, Gunnar and Margret, who were born and raised on a Norse farm in Greenland during the 14th Century.
Taking place generations after the time when Greenland was settled by outlaw Erik the Red, The Greenlanders retains the mood of an Icelandic saga. Smiley’s story is centered on recurrent themes such as the importance of social status and the struggle for order and survival, all of which characterized life during Viking times. Nevertheless, her characters do not possess the qualities that saga authors typically attributed to their ancestors. Gunnar and Margret are not beautiful, valiant nor affluent. In fact, we identify with them through their faults and weaknesses. It is through a strategy of borrowing the language of the sagas yet bringing the story down to earth, that Smiley has created a very contemporary historical epic.
Writers of historical fictions are tasked with endless research when it comes to understanding the time and place in which their novels are set. For Smiley, this must have been especially challenging. Historical accounts of Norse settlement in Greenland are vague. From the Vinland Sagas, we learn that Erik the Red discovered Greenland around 982 and colonized the country shortly afterward. At this time, two Norse Settlements were established along the island’s west coast, the northernmost one was called the Western Settlement, and the more southern called the Eastern Settlement. By the time the story of The Greenlanders opens, the Western Settlement has already been abandoned foreshadowing the eventual outcome of Norse occupation in this country. The reader is constantly made aware of the harsh and remote conditions of north, in which famine is capable of consuming the population and communication with the European world is close to non-existent. One is left to wonder if anyone from this era survived to tell his or her story.
Smiley is also a master storyteller, crafting stories within stories, and sometimes referring to Norse mythologies and earlier sagas with enough confidence and creativity to alter the original narratives. She reminds us that in difficult times, the sharing of tales is always accessible and can help to pass the long, cold winters, “for folk may not contemplate their fates all the time, and must play as well as work.”