October 27, 2008

The Greenlanders by Jane Smiley

The word "epic" is often used loosely for describing certain books. It can mean "great," or "significant," or "Sweet Fancy Moses will this book never end?" And all three of those meanings apply to this one.

This is a book about the decline of Greenlanders in the 14th century. Decline in populations, morals, law, and religion. People often wonder how society can get to a certain point, and this book is very interesting in that it illustrates how that can happen, in the most innocent and accidental of ways, ways we can't always see happening until they've wrought their havoc. Another point of interest is the sense of cultural identity and prejudices that arise from a closed community.

It's very well researched, I learned more than I ever expected about the running of a farm in an unforgiving climate.

The biggest problem I had with this book was the lack of emotion. People fell in love and died without a care it seemed. A woman watches her lover's murder and just goes on her merry way. Half of a family dies and the rest just carry on. There's only one instance that some emotion comes through, when one woman relates a memory of her dead mother. Otherwise there seems to be no love or care in this book.

Some people may be put off by the length of this book. At 583 pages it's certainly not the longest book I've ever read, but there's so much information packed into every sentence that it cannot be quickly read. I usually will read a book of this length in 2-3 days, this one took me two almost uninterrupted weeks. But I liked that about it. It felt good to be able to sink my teeth into a nice meaty book and not have to let go for awhile.

Recommended therefore, with reservations.


  1. Interesting, but probably not enough to make me put it on my to-read list.

  2. Sounds like something I would like, but the length does put me off.

  3. I think I actually saw this book at Peter's mother's house...the Danish version, of course. She and Peter's father lived in Greenland for several years before he was born, and 2 of his siblings were born there. I've seen pictures of the time they lived there before he was born, and a recent trip they took there. Nothing had changed!

    The book sounds interesting, but right now I have a problem finishing normal-length books!

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