The Greenlander Notes

The Greenlanders
by Jane Smiley
1988 –  584 pages –  paper

This is the fictionalized story of the last settlement of Viking Era Norwegians.   It’s dense and the research is sometimes quite obvious.   I don’t mind though –  it seems pretty well integrated to the story.  It’s told in three large Chapters or Parts,   Riches,  The Devil and Love.

The style is that of old-fashioned Norse story-telling – “Now it happened…” and “In this summer…”.    There is one omniscient narrator but limited in some ways.  One section folds into another with one lead character coming in and another going out.   The little sections  are interspersed so that just as one person dies another person’s story takes up in the next paragraph leaving the survivors of the first tale for a later little section.  And there are lots of characters and lots of names so that gets kind of confusing.

It would be interesting to see all of Brigitta’s story told at one time  – or Margret’s or Gunnar’s but this way works quite well.   Not that much happens to any one character really.

As the novel opens,  the Greenland settlements have already been existing for several hundred years – since about 980.

They have their customs and their systems and their ways.

The downfall of the Greenlanders is the basis but it’s put to fatalism and superstition.  There’s no irony here at all.  It’s very matter of fact,  even the visions of Birgitta and the dreams of many.


1.  RICHES –  Gunnar is born to  Asgeir and Helga Gunnarsson –  he grows up seeing his father kill a woman who it is believed has put a spell on Gunnar.

A ship comes in and it creates much excitement and trouble for the Greenlanders.

Skraelings, native peoples,  are a serious problem although they are good to trade with.

Erland Ketilson,  son of  Ketil Erlandson and Gunnar are rivals  – Erland is very popular but not terribly moral or ethical.   He has Gunnar’s horses let out so one dies and the sheep trample his fields.  Gunnar gets revenge.   Erland is married to Vigdis who is pretty mean-spirited.

The Greenlanders sail to Vinland and hunt and trade but Gunnar is not good at it.  But Hauk dies suddenly – caught in the logs.

The Bishop comes and is pleased with all he sees.  Seems to like the Ketils Stead folks better – more stuff?   Erland brings suit against Gunnar for the killing of the old woman (14 years prior.)   The ways of Greenland law –  who has friends and can impress the Bishop (church law) –  Things or rulings of Greenland law itself done by the farmers and one other sort –  Asgeir has to give up some land.  And that winter Asgeir dies from falling through the ice.

Gunnar owns the farm now –  he’s about 17 (?) but does little work.  He marries Birgitta Lavransdatter from another stead and they have several children including one boy whose story is more in the second part.  Gunnar is a good man but a bit dim and lazy.

People die and farms get abandoned (?)  when the King’s representative comes they are not there but it might be due to the structure margretmargretof G’land law and not letting the king see what is going on.

Gunnar’s daughter,  ,  marries Olaf (?)  (more later)

There is a huge seal hunt and many reindeer are caught.

Birgitta’s first baby is born and dies – it was a boy.

Jon tells old stories from a book to Gunnar (?)

Margret is a bit strange.  She goes walking in the woods hunting herbs a lot but one day she meets Skuli at a church festival (or something) and is quite taken by him.   Her husband Olaf has been the worker around Gunnars Stead but she goes out into the mountains dressed in Birgitta’s red finery and meets Skulli, the Norwegian seaman.  She eventually gets pregnant by him.
Vestein is killed by a Skeirling and that sets Erland Ketilson off but the others try to go on.

page 124 –  Olaf finds out (although he’s kind of dim) and with Gunnar kills Skuli and removes Margret to a lone island with a servant.

Olaf and Gunnar are charged with murder but are vindicated.

Margret is able to survive with some help from neighbors who bring her food and with whom she stays in the winters.

Page 135 – Olaf tries to become a priest but is not accepted right away and so he withdraws.

The priest Sira Jon is plagued with lots of issues both personal and work related –  He’s a very angry man and very unsure of himself.

He sits by the side of his very ill uncle,  Bishop Alf.

129 Another Greenlander is killed by a Skaerling and that story is very strange –  but revenge is taken.  Kollbein Sigurdson is upset because it endangers the community.   KS is the captain of the ship which is in harbor there for several years.

Margret,  Asta and the child Jonas Skulson go to Marta B. for supplies during the winter and Margret and Asta managed to survive but Jonas died.  It’s a hard winter for everyone.

Page 145 –   There is a huge festival with water sports (quite historical I would think) and Kollbein Sigurdson dies.    With Skuli and Kollbein both dead what matter Norway?  There is a huge fight between Norse and Greenlanders.

The Norwegian ship sails to Bergen – may have wrecked.

Anna finds Bishop Alf dead.  She tells Sira Jon,  Pall Halvorsson comes. Jon wants more relics – esp. from St. Nicholas.  Pall tries to comfort him.   Gives Alf’s position to Jon who starts wearing pieces of Alf’s clothing.   (page 153)

Erland owns much farmland but some has fallen to nothing because it’s far away and farmers can’t be found.   Gunnar, who is well off but not one of the richest,  can claim one piece if he does it right.  He and Olaf (foster brother?  – brother-in-law) The time comes but Ketil the Unlucky, a servant of Erland,  hobbles the horses,  cuts the best horse’s throat and lets the sheep out in the field.   Gunnar tries to get to the field anyway but his boats are wrecked in the storms.  Erland gets the land.   (page 160)

Gunnar takes Erland to court and then goes to father-in-law, Birgitta’s father, Lavran who tells him how it ought to be done.   Gunnar loses his case to the very rich Erland who brings all his friends –  (and it was his servant who did it anyway).

167 –  Gunnar gets his hair cut by Birgitta –  they talk –  this is insight into Gunnar’s character.   Later that night Gunnar with Olaf and Finn (new hired hand)  put antler horns into a trap to kill Ketils.   They lure the men out,  the men fall and are killed.

165 – Birgitta sees that Olaf and Finn are not up with the others and she and the hired hands move all their things to Lavrans Stead – Gunnar comes home and finds it empty – gives his horses and stuff away and joins Birgitta at Lavrans Stead.

Gunnar is found guilty and is of lesser outlawry and has to pay Erland for loss.   (But this is not major outlawry.)

Birgitta has a son – they name him Kollgrim.



Attack on family in Solar Fell by  skaerlings  – only Ragnvald escapes and he throws his grandson into the fjord (with all due blessings).

(VERY DISCONCERTING!   Not much break between these two happenings –  why?  They are in totally different parts of the country,  different people – new section except that the skaerlings are a fear of everyone.  –  cheap shot?  –  We’ll see.)

In Hvalsey Fjord  things are much different for Gunnar’s family.  They are living with Lavran,  Birgitta’s father,  and together they have a comfortable life although it’s not as spacious as Birgitta is used to.

177 –   One very old house was built like those in Norway and one man had done the carving,  become famous there and had gone back to Norway and designed carvings for them.   So the houses in Norway looked much like the houses in Hvalsey Fjord.   “Bjarni the Easterner” is probably fictitious but there was a Bjarni who discovered North American when he got blown off course.   I have no idea if he was a carver –  possibly.   He traveled a lot though –  like Smiley’s.

** Did the desire for all things Norwegian contribute to the downfall of Greenland?   Or is Smiley saying that Greenlander things were admired by the Norwegians?

**  Also,  things are really beginning to fall apart for the Greenlanders.  They have no Bishop,   they are being attacked by the skeirings,  they are having difficult winters,  they have blood-feuds.   The “vomiting illness” (black death?   An enormous amount of research has gone into this book – sometimes it’s obvious,  other times not so much.

Lavran tells tales of the area –  Thornhilde is only male left in his line and he is very rich because all his uncles were lost at sea on their way to Norway.   The farm starts burning the wood there,  they burn everything,  they eat the livestock.  There’s nothing to trade,  nothing to save.   Thorn goes out into the field for the last of the cattle and is approached by the devil who offers him various things as the neighborly thing.   Thorn refuses and the Devil takes him for his pride.

Sira Pall tells tales of old country where things were very good.  Olaf is put off – very provincial.  Gunnar is intrigued.   Brigitta is curious. Everything is getting worse in Greenland.

The skaerlings find Ragnvald and kill him as well as others in the family he’s staying with.   Skaerling fears abound.

Margret is rumored to have gone mad but she and Asta spent the winter with Marta and family and will go back to her island in the spring.

Isleif,  Marta’s son (?),  goes to Sira Jon and tells him but Jon is not terribly concerned although it appears that Margret is starving herself to death.

Sira Pall visits Sira Jon and advises him against pride.  Jon is very, very thin.  He’s got this “pride of religion” I think.   Pall asks what’s wrong but Jon doesn’t say.

Jon and others go to visit Marta but Jon is so obsessed by Margret’s evil he can’t even ask about her.

Actually,  Margret and Asta return to Martas and Asta is doing fine but Margret is not so well – not sleeping or eating.  Margret can’t work like Asta.   One day skaerilings appear and cook something and eat.   When they’ve gone Margret kicks the cooking stones apart.

195 – Asta is falling in love with a skaerling who is trailing her.   He gives her gifts she throws them away.   Until one gift she keeps and this brings the tribe to propose marriage.

Sira Jon finally goes to visit Margret and tries to “help” her.   She’s not mad –  he thinks she is – wants to believe she is.  He faints.

Two ships come to near Marta’s and Sira Jon’s.   They stay awhile but as they leave Jon tells them to get word of the Bishops’s death to the authorities.   He gives them valuable things but to the Norwegians they aren’t much.   But it’s the best Jon has in the stores.

The ship demanded payment for the wood which was taken from the wrecked ship – driftwood.   Only those who paid got more,  the others watched the ship burn to the water.


The church is falling apart since the Bishop’s death.  Folks don’t go to the masses and the leaders don’t say much.

202 –  Another ship comes – this one is large and beautiful and is owned by Bjorn Einarsson – traveled world-wide,  has a lot of stuff, tales, etc.   He has 3 other smaller ships with him.  He has his wife, step-son, and others.   He buys the best horses.


  • Bjorn Einarsson Jerusalemfarer is driven off course, and winds up in Greenland with four ships where he is forced to trade. He rescues two “trolls”, or Skraeling children from a rock in the sea. They become his faithful servants.

Bjorn  tells them the news of the world – two popes,  one in Rome and one in France.  He tells of the Mohammedans who own Jerusalem and their ways.  He tells of Bethlehem.

Bjorn meets Bjorn and Gunnhild,  age 11,   and is entranced by Gunnhilde –  so is Einar,   a very studious child.

Pall and Einar compare notes on Einar’s travels.  Einar wants to have his writings copied but doesn’t want to let them out of his site.

Wat the Tiler (Tyler)

They spoke of killings in both Greenland and England and how they were different but the world had gone mad.

Poem by Thorkel Skallason

Einar falls in love with Gunnhild.   Goes to Gunnar to ask for marriage.  Gunnar is not happy –  Does Einar have no friends to come with him?  (Greenlanderish tradition) ]

Einar has a wife.  He’ll leave Greenland –  but Brigetta has a vision of  Gunnhild vanishing.  And she feels that it’s “fated.”

Brigitta has another daughter,  Johanna – and Gunnar takes a liking to her.   Brigitta loves Kollgrim.

Kollgrim is attacked by a dog which he kills with a stone and then he beats up the boy who owns it.  The master’s servant comes out and beats Kollgrim on the head with a staff.

Brigitta is upset by the beating.

Lavrans calls Brigitta on her love for Kollgrim over the other children.  And Kollgrim is spoiled and kind of mean.  Brigitta is upset by this.

Bjorn shows up near Lavrans Stead and Lavrans asks for news.

Vigdis,  wife of Erlend Ketilsson, has declared a divorce (they were never married but …)  and she moved into Gunnars Stead.   She is now a mean tight-wad.    Erlend is in the home place and has a new woman (a servant) and has feasts which are very disappointing – no food or very poorly prepared.

Bjorn asks Gunnar for the hand of Gunnhild.    Gunnar agrees so long as Gunnhild stays in Greenland until she’s older or if she has to go that Solveig Ogmundsottir goes with her.

Gunnar,  Sira Pall go with Bjorn on a trip on the ship to see Sira Jon.   It’s very nice.   Sira Jon has many questions and wants to keep Bjorn.   He’s older looking.

Jon has had a dream of a great cathedral with Bishop Alf promising him a new cathedral.

Kollgrim is with them and he stares at Sira Jon who takes a dislike to that.  Kollgrim is very spoiled and obstinate.

Kollgrim is unhappy with sleeping situation and finally Gunnar hits him.   IT’s as though Kollgrim doesn’t know what he’s doing in his sleep –

Gunnar tells Kollgrim about his own life – Kollgrim complains and asks questions,  etc.    How Gunnar and Birgitta meet and marry.

Sira Pall talks to Sira Audun who is afraid of something but unable to say what.

Pall confesses to Auden – jealousy of Einar’s life –  But Pall is drawn to Einar even if Einar is argumentative.  HE talks about everything and has bigger and better stories.  But he’s a likable guy.
Gunnar and Pall go back to Lavrans Stead and Pall tells of Margret and Asta on the island with a boy about age 3 or 4 years – dark skinned.   Gunnar misses the richness of Gardar.

Steinstraumstead – Margret and Asta and Sigurd.  Son of Asta and skraeling who had asked for her hand.   Sigurd is spoiled.  The women have a heavy schedule of work but they’re prospering.  Asta is almost not a servant – yet she is.

And they wait for something.

Bjorn becomes the “king’s revenue officer” and does the job quite well.  He stays for several years.

There is a huge famine and Erland dies.  His servants are lazy (like him) and the food does not get brought in or saved back.  Finally, after no word from the stead Vigdis sent a message but the messenger found the bodies half eaten by the dogs.  – Only Erland, Ulfhild (his servant mistress) and their child along with two old servants.   The snow was up against the door.

So some from the south went to the north begging food and Sira Jon sent a message to Bjorn and sleds full of food were sent.  Only a few died.

Some farms were abandoned and some folks moved to Herjolfssson’s land which was better.

Gunnar finds two skraerling children’s bodies and buries them.

Pall and Gunnar talk about Gunnhild and Einar and Gunnar thinks that Pall is in love with Gunnar.

Tells Brigitta about all this but she is most interested in skraeling children –  is afraid.

No one wants to take the law speaker job.   Greenland is falling


Margret and Asta struggle to get to Marta’s for Yule.   When they finally arrive there is much death.    Asta and the daughter die.
Brigitta worries that Johanna brought on the sickness.  (She really doesn’t like the child.)

Many die and Sira Jon would get “out of sorts”  rages.   The servants finally locked him up in his tiny room (by choice)  for 3 days between Good Friday and Easter and he came out better for it.

He gave a nice Easter message and a feast.   Many gifts were brought.   Jon told a story about Sira Alf –  many miracles.  Good story.

Margret and Sigurd leave back to their little home and are given 7 sheep with lambs and told not to come back.

New round of sickness.

264-  FInn,  Gunnar’s hired hand,  is to go on the seal hunt and is going to take Kollgrim.    Gunnar is angry.

But Kollgrim goes and he is tied up during the day but at night wanders into a group of men and makes some enemies including Erland’s son and starts to throw a rock at him.  Kollgrim is a very good shot with a rock – kills a bird.

****  So many stories about so many people.   The main ones are:


Brigitta and Gunnar

Sira Pall and Jon


Gunnar is making parchment and writing some histories

Margret leaves the island for the winter and stays with an old couple.   When she returns the place is falling down and Sigurd is only 9 years old.   Siri Isleif comes to see her and brings her things. They talk and share news – bad times at Gunnarstead,  new law speaker.   Sigurd gives her trouble sometimes – ignoring her.  She strikes him.  Quimiak,  Sigurd’s father comes back and claims him. Now Margret is alone.

Pall Halvordsson goes to see Sira Jon.  Jon is mad – nuts – loco.  Pall stays for awhile.   Tries to manage the place.  Is inept.

Margret leaves the island for good – goes to Eynar’s place for first winter –  he laughs.  It’s a very orderly household.  They almost hibernate in the winter.   She looks for Quimiak but nothing.  Margret stays with Eynar and goes to the Thing with them to find husbands for the girls.


The story is very chronological and follows the seasons carefully – but not the years so much.  There is some backstory once in awhile,  usually in the context of one person telling another.


An old man tells the story of Oskar Ospakson – fur trader

They get to the Thing and Anne finds a husband – the men talk about sealing and so on but they really want to go back to the days of the regular Things and get rid of so much church influence.  The Church was extracting a lot of wealth.
Summer comes later every year.

Pall hears of the new Thing set-up.  Bjorn B is chosen to be leader with Islif assisting.

Margret sees Gunnar and Kollgrim recognizes something –  Freydis (Eynar’s daughter) sees the recognition but is silent.   Margret visits with Isleif (her old friend from the island) and he tells her of Bjorn and Signy (new leaders living at Ragnvald’s steading at Solar Fell),  Sira Isleif likes the Bjorn Bollason household.

Benna finds a husband but he leaves when he sees her.  And Eyvind leaves with his family prepared to do the work to marry off his daughters.

page 298 – Margret and Brigitta see each other – recognize each other.

Brigitta and Gunnar have Kollgrim with them.   He hasn’t changed.  Plays tricks on everyone except Finn.   Brigitta continues to love him best.   Worries about him when gone with Finn.   A rift between Gunnar and Brigitta due to Kollgrim and Johanna.  We don’t know who is right –  I think that Gunnar is right although Johanna may not be all she’s cracked up to be.   Brigitta tells Gunnar that Helga might turn out like Margrit and he hits her while in the boat.   She moves her things to another room and they have little to do with each other for many years.

Page 300

Another bad winter.  People remember the last bad winter with it’s famine and illness.  Remember Bjorn Einarsson’s place was lucky.  Fewer people died but more homesteads deserted and Vigdis of Gunnarstead is most powerful farmer in district.   Her son, John Andres, is a man of many friends.

Three years of okay-ness. St. Olaf the Greenlander – the child Ragnvald threw into the fjord.

303 – Cows getting scarce.  Sheep more valuable.  Lavrans Stead doing well with Birgitta’s sheep.   Johanna age 10,  goes to live with THorkel – wealthy farmer –  Gunnar visits and sees Kollgrim on horseback – says Finn is hunting.   Kollgrim and Finn return home and lie about what Kollgrim has been doing.

Gunnar writes more – about the mad priest of Gardar.,_Greenland

Sira Pall says nothing.

306 –  the great famine –  8 years after Bjorn left.  No seals.  Reindeer hunt,  walrus hunt,  but skraelings have taken over the northern areas.  There is great fear of the winter and famine and summer is not much better.

1397 AD –

The book goes through more famines,  more hungers,  more “and in the spring,”  and “it happened when …”   gads.

And too many new characters added toward the end of the book. And all this combines to have me not care about the characters at all.  They’re all kind of disgusting now.

This book would be soooo much better if it were about 200 pages shorter.   It just goes on and on and on.   I’m tired now and I’ve been tired of it for about 100 pages,  but I still have over 100 pages to go.

Whew. =  What a chore.


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