History has been something of a passion for me since I was very young and first read about the tombs of the Egyptian Pharaohs, the ancient temples and cities of the Aztec, the Khmer buried under jungle vines, and the crumbled ziggurats of Sumer. As I grew up I fell deep into the larger stories and overarching, serpentine narrative we call history, but always I was most attracted to the doomed and lost civilizations, the dwindling and disappearance of Norse Greenland being among them.
Historical fiction is a tricky genre and one rarely pulled off successfully, prone as it is to sensationalism, but Jane Smiley is a careful student. Not only does she seem to know as much about the realities of life, great and small, for the Greenlanders, she makes perfect use of their style; she tells their story in their own voice.
The idea of a novel written with the detached air and reporting style of the Nordic Sagas is daunting, to say the least, but the somber tone it lends to the story does it justice. From the beginning, the novel dwells on loss and the theme that even in times of prosperity, things had once been much better and brighter. There are no trees for timber, no source of iron, grains cannot grow, priests grow old; there are many things that must be replaced through distant trade. The arrival of ships becomes a rarer and rarer event, almost every season seems to bring about hardships that leave more steadings abandoned, forever.
I say that the style is detached, but that is not to say that the characters never express their feelings, on the contrary, the Greenlanders' love and enmity, envy and hope, is present along with a great solidarity that allows them to keep farming and living, whatever their hardships. It is important, too, that Smiley gives a voice to the women, their own dealings with each other and men, their sense of duty, and their own desires and failings.
'The Greenlanders' is a novel full of sadness, but its never self-pitying or melodramatic. It happens that the winters grow colder, that there is conflict with the Skraelings, that the soil no longer supports as much livestock as it once did. The bindings of law and religion, without their keepers, twist, or disappear. I can well understand why this should be one of Smiley's least-popular novels, though I haven't read anything else by her, because it is, for all its elegance, a harsh book in many ways. The contemplation of how easily situations and civilizations fall apart, leaving behind the well-meaning but doomed individual, is not something that is easily recommended to others.