16 June 2010

Growth of the Soil

Growth of the Soil by Knut Hamsun and translated by W. W. Worster is an excellent and thoughtful book I read for the Scandinavian Reading Challenge 2010 hosted by The Black Sheep Dances. If you would like to participate, visit her blog.

First a bit about the author. Knut Hamsun (1859-1952) won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1920 for this book. The review on the Nobel Prize website made sense to me -

Hamsun's work is determined by a deep aversion to civilization and the belief that man's only fulfilment lies with the soil. This primitivism (and its concomitant distrust of all things modern) found its fullest expression in Hamsun's masterpiece Markens Grøde (1917) [Growth of the Soil].

Which leads me to my review of the book. First, I should explain that it has always been a standard silliness at my house that my goal in life is to be a Slovak peasant (and I say that with a sincerity that might be difficult for some to believe or understand, but I think of it as a simple life unencumbered by the rush of daily life here). There would be hard work to be sure, but also a sense of accomplishment in living by one's own hands. So, you can only imagine my delight with this novel.

In the beginning, Isak starts out in the wilderness seeking a place to build a home and till the soil. He is alone and seeks a wife to help him. After some time, Inger comes to him and agrees to be his wife. She was born with a harelip and could not have hoped for a better situation. The two live a long way from a town and together they make improvements to the land and have children. But life is hard in Norway at the turn of the century, especially in the wilderness when a man and woman must work very hard. And things can change very quickly. Things change dramatically when Inger gives birth to a daughter who has a harelip and Inger kills her. She goes to jail leaving Isak and his younger son to take care of the land. The older son has gone to town and is too sophisticated to come back to the farm. While she is gone Inger has surgery to repair her harelip and she returns a little different causing even more disconcerting scenes on the farm. There are other characters who come in and out of the story, but this is Isak and Inger's story of building a life on the frontier in Norway in the early 1900s. I absolutely fell in love with this family.

Just as an aside, there was a small focus on women's issues in this book. Did a woman have to give birth to a baby just because a man got her pregnant? Should the woman be punished if she killed an unwanted, or even disfigured, newborn? How was the man punished?

I find it interesting that it is possible to read this novel online. Click here for the book and an essay by Worster.

TITLE: Growth of the Soil
AUTHOR: Knut Hamsun
COPYRIGHT: 2006 (English translation), original 1917
PAGES: 435
TYPE: fiction
RECOMMEND: This was a phenomenal story of a family and the people they knew in the wilderness of Norway. I really enjoyed getting to know and understand the people who worked hard to bring a home into the wilderness and deal with civilization as it came nearer to them.
AWARDS: Nobel Prize for Literature (1920)

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