A stark saga of an icy island settlement in the Dark Ages

The Greenlanders, by Jane Smiley. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 558 pp. $19.95. Few would consider the island of Greenland, with its extensive ice cover, an ideal locale for colonization. Its climate is far from temperate; little of its land is arable. Yet in 985 Eric the Red, doubly outlawed for murder, led an expedition of Norsemen and their families to Greenland for just such a purpose. They built houses and farms, traded with Europe, erected a cathedral, and flourished; and then ceased to flourish.

``The Greenlanders'' is Jane Smiley's stark saga of this settlement in its declining decades. She chronicles the fortunes of three generations in one family and through them illustrates the colony's descent from order and plenty into chaos and lack.

Smiley begins her tale in 1352 with the birth of a son, Bunnar, to Asgeir Gunnarsson, a wealthy farmer. As he grows to manhood, Gunnar proves a disappointment to his father: He prefers weaving - women's work - to working with livestock or hunting, and prefers sleep above all. Asgeir's elder child, Margret, is a quiet girl who learns the art of trapping birds and small game from her Uncle Hauk, the colony's finest hunter. Through rivalry with his neighbor, Ketil Erlandsson, Asgeir loses one of his fields to Ketil. But still, all is well. A ship comes from Norway carrying a new bishop, and iron and wood to trade with the Greenlanders.

After Asgeir's death, Gunnar marries a girl from the other side of the settlement; she is wealthy and given to religious visions. Gunnar continues his father's vendetta against Ketil Erlandsson and thus loses the entire farm to Ketil as a blood payment for the murder of Ketil's sons. Gunnar, his wife, children, and livestock move in with his father-in-law.

Meanwhile, Margret has been banished to the far reaches of the colony for adultery. Trading ships come no longer; seal and reindeer grow scarce. Superstition replaces every vestige of organized religion. The unprepared community faces the onslaught of a New Ice Age that heralds waves of disease and starvation. The lawspeaker dies without transmitting his memorized knowledge of the law to an heir, and societal disintegration follows.

The author simulates the narrative voice of a storyteller in a nonliterate society. Thus, ``The Greenlanders'' reads as we would hear it were we listening to a teller of tales. There is little detailed description. But at the same time, Smiley adheres to the oral tradition of epics and sagas, repeating words and phrases and punctuating the whole with words such as ``now,'' which are not economical yet would keep up the flow of sound necessary to retain an audience's interest.

Smiley conveys the emotional starkness of the Greenlanders' lives. Her voice is the voice of a people numbed by years of the monotony of survival, a people inured by hopelessness into tacit acceptance of the harshest of fates. She also captures that quintessential quality of the late medieval mind: fear.

When the Danish missionary, Hans Egede, landed in Greenland in 1721, he found nothing but archaeological remains - the Greenlanders with their culture and livestock had vanished. Though Smiley's threnodic novel may solve the mystery of the Greenlanders' disappearance, her meticulous detailing of a society destroyed, within and without, by forces beyond its control may make you wish you'd never asked.

M. Melissa Pressley is a free-lance book reviewer.

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