Monday, September 06, 2004
It's Labor Day morning, the last day of a three-day weekend, and I've got the Vacation Blues. This happens whenever I look forward to a day off for weeks, and then when faced with the actual free-time on my hands, I start feeling down. Either I feel crabby because I'm not "taking advantage" of the time off by going jet skiing or climbing a cliff face, or I'm in the dumps because the short break from the every-day grind is almost over. This morning, I'm not sure which.

Last night I finished reading O.E Rolvaag's Giants in the Earth. I spent most of the weekend reading it, which brings about a common dilemma for me. Is reading a notable book a productive use of time, or it is complete laziness? Whenever I spend a weekend curled up with a book, I'm always fighting off "I should be cleaning out the basement" guilt. Maybe that's what made graduate school worth it. I had to read all those books because they were assigned.

Anyhoo, guilt or no, I managed to knock the book off in a couple of days, and it was an amazing read. I can't believe I'd never heard of this book before my sister Wendy recommended it. It's about a small group of Norwegian immigrants who are among the first settlers in the Dakotas after the Civil War. Rolvaag wrote the book in Norwegian, and then it was translated to English. It's full of references to Norwegian folktales--the settlers sense that "trolls" lurk just beyond the horizon--but it is a uniquely American tale. The romance of the West comes up short against the harsh reality of living in a sod house, outlasting Dakota winters, and fighting off grasshopper plagues. It seems the sort of book that high school 10th graders everywhere should read.

The book begins with the prairie protesting the arrival of the newcomers:
It bent resiliently under the trampling feet; it did not break, but it complained aloud every time--for nothing like this had ever happened to it before...'Tish-ah, tish-ah!' it cried, and rose up in surprise to look up at this rough, hard thing that had crushed it to the ground so rudely, and then moved on.

Beret, the mother in the story, becomes convinced the prairie is a living thing, a malevolent beast that is always watching, always waiting for its chance to strike.
Monsterlike the Plain lay there--sucking in her break one week, and the next week blew it out again. Man she scorned; his works she would not brook...She would know, when the time came, how to guard herself and her own against him!

Beret becomes more and more desolate, and eventually goes a bit looney. The other settlers realize that the prairie can do this to a person, they've seen it before and maybe felt a bit of it themselves. Eventually, Beret shakes off the insanity, and her delusions are replaced with a deep, unbending religious piousness. It is her unyielding beliefs that lead to the tragic end of the book (so perhaps this is why the book is not a school standard).

The book ending was so sad, and I dwelled on the tale all night. Could this be why I'm in a funk here on Labor Day? What's left of the prairie around Peoria must have turned its eye on me...

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