I very nearly didn’t pick ‘Growth of the Soil’ for my Nordic literature project. I’d read ‘Hunger,’ which is probably Hamsun’s most famous work in England, and hadn’t enjoyed it much. Then after the bleak misery of Laxness’s ‘Independent People‘ I wasn’t sure I could take another novel about rugged Nordic settlers’ macho struggles to tame the land.
I’m so pleased I wasn’t put off by the desolate cover to the book. Instead, I was immediately drawn into Hamsun’s persuasive vision of colonising the wild corners of the earth. ‘Growth of the Soil’ reminded me of nothing so much as the Laura Ingalls Wilder ‘Little House on the Prairie’ novels that I loved so much as a child. The only other book I’ve read that gives such an attractively worthy portrait of rural life is Willa Cather’s ‘My Ántonia.’ I like to think these literary connections have a historical basis – Wilder’s autobiographical novels were set in the late 1800s while Cather’s novel came out in 1918, only a year after ‘Growth of the Soil’ was published in Norway; taken together they reflect a huge ‘back to nature’ movement across Western Europe and North America.
In keeping with the ideology, Hamsun teaches his readers of the simple pleasures of taming the land. It’s really very easy; first you need to find somewhere that is very very far from the nearest village. Then you settle it. As long as you despise anything that might distract you from farming or building you will succeed. In a wonderful (if rather unlikely) contrast to Laxness’s peasants, Hamsun’s heroes live debt-free as their holdings and livestock increase around them. Really, it’s hard for them to work out what to do with the wealth they incidentally manage to accumulate while despising worldly riches. It just goes to show what success is waiting for anyone who is willing to eschew the evils of modern life.
Actually, things aren’t all sweetness and light. For one, there’s a worrying amount of infanticide, and some passages about weak, modern women that I found difficult to get behind. More perniciously, the presentation of the indigenous inhabitants of Northern Norway is genuinely troubling, horribly undermining the aims and ideology of these national ‘colonisers.’ It’s a reminder of the dangers of reading literature, even forward-thinking literature, from one hundred years ago. Not that I think this book should be avoided, just that while the writing may be delightful, a minority of the themes deserve reading warnings.
The offensive passages are very few however (especially given the era and subject matter of the whole novel). For the rest of the time, the book offers up a joyful escapist experience. This is the closest I’ve come to coveting a farmer’s lifestyle in a very long time and if I ever have to abandon my urban home for a rural wilderness, I hope I can do so with the grace, decency and, of course, massive success, of Hamsun’s salt-of-the-earth heroes.