The Role of Women in Giants in the Earth
Peter Mangus Hagen, a large Swedish immigrant carpenter, pushed back his chair, rose from the end of the long dining table in their kitchen, and announced, "And now for my dessert--." He walked the length of the table past his thirteen children to the other end, bent his large frame down, and tenderly kissed his wife Maggie, who was fifteen years his junior and mother of those thirteen. As he pulled himself to his naturally erect stance, he proceeded to thank her for her labor in preparing an excellent meal and in caring for their home and their thirteen children. This conclusion to the meal was as much a ritual as was the blessing asked in Swedish before it began. And if the "thank you" was customary, so was the bill of fare, i.e., a large bowl of navy beans, freshly-baked bread and freshly-churned butter, a bowl of home-canned tomatoes and a bowl of home-canned fruit, a very large bowl of mashed potatoes, two pitchers of milk, and coffee for the adults. In that household a seven-course banquet was not mandatory in order to extract a word of appreciation.
This Scandinavian never pretended that his building of refrigerator boxcars for the Santa Fe Railroad in 1919 was more important or worthwhile than Maggie's homemaking, home management, clothes-making, food preparation and preservation, or care of their family. In fact, it may have been Peter's respect and high regard for Maggie's "woman's work" that helped hold together and make easier a loving marriage that encompassed not only their thirteen children, but also his five children by an earlier marriage.
Of course, if looked at realistically, the couple's division of labor fell into the traditional categories. Maggie's responsibilities were those tasks that are repetitive, frequently tedious, and so transitory that in a few minutes or hours the object of the labor is gone. Unfortunately, this kind of labor is the class into which "woman's work" frequently falls. On the other hand, Peter was the one who did the more permanent tasks. He was a carpenter, a gardener, and a painter--all things that last or make a positive showing. These are the jobs in our society that are recognized as "mans work."
Now if Peter Hagen is the standard for one's perception of the Scandinavian immigrant, O.E. Rolvaag's treatment of Beret, in particular, and females, in general, in Giants in the Earth is bound to be disappointing. In this novel Per Hansa, a Norwegian immigrant to the Dakota Territory, is the larger-than-life super hero who is born to be a pioneer. His wife Beret, the chief character, "is a failure in terms of pioneer life . . . one who could not take root in new soil" (xi). Perhaps because Rolvaag was "primarily interested in psychology" (xi), was a product of a Norwegian background and the late 1800's (xii), and had this narrative of a...