What makes a book memorable? Why can a reader clearly remember the plots, characters, themes and settings of some titles and others are gone ten minutes after closing their cover? I recently watched a documentary on To Kill a Mockingbird’s author, Harper Lee, where author after author discussed how that book influenced them as young readers but the documentary tied the book and the movie together to explain its influence.
That book certainly resonated with me when I read it in high school, but there is another book that I have thought about many times throughout my life. I read it over forty years ago, and there are no images from a movie to drive the memories.
When I was a fifteen year old high school sophomore, my American History teacher assigned the book Giants in the Earth: A Saga of the Prairie by O. E. Rolvaag to my class. After I read it I told my teacher “This is the best book I have ever read.” I often thought about the book and remembered the main characters, Norwegian immigrants attempting to make a new life in the United States.
Originally written in 1927 it tells the story of Per and Beret Hansa and their family, as they take advantage of the United States Homestead Act, which gave immigrants 160 acres of land in the Great Plains. Per and Beret settle in the Dakota Territory, attempting to farm on land that can be as harsh as their native Norway but without the family support they might have found back home. But Per had a vision for his family and America was the land of opportunity. This book taught me about the hardships that immigrants endured in their hope for a better life. I vividly remember learning about sod houses and to this day I can’t imagine living in one. But most of all it taught me the human stories that encompass American history.
Twenty-five years later I convinced my book group to read the book. I rarely reread books, but I wanted to discover what it was about this book that had stuck with me. To my surprise I loved this book again and still consider it “the best book I have ever read.” What resonated with me on the second reading was the story of Beret, the young mother, attempting to nurture and sustain her children. By that time I was a mother of young children so I was not surprised by my identification. Her loneliness and depression were heartbreaking.
What still amazes me is how this story gripped me at fifteen and has never left my consciousness. How lucky I was to have a teacher that recognized the power of literature to teach history in a way that highlighted the reality of people’s lives. Later that year she had us read the book, To Kill a Mockingbird, and then she took us to see the movie. Thank you Sister Rene.
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