Books: Portrait with a Purpose

INDEPENDENT PEOPLE (470 pp.)—Halldor Laxness (Translated by J. A. Thompson)—Knopf ($3).

In the dark, cold, turf-walled farmhouse, Bjartur's wife lies dead in a pool of her own blood. The fire in the stove has gone out. The oil lamp is empty. On the bed, with only a half-starved dog to warm it, lies a newborn baby.

Bjartur has been gone for days. He knew his wife's time was near, but one of his sheep was lost, so he tramped off across the moors to find it. His wife begged him to stay at home, but...

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