Monday, February 24, 2014

Book review: God's Daughter (Vikings of the New World Saga) by Heather Day Gilbert

God's Daughter by Heather Day Gilbert is a retelling of Eirik the Red’s Saga and Saga of the Greenlanders in the form of a novel. The sagas were written in the early 13th century according to the translation in The Complete Sagas of Icelanders edited by Vidar Hreinsson (Leifur Eiriksson Publishing), though they are an account of events that took place about two centuries earlier. The first part of the novel takes place at the Viking settlement in Vinland (North America) and the second part at Brattahlid, Leif Eiriksson’s farm in Greenland.

The time period is a fascinating one, as we see the first known explorations of European visitors to North America. It is also an interesting time as a period of conversion from Germanic pagan practices to Christianity. This conversion took place relatively late in Iceland and Greenland compared to Anglo-Saxon England and elsewhere in the Germanic lands.

Gilbert builds a convincing world with well-developed characters. I was pleased to see that she did not depict all pagans as one-dimensional evil characters and all Christians as virtuous, as is common with some novels set in Anglo-Saxon times. Rather, the characters are presented as complex and believable individuals with mixtures of admirable and not so admirable features. In the original sagas, Christian Gudrid can at times seem to be “holier than thou.” In God's Daughter, Gudrid struggles with keeping her faith, as she at times agrees to perform pagan rituals for reasons of political expediency. She also fights with temptation from attraction to men other than her husband. Gudrid’s faith helps her overcome her struggles, but somehow we know she will always struggle with these issues! The pagan volva (seeress) Halldis encourages the ritual sacrifice of Gudrid’s mother, but Halldis is also described as a kindly foster mother to Gudrid. The pagan Freydis is shown as motivated by love and loyalty in her efforts to protect her fellow settlers in Vinland. The next novel in the series will center on Freydis; I will be very interested to see how Day handles the truly despicable acts that Freydis commits in the next part of the sagas!

With Gilbert’s simple yet elegant use of language, the Icelandic sagas really come to life. Some Norse words are used to provide a sense of time and place, but not so many that you need to consult a glossary or dictionary to understand the narrative. The details of day-to-day life during this time period were well researched and nicely presented. Several of the characters are skilled in herbal medicine, and I enjoyed the descriptions of healing practices of the time.

If you have never read the sagas, you will enjoy the novel for its fascinating story and engaging characters. If you have read the sagas before, you will appreciate how accessible they are in this retelling, which is largely consistent with the original source materials though some details are changed. The book is available as an electronic text from Barnes and Noble, Amazon and Smashwords, and in a paperback edition from Amazon and Barnes and Noble. An audio version is also under production. Given that the sagas were transmitted orally before they were written down, God's Daughter is a book that should work exceptionally well in the audio format.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Book review: Hild by Nicola Griffith

Whether historical fiction, fantasy or another genre, the best novels create a believable world and show it to the reader. In most cases the novelist opens a window to display the world to the reader. Nicola Griffith does much more in her fascinating novel Hild. She pulls the reader right into seventh-century England and gives the reader a vantage point behind the title character’s shoulders. Griffith’s depiction of Northumbria is so vivid that the reader can hear the battle sounds and smell the animals in the barn.

Or maybe I should say byre instead of barn. One of the ways that Griffith recreates seventh-century England is through her masterful use of language. She minimizes her use of Latin-derived vocabulary in favor of words found in Old English. Some of these words are still in current spoken usage or are reasonably familiar from Anglo-Saxon history texts. I congratulated myself on knowing words such as scop (bard) and weregild (fine paid as compensation for killing), but I still found myself turning often to a dictionary. At first I was a little annoyed at having to look up words. Why didn’t Griffith just write cows instead of kine? I spent a long time trying to find a definition for toll as in the expression tolled a bead before I realized that Griffith must be using some conjugation of the word tell in its old meaning of count, as in telling rosary beads. And even when I didn’t have to look a word up, I wondered why Griffith sometimes found it necessary to use older spellings, as in strayberry instead of strawberry. But eventually I realized it was part of Griffith’s way of transporting the reader to Northumbria. After all, we wouldn’t want to go to France without reviewing some basic French greetings and expressions. Likewise, we can’t go to seventh-century England without learning some of the language of the time that has survived to the present day, at least in British usage or as an archaic form or a technical term. Griffith does provide a glossary for the most commonly used words, but that is the only concession she makes for the traveler to this long-ago world. The longhorns I pass by on my way to work and the juicy strawberries in my backyard garden are not the same as the cows and strawberries of nearly fourteen centuries ago. Griffith’s use of older terms helps remind us that we are in a different land.

Through Hild’s eyes, we also experience many aspects of life in early Anglo-Saxon times, from medicine and herbalism to the daily work of feeding and clothing a family. There was only one place where Griffith broke the spell and hurled me out of the seventh century. I have no doubt that the Anglo-Saxons sang bawdy verses full of double entendre; the Exeter Book riddles are a clue that suggestive works were enjoyed. However, I do not think that Old English verse followed the rhythm of Do your ears hang low!

The entire novel is narrated from the perspective of Hild, or St. Hilda of Whitby, as she is usually remembered today. Hild is one of the few women of her time whose name is still known in the present day. Griffith’s story is not the first fictional portrayal of Hild. The abbess appears in Ethelreda by Moyra Caldecott and A Swarming of Bees by Theresa Thomlinson, as well as Thomslinson’s young-adult book Wolf Girl. In all three of these books, Hild has already entered religious life – or is about to do so, when she first appears in Ethelreda. Griffith instead depicts the childhood and early adult life of Hild, with only the slightest foreshadowing of her later role as abbess. As Griffith observes in the author’s note, everything we know about the first half of Hild’s life can be summarized in a few sentences from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History. Griffith takes these few details and builds an entire story around them. The story and the world she creates are compelling, believable, and consistent with what is actually known about Hild and her time. Some of the details are not necessarily known historical facts, but they are plausible. For example, I am not aware of any documentation of formal relationships between two Anglo-Saxon women, as depicted in Griffith’s description of the gemæcce. However, in a world where women’s lives were so consumed by the task of producing clothing, it is quite possible that such partnerships may have been helpful in completing spinning, weaving, and the many other tasks required for textile production.

The novel is essentially a coming of age tale, as Hild must learn to navigate the many trials and difficulties that come her way and draw upon her strengths to find her place in life. The Hild we meet in Griffith’s novel is an extremely engaging character, with exceptional talents and abilities. The one quibble I might have with the character is that perhaps she is a bit too exceptional. Even acknowledging that she must have been one of the greatest geniuses of her age, just how many three year olds would be capable of concluding that the king was smiling just to show visitors that he was at ease in his own hall? Some of the inferences Hild makes from observing birds and other animals are just not plausible. I have learned from some of the best animal behaviorists of our time, and I do not think many of them would claim that animal behavior observations can really help them predict the actions of world leaders. Perhaps Hild was just really good at applying what she learned from the natural world to the interpretation of human events, but even that would be a remarkable ability, especially for a young child. I accept that Hild was an extraordinarily gifted and perceptive person whose advice was sought by many, but I am not convinced that the real Hild would have manifested such singular abilities at the very young ages depicted in the novel Hild.

My doubts about the extent of Hild’s singular nature are minor, and Griffith’s rich prose swept me along for the adventures in Northumbria. I recommend the book strongly. It is an essential read for anyone interested in the early Middle Ages, but the story and the writing make it a wonderful novel for any reader. Nicola Griffith is working on the sequel to Hild, and I can’t wait to see where she and Hild will take us in the next installment.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Book review: The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

The books I have reviewed so far center around the Medieval period or are explicitly related to plants or herbalism, so today’s review may come as a surprise. However, I am also very interested in United States history, especially the time from colonization through the Civil War. When researching eighteenth and nineteenth century wills, I have come across many examples of enslaved persons being bequeathed, to recipients including children. I have often wondered how it would affect a child to be presented with a human being and told that this person was now his or her property. The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd explores the story of one such owner and slave pair. The novel is a fictionalized account of the Grimké sisters of South Carolina and the persons enslaved by their family in the early part of the nineteenth century, from the points of view of Sarah Grimké and her slave Handful.

Abolitionist and feminist sisters Sarah and Angelina Grimké were born to a slave-holding family, but from an early age it was clear that they did not agree with the idea of owning people as if they were objects. Many of the day-to-day details of their lives presented in the novel are products of the author’s imagination, but the basic outline captures the true biographies of Sarah and Angelina. The stories of the enslaved persons are almost entirely fictionalized, as few details are known of the lives of the Grimké slaves. However, the stories of Handful and her fellow slaves easily could be true. They are based upon accounts of events that actually did take place and are consistent with narratives related by other former slaves.

Sarah and Handful narrate alternate chapters of the novel. Both characters are well-drawn as they come to life on the pages of the book. We sympathize with Sarah as she experiences one disappointment after another. With a lavender bow tied around her neck, Handful was given to Sarah for Sarah’s 11th birthday. Sarah attempted to free Handful, but her efforts were rebuffed. It was illegal to teach slaves to read in South Carolina at the time, but Sarah nonetheless shared her love of reading with Handful. When they were discovered, both girls were punished severely. Handful was whipped, and Sarah was banished from her father’s library and forbidden to read anything except selected religious books and additional texts approved by the Grimké girls’ schoolteacher, who was not known for fostering intellectual development. This event shattered Sarah’s dreams and aspirations, and she only recovered her spirit much later in life as she began to speak and write about women’s rights and the evils of slavery. It took a long time for Kidd’s Sarah to wake up and start taking action. I wanted to scream at her for not freeing Handful once Sarah became an adult and could have taken steps to free at least this one person. Instead, the fictional Sarah transferred Handful back to the ownership of other family members. However, Sarah had to travel her path at her own pace, and part of her journey was that it took time for her to develop to the point where she could play an active role in the abolitionist and women’s rights movements.

We know very little about the real Hetty (Handful in the novel), other than the fact that she really was presented to the young Sarah as a gift, that Sarah did teach her how to read in defiance of the state laws and the household rules, and that the girls were in fact severely punished for this act. Nothing else is known about the actual Hetty, who died a few years after the reading episode. Sue Monk Kidd honors the memory of Hetty with an account of what she might have been like if she had lived beyond childhood. Of the two protagonists, the almost entirely fictional Handful is actually a more engaging character, in comparison to the at times drone-like version of Sarah depicted in the book. Despite her enslavement and despite the many hardships inherent to the life of an enslaved person in the South, Handful had a vitality that could not be suppressed. Handful explained it well at one point when she suggested that Sarah was enslaved in mind but not body, while the reverse was true for Handful. It would take more time for Sarah to find her voice, both literally and figuratively, but Handful had already found a way of expressing herself through her sewing art and through her small acts of rebellion. Handful draws much inspiration from her mother Charlotte, who teaches her never to forget her dreams.

As it turns out, there is a touch of herbalism contained within the novel. When Sarah must spend seven weeks away from Charleston at the family plantation, she takes on the task of establishing an infirmary and tending to the medical needs of the plantation slaves. When Sarah falls into a depression after returning home following the death of her father, she is given tea with St. John’s Wort. These kinds of details about medical practices and other aspects of life help create a believable setting for the novel. Though most of us today would not want to live in the early nineteenth-century South, Kidd does a wonderful job of recreating that world and populating it with characters that matter to the reader.

The Invention of Wings is a novel that will keep you turning the pages. After you finish it, you will want to move on to one of the biographies or other suggested readings to learn more about the Grimké sisters, story quilts, and other subjects depicted in the story. At the very least, you will find yourself searching online for more information about Sarah and Angelina Grimké. I recommend the book highly to any reader.

Bible Quilt, by Harriet Powers. Made 1885-1886. An example of a story quilt. Photograph from the National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center, Treasures of American History online exhibition, Accessed 4 February 2014.