Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman by Nancy Marie Brown

Nancy Marie Brown describes her adventures on an archeological dig in Glaumbaer, Iceland where she is convinced that the Viking longhouse the crew is excavating is that of Gudrid the Far-Traveler, a woman, who traveled eight times across the Atlantic from Norway exploring Iceland, Greenland, Newfoundland, and Rome 500 years before Columbus. While it isn't proven that the longhouse is Gudrid's home, Brown sets forth compelling evidence based on her in-depth knowledge of shipbuilding, Viking lifestyle, textile industry, language, farming, and the Icelandic Sagas, to name a few. Much of the cultural history Brown weaves into this story from roughly 985-1050 is from her own travels, experiences, and archeological finds at L'Anse aux Meadows and Newfoundland. While details on Gudrid are sparse and few, the reader does get a feel for Brown's sense of humor and scholarly mind in this well-written nonfiction text. It is obvious that Brown admires Gudrid and while she is limited by the scarce scientific findings on the woman, she inserts her imagination of Gudrid standing at the longhouse cooking and weaving that allows the reader to put pictures in his or her head. While it is hard to create Gudrid as an in-depth character, Brown, at least for me, is the main character holding my interest throughout the pages.

The Icelandic sagas describe Vikings that colonized Iceland and Greenland and Brown explores the differences and literary devices she believes were used to enhance the stories or are facts that can be used to determine how the people lived or what Gudrid did in her life. Brown concludes that Gudrid was the daughter of a chieftain with money issues that refused to marry her to a rich slave-born merchant. She landed in Brattahlid, Greenland and lived at Erik the Red's settlement who had been banished there after murdering a neighbor in Norway. She sailed with Leif, Erik's son to Vinland or Newfoundland with her husband Thorfinn Karlsefni, and gave birth to her son Snorri. Native Americans ran them off the land and she settled in Glaumbaer, Iceland and later made a Christian pilgrimage to Rome.

Brown adds many details on gender roles that are interesting. Women were scarce and married men were known to share them. The women enjoyed a certain amount of power as a result. Brown also notes that while excavating womens' grave sites a notable amount of Christian crosses were buried with them while the men grave sites had none. She muses that perhaps the Norsk religion was a reason. Men got to go to Odin's glorious Valhalla Hall after death in battle, but women were not allowed there. Some other gods had halls that were for women but not the majority; they got to look forward to spending time with Loki's halfgiant daughter that ruled a cold, damp, depressing hall called, "Damp-with-Sleet." Christ didn't distinguish between genders and welcomed all. Perhaps this appealed to Viking women.

I wished there were pictures and maps in this book. I am a visual learner and appreciate this type of aid. Of course, it increases the cost of a book so I understand when it isn't there. Fortunately in the age of Internet, all I had to do was Google "Viking spinning whorl." If you are willing to do a bit of research on your own it enhances the text. I did buy the eBook and maybe the print copy does have some visual aids.

Brown describes the use of modern technology and how the past is reconstructed based on the technique. She explains carbon dating from tree rings to determine when a Viking ship was made and radiocarbon dating of animal bones in garbage heaps to show diet changes, to name a few. In Newfoundland soil was sent to a biologist to determine if Vikings landed there. He identified three butternuts in the soil, a place where they do not grow, but a nut that was favored by Norwegians; hence, the conclusion Vikings landed in Newfoundland. While excavating in Iceland, Brown worries about techniques used today and if she is destroying some evidence for understanding a culture out of ignorance or anticipation of some future technology. She cites examples of how it can innocently be done that adds emotional impact. Since Brown can't give us Gudrid's thoughts, she gives us her own or imagines Gudrid. I thought her narrative added to the informational text immensely and helped spice up the facts.

Her debunking of Jared Diamond's theory that the Vikings left because of the drop in seal population is an excellent study in discourse. I realize this is not a book for everyone. I like that she covers multiple disciplines from archeology to science to literature to social studies. I think she has nice pacing so that the text doesn't get boring, but some might not be interested in it and you must know that I really like Viking history. I enjoy studying Norse mythology and Scandinavian folktales. Hence my bias needs to be considered because you might not like the topic. I loved it. Now, I have a better idea of what it was like to live as a female Viking. Oof!

5 Smileys

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