No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Monday, August 06, 2012

2012/32: The Sea Road -- Margaret Elphinstone

The ghost looks down on the grave, which is covered by the stone with the cross scratched on it, and it knows that no living man will ever come there again in the knowledge of its presence ... Its people have left nothing behind them that anyone will ever find again. There is nothing left but a ghost, and it will be nothing too, when no one is left who is able to remember. (p. 216)
The Sea Road is based on the life of Guðríður Þorbjarnardóttir, a third-generation Icelander who was among the first Viking colonists of North America and who is recorded as the first European woman to give birth there.

Ever since I read Hy Brasil, I've admired Margaret Elphinstone's gift of bringing immediacy to historical characters and remote locations. Her first novels, The Incomer and A Sparrow's Flight, are SF: more recent works have been historical, with settings from the Neolithic to the nineteenth century and the occasional glimmer of the fantastical.

The Sea Road is no exception. Gudrid's intelligence and dignity sustain her through famine and plague in Greenland, a year as the sole woman in a colony of warriors, and a strange encounter with a skraeling woman. She finds beauty in 'the silvery light of the north, and icebergs as white as froth on cream'; and she recalls the night in Greenland when she saw a woman's corpse rise up from its deathbed, to be felled by the dead woman's husband.

Gudrid's story is framed by the narrative of Agnar, an Icelandic priest in Rome who is recording the aged Gudrid's reminiscences. The two of them, old woman and young man, form a bond of respect and love that underpins Gudrid's dramatic, and in places distinctly unChristian, account of her life. Her world is a marginal one: the Icelandic settlers are 'still trying to find a way to live in [their] new country', and though most of them are at least nominally Christian ('Christianity makes women safe and dutiful') the old gods -- or at least their adherents -- are never far away. Gudrid regards herself as a Christian, but she speaks of Hel and Jormungand as commonplaces, and knows that the dead persist. Indeed, they are ever present in Gudrid's world -- until she reaches the 'empty land' of Vinland, which is not empty at all, but is not haunted by generations of Norse ghosts. ("If a person went to a land that was empty, where no people had ever been before, there wouldn't be any ghosts there, would there?"
"Only the ones you're bound to take with you." (p. 32))

Gudrid understands the lure of the unknown, the empty places, the land that has never been settled. She is accustomed to the harsh realities of life (exile, slavery and banishment; blood-feuds, arranged marriages and murder; the economics of ship-building and wine-making) but never blind to the beauties that surround her, whether the ice and freezing light of the north or the golden warmth of Rome. She's a remarkable character.

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