Wednesday, April 1, 2015
The Saga of Gudrid the Far-Traveler
–Kirkus Reviews (April 1, 2015)
That's the first review of my first novel.
Can you tell I'm thrilled? "Timeless." It tastes on the tongue like chocolate syrup.
Then again, just being able to type "my first novel" is a thrill. Sure, it's my sixth book. Shouldn't be such a big deal, but it is. It's not even really my "first" novel. That one was written 20 years ago and resides in my closet, alongside several manuscript boxes full of more-or-less completed pieces of fiction.
The Saga of Gudrid the Far-Traveler is the only one that's made it out the door and through the writing workshops (two of them) and past the agent and past the desks of the dozen or so editors who turned it down and back to me and out again to Stephen Roxburgh of namelos, who believed in it from the time it appeared in his Whole Novel Workshop (organized by the Highlights Foundation) and helped me turn it into the "timeless" book it became.
The Saga of Gudrid the Far-Traveler did have a substantial advantage over any other piece of fiction I've tried to write. Editors always say, "Write what you know," and I know Gudrid.
The Saga of Gudrid the Far-Traveler is based on 10-plus years of research into Gudrid’s life and times. Gudrid is mentioned in the two medieval Icelandic sagas about the Vikings’ adventures in Vinland, or Wine Land, around the year 1000. The Saga of the Greenlanders may have been written in the late 1100s—over a hundred years after Gudrid died. It was originally part of a longer, now lost, saga about Bishop Bjorn of Holar, who was Gudrid’s great-grandson. Another hundred years later, about 1295, a Saga of Gudrid was written to celebrate the founding of a nunnery by Abbess Hallbera, who was also descended from Gudrid. That saga has been lost too; all we have left is what’s now called The Saga of Eirik the Red.
These two sagas don’t agree on the particulars of Gudrid’s life, and they don’t tell us very much about her. She was born in Iceland, married in Greenland, and explored Wine Land; later (outside the scope of my novel, which focuses on her growing up), she visited Norway, returned to Iceland and raised two sons, and took a pilgrimage to Rome. She was beautiful, we are told, which means she was probably fair and blonde (dark hair being unattractive and red hair uncanny). She was intelligent, wise, and had a lovely singing voice.
Over the last fifty years, archaeologists have proved more and more of Gudrid’s story true. They have found the settlements where Gudrid lived in Greenland and Newfoundland; I visited both. In 2001 a team of archaeologists began working in northern Iceland. I volunteered on the project one summer as we uncovered a Viking house on the farm where the sagas say Gudrid finally made her home. The floorplan of the house looked like no other found in Iceland; it most closely resembled a house in Newfoundland.
I told the story of my summer working on the archaeological team in The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman, a nonfiction book published by Harcourt in 2007. I thought then that I had written all I could about Gudrid the Far-Traveler. Her spirit disagreed. As soon as that book came out, I began writing this one.
In spite of all my research--or maybe because of it--the story in The Saga of Gudrid the Far-Traveler doesn't follow either of the two medieval sagas that mention her. Rather, it weaves a new story using them as warp and weft. Some of the details surprised me--that's one of the most fun parts of writing fiction, when the story takes control and writes itself through you.
For example, I didn't realize until I was well into writing The Saga of Gudrid the Far-Traveler that Leif Eiriksson was the villain of Gudrid's story. Elsewhere on this blog I've argued that Leif shouldn't get all the credit for discovering America. (See "Who Discovered America?") Leif stopped here once--possibly by mistake--and never came back. Gudrid set sail for Wine Land twice, with two different husbands, intending to settle. She was the real explorer. I'm supposing that's where I got the idea that Gudrid and Leif were enemies.
With that in mind, other parts of Gudrid's story--parts the sagas left vague--fell into place for me. In my story, Gudrid was betrothed to Leif Eiriksson at her birth. All her life she has hated Leif, even though she’s never met this handsome son of the famous Viking Eirik the Red. She has hated the idea of Leif: the idea that she has to be a good wife to this stranger because of a vow her father swore long ago.
So when a handsome merchant comes to Iceland and asks for her hand, she prays her father will say yes. He doesn’t. As the story opens, Gudrid decides to defy him, running away to Greenland with her suitor. Her impulsive act ends in shipwreck and, within three years, to the tragic deaths of everyone she loves, including her suitor, her second husband, and even her father, leaving her at the mercy of a vengeful and violent Leif.
But Gudrid never gives up. Plucky, resourceful, and always willing to learn something new, she outwits Leif and at 19 marries the man she loves. Together they set out on the greatest of all Viking adventures: sailing into the west to the fabulous new land called Wine Land. Gudrid explores Wine Land for two years, until she meets the Native American girl who will become her friend and save her life—by sending her home.
The Saga of Gudrid the Far-Traveler is written for young adults, ages 12 and up. I hope, indeed, it proves to be "timeless."
You can order The Saga of Gudrid the Far-Traveler as a hardcover, paperback, or ebook directly from the publisher at namelos.com or order it from your favorite bookstore.
If you would like me to come speak to your school, book club, library, bookstore, or other group about Gudrid the Far-Traveler, let me know and we'll see what we can work out.