Saturday, May 28, 2016

The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman


Rating: 3.5 Stars

Gah! I really wanted to love this one, because if you have been reading my blog, or know me at all, you know that bad-ass women are among my most favorite topics - hellooooo Boudicca and Eleanor of Aquitaine! Gudrid would certainly qualify as being pretty bad-ass herself, but the author just could not let the story tell itself and she had to push and pull it along and put herself into it and just, argh.

So, anyway.

This text tells the story of Gudrid, an extraordinary woman we know about because of the Icelandic Sagas, but who no one thought really existed. Or, sure she existed, but the details of her life simply could not possibly be true. However, 15 years ago archaeologists discovered a Viking long house buried in a hay field in Iceland, exactly where the sagas stated that Gudrid had lived and cared for her family. Prior to this book, I had no idea who Gudrid was. My own experience with the Vikings has so far come in the form of my poor, dear Anglo-Saxons constantly being harangued and sold as slaves by those nasties from the north. I know very little of the sagas, Leif Eiriksson, and of course Gudrid. Until now.

The problem is, though, that we will not really know FOR SURE if this is Gudrid's house. Those involved in the project were even slow to identify it exactly as yes, this is her house. The author is very enthusiastic about her topic and that is good and necessary, but it can also be a bit deceiving. I myself want to believe that the excavation did uncover Gudrid's former home, but in truth we simply can not know for certain. However, I think at least we can say it is LIKELY to be her home, given the accounts as told in the sagas. And truthfully, I really, really want it to be her home. I want to visit the land and see it someday. Unfortunately, once the excavation was completed for the season, photos taken and any artifacts accounted for, the home was recovered and buried again beneath the sod. Perhaps this is as it should be, it should be left to return to the land it came from, but part of me just wants all that history out in the open so we can see it and walk around it and learn from it. And really, I just love history too much to see it waste away back into nothing. Iceland's government does not share my opinion: "But as for digging on purpose in historical spots, the official opinion is that Iceland's history is far safer left in the ground" (page 43). I get it, because archaeology really does destroy some of the history it is aiming to preserve, but just think of everything left undiscovered.

The book is not without major issues though, no matter how engaging the topic. It is always frustrating to me when the author has a really interesting story and they go and ruin it by making themselves PART of the story. I was not interested in the author's own experiences, I wanted to know about Gudrid. The problem is, of course, having enough material to actually complete a book and thus it became necessary for the author to share said experiences when she participated in the excavation of the long house (another point of contention, by the way. Though, at least the author had the common sense to address this - how she, someone with no archaeological experience, was permitted to work on such an amazing find and make judgments in the spur of the moment of what ash to keep and what to discard. That is unreal to me). I get it, I understand the author is as fascinated by Gudrid as I am, but I wanted this to be Gudrid's story. It was not entirely.

I also find it problematic when authors recreate conversations about their topic in nonfiction texts. This really is something that bothers me beyond belief and maybe I am just being nit-picky but I don't care. Unless the actual conversation was recorded and the author could refer to it and write it word for word in the book, I can do without that nonsense please. It gives less credibility I believe.

Another issue plaguing the book was the fact that it jumped around in time constantly. This occurred within the same paragraphs and I found it rather distracting. For example. there is a paragraph on page 223 that starts out talking about Gudrid making clothing for her family, then suddenly the paragraph morphs into the techniques being used today at Copenhagen's Center for Textile Research. This happened a lot and I feel like the book would have come across as better organized if this jumping around had not occurred - at least not within the same paragraph.

The problem, overall, is that there really is not a lot of information to go on about Gudrid aside from the snippets even mentioned in the sagas. This book is supposed to be at its heart about Gudrid, this amazing woman who traveled all over the world, from Vinland to Greenland, to a pilgrimage to Rome, and yet it is not. This instead is just as much about the time period in which she lived and she merits a mention because she was a woman making the dangerous voyages typically reserved for men at the time. You might go pages at a time with information of the period but not one single mention of Gudrid. The positive in that is that it piqued my interest in the Vikings, their Sagas, and their exploration of the West, but left me feeling very unsatisfied in the pursuit of knowledge about Gudrid.

Also, for the record, I can't take an author too seriously when she describes a boat as "humping the waves". Just sayin'.

Overall, go into this one realizing that it will not be about Gudrid. it will be about the Vikings, their long houses, their sheep, the Inuits, and everything else related to the time period of Viking exploration. You will have glimpses of this woman through time, but will be left wondering, with more questions than answers. Still, worth a read to get even those glimpses.

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