The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman

1.10.2009
Words by Ian Watson
The title and blurb of this book leads you to think it’s about Guðríður Þorbjarnardóttir, the wife of Þorfinnur Karlsefni and mother of Snorri Þorfinnsson, the first European child to be born on the North American continent.

But in fact, The Far Traveler is a very general book about literature, ships, North Atlantic settlement, archaeology, and Christianization in the Viking Age. It puts women’s experiences in the foreground, and it does talk about Guðríður, but it’s not really about her or her voyages.

The Far Traveler works best as an intro to the scholars who have tried to reconstruct life in the medieval north through archaeology, genetics, anthropology and literary studies. Indeed, Brown’s background is as a science writer and she is skilled at interviewing scientists. Her interest in Iceland dates back to studying Old Norse literature in college.

Some of the better passages in the book are about Brown’s own experience volunteering on a dig in Skagafjörður. The images the book left me with are archaeological: excavating a farm in Greenland as it’s being eroded by a rushing river; Brown’s visit to L’Anse aux Meadows, the Viking site in Newfoundland; a face-off over whether to strip turf layers by hand or with a backhoe; scraping away ash layers and looking for the old walls of a longhouse in Skagafjörður.

Brown speaks with a number of scientists who cast doubt on Jared Diamond’s perhaps faddish theory that the Greenland colony collapsed because Icelanders couldn’t adapt their palates to local resources like fish.

Brown pursues a few special topics. Chapter 3 muses on the sexual independence of women in pre-Christian Europe as opposed to the Christian idealization of virginity. Chapter 9 is a detailed discussion of Viking Age techniques for weaving cloth. Chapter 10 describes how the sagas saw the transition from paganism to Christianity.

The book meanders. It was difficult to follow the story of Guðríður. I was never able to keep her life story straight. A relationship chart of her immediate family would have helped. Better maps and a few inexpensive black-and-white photographs would also have made the book more attractive. The book does provide a nice annotated bibliography of books on Viking Age Iceland.

By the end of the book, I got the feeling that at some point the author’s agent or editor looked at a manuscript or book proposal about the Viking Age in general and said “Don’t you think we could reshape this around a more saleable theme? This Guðríður, maybe use her life story to structure the book with? And definitely beef up the women’s history angle here. Sprinkle in some goddess references and yes, do that weaving chapter.” If the text of the book never quite caught up with this idea, that would explain why it’s a bit at odds with the book’s title.

Brown has written a previous book about Icelandic horses. She is a companionable and sincere author, with a genuine interest in the North. Overall, I’d recommend this book to medieval Iceland buffs. But the story of Guðríður never quite comes together and the book doesn’t quite stand out enough to urge on general readers.



More info:
Author:
Nancy Marie Brown
Publisher:
Harcourt (2007)

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