A Nordic escape for American snow days
With the winter season upon me, I couldn’t help but seek out a book to fit my longing for cold snow. I settled on a reread: “Kristin Lavransdatter” (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition, 2005, 1,168 pages).
The first time I read it, I loved it and the second time, my love has grown all the more.
Now this is a trilogy, but I’ll only be reviewing the first book, “The Wreath” (Penguin Classics, 1997, 336 pages). My copy includes the entire trilogy for those of you who are like me and don’t like to leave stories unfinished.
Set in medieval Norway, “Kristin Lavransdatter” is the story of a young girl growing from maidenhood to motherhood. “The Wreath” covers the beginning of Kristin’s journey: her time at home as the daughter of a well-respected farmer. I guess you could say it’s a coming-of-age story, but I hesitate to call it that because it by no means is restricted to a teenage audience. Its conflict is deep and beautiful: the interior struggle of a young girl who loves her family and who wants to follow her own path.
The next two books, “The Wife” and “The Cross,” continue following Kristin as a spouse and mother.
This story skates on the brink of magic and religion, superstition and sanctity, lust and love, in such a skillful way that I have yet to read something else like it. Sigrid Undset so beautifully throws you into the cold, Nordic landscape that I genuinely find it hard to believe this book could ever be read in the summer. But more than that, she casts you into a very different time. Her footnotes are helpful guides in traveling through a medieval era so strange to our own; but, despite the contrast, Kristin is one of the most relatable female characters I have ever read.
Kristin is a young and passionate girl, growing up in the beautiful Gudbrandal Valley. Nearing the age of marriage, she is betrothed to a neighboring landowner’s son, Simon. While it is not an affair initiated by either Simon or Kristin, neither is it arranged entirely against their wills.
Various tragedies and deaths ensue and Kristin, unsure if she is ready and willing to marry Simon, is sent to a nunnery called Nonneseter Abbey as a sort of retreat. There she can clear her head and also confirm whether she wants the married life or the religious life.
Instead of discerning a vow of celibacy, Kristin falls in love with Erlend: a dark, handsome nobleman with a rocky past. He has been excommunicated by the Catholic Church for committing adultery and living with his mistress, Eline, along with the two illegitimate children he had with her.
In Catholic Norway, excommunication was a serious matter. One couldn’t participate in the Church until absolution and forgiveness was given by a bishop. It was a very black mark on his reputation. Nevertheless, he expresses his desire to turn a new leaf so as to win Kristin. While Kristin returns the sentiment, her father, Lavrans, is naturally very opposed to the marriage.
The tension grows for years as she is pulled between her father and her lover, her faith and her desires. Kristin is just as determined to marry Erlend as Lavrans is to refuse his blessing.
Falling for the bad boy is a common theme in the romance genre. But what is less common is a raw, realistic depiction of such a relationship. This book is one of the first I have read where it does justice to the strength of such an attraction as well as the resounding repercussions on yourself and the people around you.
“The Wreath” is a romance through and through. But unlike many romance novels (which I’m not always the biggest fan of), the obstacles the protagonist faces are not trivial. Undset doesn’t just throw hurdles in for the sake of getting to the “happily ever after.” She weaves a story where the reader is equally conflicted with what to do next. Kristin’s dilemmas are intense and hearken to a stage every person passes through in growing up.
Kristin is not your run-of-the-mill female protagonist. She is willful, determined and stubborn but still sensitive and emotional. She is not simply blazing a new trail without looking back, nor is she entirely self-sufficient in her independence. Her individual, strong desires coexist with a deep connection and loyalty to her upbringing. Like many young women, she is embedded in a loving family and grapples with a newfound boldness. Because of the complexity of her character, when Kristin makes mistakes or rash decisions, I don’t roll my eyes at the stupidity of it. I understand her, even if I disagree.
So if you’re snowed in, or hoping to be snowed in, curl up with “Kristin Lavransdatter” and I bet after the first book, you won’t resist the rest of the trilogy.