Many years ago I lived in Iceland. On a visit to the National Museum I was struck by a small round smooth stone with a hole in it, on which was enscribed in runes Þora á mig (Thora owns me). Either I didn’t read the explanation of what the stone was, or there wasn’t one, but I always figured it was a toy. You know, Thora’s little rock. Cute!
Here’s the first line of The Thrall’s Tale, by Judith Lindbergh:
Einar owns me, the runes at my collarbone speak from the carved stone, smooth with wear. The amulet belonged to another before me, another thrall whose name is lost.
The Thrall’s Tale tells the story of Katla, a slave who along with her master’s household travels from Iceland to Greenland with Eric the Red, or Eirik Raude in the novel. Lindbergh’s a scholar of the Norse culture and the book is a fascinating account of the Greenland settlement, the coming of Christianity and clash of religions, and the effects of the plague (known as the rake and the broom, the rake where some live, the broom where a holding is swept clean of life).
The book pulls no punches. Katla’s life as a thrall is horrifying; she is raped, disfigured, and bears a child she cannot love. The story also tells her daughter’s tale as well as the story of their mistress, the seeress Thorbjorg. The book is written like an Icelandic saga, in that nothing good comes of anything. The rape is the precipitating event and sets the seeds for the destruction of the Greenland settlement. Nothing can beat the sagas if you have a fascination with fatal decisions that result in catastrophe; The Thrall’s Tale reminded me of Njall’s Saga, also known as Burning Njall, in which an entire family is burned to death for some slight or another. Before there were trains, the Vikings knew how to ride a runaway train to its fiery conclusion. If Sigrid Undset were still writing today, she would have written something similar (except in four or five volumes, each about 1000 pages).
So okay, a downer. But a downer in a good way. The character of the unloved and unlovable Bibrau is a trainwreck of her own, and thank you Judith Lindbergh for not writing Bibrau’s voice as that of a lisping child. Even as a four year old, this is an old soul, and we are given the full effect of her precocious behavior.
My quibbles were minor, mostly of the “okay, we get it!” variety when the point gets hammered home a bit too much. Some of the word choices were a little precious. Otherwise, a splendid read.