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Margaret Elphinstone, The Sea Road [20110919|13:57]
Mad Scientess Jane Expat
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Stories have a life of their own. They grow, just as children grow, and perhaps we forget the small thing they once were. But we nurture them just because we respected what was there in the beginning. -- Gudrid Thorbjornardottir

The Sea Road is a version of a saga of an Icelander, a visitor to the New World that the Norse called Vinland, centuries ago. It's beautifully told in the voice of a wise, honest and keen-sighted woman. She evokes both suffering under harsh conditions and the exceptional pleasure to be derived from moments of comfort and ease with equal facility. She makes the reader understand how "[t]he greatest blessing any human being could know is to be assured they will always have food and drink," reframing the renowned peripateticism of Scandinavian people with this practical aim in focus.

Gudrid is a solitary, contemplative girl. She loses her parents rather young - her mother to a fatal illness and her father to indifference. With the guidance of her foster mother, she develops the wariness required by a life spent primarily surrounded by men. The thread of her romantic narrative is inextricably entwined with that of her adventures, and she forges bonds with her partners in a way that a woman who has never been learned to make friends with other women her own age must do to keep away loneliness. (This part of the story spoke loudly to me.) She steps in to direct the journeying parties when necessary, a voice linked to but always independent of her husband's. The story never romanticises hardship brought on by climate, disease or violent human behaviour. Gudrid describes them all with pragmatism, sensitivity and humour.

anthrokeight recommended this novel to me because the narrative begins in Snaefellsnes, the mountain in whose shadow I spent most of my recent Icelandic holiday. Though Gudrid spends only her childhood there before moving to Greenland and eventually Norway, the sense of it - the toughness imbued by years of deprivation and the graft required to scrape a living from a largely barren land - never leaves the story. I found it gripping. It's my habit to highlight on my Kindle the passages that resonate with me. In this case, I found it difficult not to highlight the entire book.

Shall I tell you the worst thing about being on a ship in a storm? What my real fear is? It's the urge to throw myself over. I see the swell come up to the gunwale, or the waves crash against the bow and drench us; I see great troughs open up under our bows; I see huge seas like moving mountains hurling down onto us; and what I want to do is give in. I don't want to resist, I want to go in. I want to throw myself headlong into the chaos that surrounds our little world. -- Gudrid Thorbjornardottir

[User Picture]From: ursarctous
2011-09-19 13:53 (UTC)
Thank you for this post, the book sounds wonderful. I have added it to my must-read list.
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2011-09-19 20:51 (UTC)
It is. A lot of the time I race through books. I took my time reading this one, and I'm waiting a few days to start another because I don't want the feeling this one left with me to dissipate too quickly.
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[User Picture]From: pax_athena
2011-09-19 14:09 (UTC)
Thank you for the recommendation! This sounds like a book I will love :)
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2011-09-19 20:52 (UTC)
Oh yes, I think you will. Gudrid's a trailblazer.
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From: anokapolis
2011-09-19 17:09 (UTC)
I was going to add more books for my nook, this looks good, will add.
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2011-09-19 20:59 (UTC)
Yes, please do. I think you won't regret it.
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[User Picture]From: anthrokeight
2011-09-19 19:51 (UTC)
YAY! You read and liked The Sea Road!!!!

My favorite passage from the book is this one (but as you say, I liked a lot of passages from the book).

"Let me tell you how we built our ship... there was a period where it just seemed to be chaos. As I say, you have an outline, and you imagine a ship, and it seems quite possible. But then you try to bring all the pieces together, and there's a long time where there seems to be far too much of everything... So you want to get the rope for a block, for example, but you don't know the thickness you need because the block isn't made, and you can't carve the block because you don't know the thickness of the rope.

We launched her on a fine spring day... it was only when she was out to sea riding the waves as if that was what she'd been born to do, that I really believed in her. As soon as she was in the sea she was something more than we had made.


She was a ship, and ship can go anywhere; it can take men wherever they choose, out of one world if they like, and into another... On Ascension Day we barred the doors of Leif's Houses... and sailed home with the richest cargo anyone ever brought out of the wilderness that lies beyond the world."

I loved how Gudrid articulates relationships with the environment, and how "in the mortal world" and "beyond" it are so different from how we think of these things.

I also love when she describes the ghosts being banished from the houses of the living, and vanishing into the light and eternal ice. *shiver*

In addition, the way she describes human relationships are so honest. She loves Karlsefni, but she doesn't paint him as perfect. He always made sure he got what he wanted. He wasn't that interested in the things/people that weren't his, or that he didn't stand to gain from. He didn't have patience for womens' tears most of the time. But he loved her, and trusted and respected her, and was a good chief and community leader. I loved that about her voice as a character.

I also love her book Voyaguers, which has a lot of the same qualities.

Edited at 2011-09-19 07:59 pm (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2011-09-19 20:56 (UTC)
I adored it. I'm going to get Voyageurs next, although I'm waiting a couple of days to savour the flavour of The Sea Road.

You'll be unsurprised, I'm sure, to hear that I underlined that entire passage as well.

She is so wonderfully three-dimensional. I loved that in the meeting with the skraelings, she articulated preconceived prejudice. It's sad, but also realistic, that she was just beginning to overcome it when the fragile, tentatively friendly interaction the two groups had imploded into violence.
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2011-09-19 21:06 (UTC)
Argh! And I just realised I haven't yet said THANK YOU, because this was the most pleasure I've gotten out of reading a single book all year.
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[User Picture]From: anthrokeight
2011-09-20 02:43 (UTC)
You are so welcome. I am so glad you enjoyed Gudrid.

Here is a cool thing. I sent Margaret Elphinstone an email a while back, because I think sending mildly well known people letters telling them you like them is a good thing to do.

And she wrote me the nicest letter back! It was such a cool exchange. So Margaret Elphinstone is both a good writer and evidently as lovely as she is talented.

ETA: I should say, both books were favorites in the years I read them. I liked how familiar the landscape was in Voyaguers, especially how much I recognize the perspective of land from canoe-eye-level, and the feeling of North Woods. The Sea Road stayed with me for the reasons you identified, especially Gudrid's insight and deep perspective.

Edited at 2011-09-20 04:14 am (UTC)
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