This fascinating tale is a journey into the ninth century as pagan gods watch over the Norse ships that sail from Iceland to Greenland in hopes of a more fertile and beneficent land, the adventurers carrying all their worldly goods to a new beginning.
Although only on the horizon, Christianity moves inexorably towards a showdown with the pagan gods. A battle for the souls and the worldly goods of this hardy race of men and women, this is a tragedy enacted against the canvas of history while a more intimate drama plays out on the hearth of Thorbjorg the Seer.
Three women - Thorbjorg, Katla the thrall, and Katla’s daughter, the voiceless Bibrau - engage in a battle for daily survival in a world of rapidly diminishing options. At the mercy of nature’s bounty, or lack thereof, the women endure a harsh existence, Thorbjorg casting runes to predict the future, offering blood sacrifices to the ravenous one-eyed god, Odin, “a newborn pig, a half-formed goat, a full-grown pregnant ewe.”
Katla’s youthful beauty is of little use; as a slave, a thrall, she has no rights, her secret passion for a freeman forbidden: “No woman who is a thrall should dare to dream.” A sudden, immutable violence alters Katla’s future, and she is taken in by Thorbjorg, who delivers the young woman of a female child, Bibrau. Katla rejects her infant: “Oh, this daughter- born out of my body, yet not of me or any of my mother- this child is a blood-let beast, just as her sire!”
To Katla, Bibrau is evil, a tool of the dark side sent to torment her broken spirit. Although the child senses her mother’s disdain, she is soothed by the ministrations and guidance of their mistress. Enraged, the child grows bold; Thorbjorg gradually intuits her mistake in teaching the girl too much too quickly: “Each day she slips further from me, bewitched with her own beguilings, led by a bare, misguiding hand.”
A dark hatred grows in Bibrau’s heart, a thirst for vengeance and a burning need to know Thorbjorg’s magic secrets and the identity of her own father. Bibrau watches and learns, feeding on malevolence, drawing strength from vile incantations meant to cause mischief or, better, tragedy for Katla: “Love for her? Nay! What is love but simply useful?”
When the plague descends upon Thorbjorg’s dwelling, Katla loses her only Christian friends, two slaves who have brought solace to a pitiable existence. Clinging to her mother’s faith in the new god, Katla utters a scarcely remembered holy lexicon: “Kyrie Eleison…Sancte Domine,” a string of rosary beads clutched out of sight in her pocket.
In Lindbergh’s masterful novel, civilization is caught in the implacable jaws of history, pagan gods clashing with a dawning Christianity, the past meshing with the future. Leif Eriksson, Eirik the Red and the great figures of the ninth and tenth centuries are mere players in a drama wrought of smaller lives forgotten in the tread of time, a women’s world of seers, thralls and discontented daughters, where hearth and home beget passion, despair and a heartbreaking revenge.