I was with Gudrid and Agnar yesterday . . .

Margaret Elphinstone‘s historical novel based on the Norse Sagas, The Sea Road, traces the epic voyages of Gudrid from Iceland to Greenland, on to Newfoundland, and back home by way of Rome.

It was Read a Book Day on the 6th September, recognised internationally as a day in which we should all curl up with a good book. I was delighted to have timed my completion of The Sea Road for this significant date in the calendar.

I’m reading through Margaret Elphinstone’s bookshelf in a chronological order that is pleasing to me. Starting with The Gathering Night, the first story in my chosen sequence is set in mesolithic times when the wide plain known as Doggerland connected England to Germany, Netherlands, and Denmark. Doggerland was breached by the ocean, probably by a huge tsunami, and the British Isles were separated from the continent in ~6000BC. This climactic episode forms the launch stimulus for her story, delivered as a verbal history in the darkening evenings after the flood. Although this has been Margaret’s latest novel, I wanted to start there so as to trace the history she reproduces in fiction by moving forward, rather than back.

Gudrid was the most-travelled woman of the 11th century, sailing from her home in Iceland to Greenland, and then following the contemporary folk-memory of The Sea Trail (charted by Eric the Red and Leif the Lucky, Viking explorers renowned from my childhood), on to the so-called Vinland (Newfoundland). This exquisite novel is related in the first-person by Gudrid to the scribe Agnar. Although I found myself growing impatient with Gudrid by about two-thirds of the way through, I fell in love with Margaret Elphinstone’s fictionalised character again a week or so ago, and cheered her self-knowledge and humility by the end. What a life, a bona fide historical life, she experienced!

My next novel in this trilogy of exploration, from pre-history to the development of my own native land, is called Voyageurs. Margaret’s mentioned, during one of our conversations, that she spent a great deal of time in Cumbria listening to the way folks talk, so she could capture something of the sense of dialogue amongst the British voyageurs travelling, in a route developed by the French coureurs de bois, up the St Lawrence Seaway, portaging over the great Sault and through to the end of Lake Superior, into the heart of Canada as the 18th century turned into the 19th. I can hardly wait to get stuck into this journey of discovery, with its personal and community-wide implications.

I don’t know if I’ll ever achieve these particular heights of a historical novel that’s so precise in its detail, though I only intend to travel back a century in time at the most. I still have ambition and hope for the work-in-progress I call Keep Me in Your Heart. But especially on Read a Book Day, it was lovely to enjoy the skill of a master craftsperson as these stories from the past are explored.

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