Set in 1820s Iceland, Burial Rites is a novel based on the true story of Agnes Magnusdottir. In 1829, she was executed for a double homicide, the last person to be so sentenced in that country.c
At this time, Iceland is a backwater, provincial outpost whose officials have to answer to Copenhagen. There is no prison, so Agnes is sent to a farm to wait out her sentence. It’s a lonely place, and the family with whom she is staying (understandably) distrust her. She becomes close with the young clergyman sent to prepare her soul for the afterlife, and eventually, heartbreakingly, her full story comes out. As we hear of Agnes’ life, you get the sense that in this time and place, a woman like her never had a chance and that her fate was probably inevitable.
Burial Rites is not just the story of Agnes, though. It is rich with a sense of time and place, the descriptions of the stark Icelandic landscape vivid. We witness the effect Agnes has on those around her. As we near her execution time, the sense of dread is palpable. It’s a sad but beautifully written story.
It’s a sad, yet beautifully written story.
I’ve been terribly remiss with writing these reviews, but I wanted to get this one in before Thanksgiving!
As children we were all told about the Pilgrims’ landing at Plymouth, their initial meetings with Native Americans, and warm and fuzzy story of the first Thanksgiving. And there it ends. (We hear something about witches later on, but things get a bit muddled until the 18th century.) But what REALLY happened, before and after?
This is something Nathaniel Philbrick (author of In The Heart of the Sea which I SO want to read), explores in his excellent book. He spends a little time on the background of the Puritan community, covering their flight from England and decade-long stay in Leiden. We are introduced to William Bradford, William Brewster (so many Williams!), John Howland, the young indentured servant who fell off the Mayflower and had to be fished out of the sea. (Full disclosure: according to my Gram, he’s one of my ancestors.) And of course, the very short Miles Standish. He was short! And violent. But oh so short! Surprisingly, the description of the voyage is not long considering the book title. The real meat of the story comes later.
The author gives a beautiful, detailed account of the Puritans’ encounters with the Native Americans and their fragile alliance with the Wampanoag sachem Massasoit. Illness, near-starvation, the rise of other, more successful colonies. The daily struggles, the political rivalries in English and Native American communities. Friendship and mistrust on either side. This all comes to a head in the very bloody King Philip’s War, 55 years after the landing at Plymouth.
What struck me most about this book was how even-handed it is. Their are no real villains (ok, maybe one or two), and no real heroes. These were real people, and they were all remarkably human and well-rounded. Philbrick offers an unflinching narrative of the both the cruelty of some and the struggles of others to rise above it.
I recommend it.
(It’s July! Been reading like crazy, but I never seem to be able to sit down and actually write a review.)
I am a huge fan of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, and the sequel Bring Up The Bodies. I enjoy her spare writing, how she can convey so much in only a few words.
Eager to read more from her, I picked up A Place of Greater Safety. I had no idea what I was getting into. Make no mistake, this is a good book. Full review here.