The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman

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Overview

Five hundred years before Columbus, a Viking woman named Gudrid sailed off the edge of the known world. She landed in the New World and lived there for three years, giving birth to a baby before sailing home. Or so the Icelandic sagas say. Even after archaeologists found a Viking longhouse in Newfoundland, no one believed that the details of Gudrid’s story were true. Then, in 2001, a team of scientists discovered what may have been this pioneering woman’s last house, buried under a hay field in Iceland, just ...

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The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman

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Overview

Five hundred years before Columbus, a Viking woman named Gudrid sailed off the edge of the known world. She landed in the New World and lived there for three years, giving birth to a baby before sailing home. Or so the Icelandic sagas say. Even after archaeologists found a Viking longhouse in Newfoundland, no one believed that the details of Gudrid’s story were true. Then, in 2001, a team of scientists discovered what may have been this pioneering woman’s last house, buried under a hay field in Iceland, just where the sagas suggested it could be. Joining scientists experimenting with cutting-edge technology and the latest archaeological techniques, and tracing Gudrid’s steps on land and in the sagas, Nancy Marie Brown reconstructs a life that spanned—and expanded—the bounds of the then-known world. She also sheds new light on the society that gave rise to a woman even more extraordinary than legend has painted her and illuminates the reasons for its collapse.

 

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
PRAISE FOR A GOOD HORSE HAS NO COLOR

"The best journeys go two ways: out, into the unknown, and in, to what we might have known all along. Nancy Marie Brown's absorbing tale of looking for horses in Iceland is that kind of odyssey. Like the ancient legends she recounts, hers is rich and transporting, a true saga."—Melissa Holbrook Pierson, author of Dark Horses and Black Beauties
 

"This is a wonderful book, a can't-put-down read about loss and healing, joy and discovery."—Jeanne Mackin, author of The Sweet By and By
 

Elizabeth Royte
…the author's most important tool is her fecund imagination, stoked by the archaeologists' collected facts and objects and the sights and sounds of her own far travels…In surprising flashes, Gudrid comes into focus. An archaeologist in Iceland describes a fuzzy line on a computer screen, generated by ground-penetrating radar that has located long-buried turf walls, as "an area of high conductivity, which is consistent with a midden"; Brown instead imagines Gudrid tossing out her kitchen ash and garbage. Thus are science and art wed. All the technology in the world can't tell us what Gudrid was truly like—her favorite jokes, or why she didn't get along with her mother-in-law, as one saga suggests. But we do learn quite a bit about Nancy Marie Brown: she's eager and hard working, open-minded and humorous. Brown pursues Gudrid out of admiration for a woman bold and wise. I eagerly pursued this book, which is as much about Brown's adventures as Gudrid's, for the very same reasons.
—The New York Times
Kirkus Reviews
The voyages of Icelandic saga heroine Gudrid, said to have accompanied Leif Eirikson on his journey to Vinland. In July 2005, Brown (A Good Horse Has No Color: Searching Iceland for the Perfect Horse, 2001, etc.) joined an archaeology crew from UCLA at a dig in Glaumbaer, Iceland, where legendary Gudrid might have lived later in life. It hasn't actually been proven that the longhouse at "Farm of Merry Noise" actually belonged to Gudrid, but the author, who has hungrily sought archeological confirmation of the Icelandic legends for several decades, was thoroughly convinced. Here, she sets out to unravel her subject's fascinating travels, recounted with slight differences in The Saga of the Greenlanders and The Saga of Eirik the Red. In Brown's retelling, Gudrid sailed for Greenland on her father's prosperous ship, got knocked around at sea and was eventually welcomed into Eirik the Red's settlement at Brattahlid, where he had lived since being banished from Iceland 15 years before for murdering his neighbors. With her husband, Thorfinn Karlsefni, Gudrid accompanied Eirik's son Leif to the fabulous Vinland (Newfoundland), where she bore a son, Snorri. After three years, the ferocious native Skraelings ran off the Vikings; Gudrid settled with her family at Glaumbaer, then later made a Christian pilgrimage to Rome. Into this saga Brown inserts a wealth of cultural history gleaned from archaeological finds at L'Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland and elsewhere. She displays an impressive, detailed knowledge of shipbuilding, longhouse construction, language (words like ransack and brag come from Norse), cloth-making, farming practices and gender roles. All this rich material accumulates to create amarvelously sneaky history of the Viking mind. A nimble synthesis of the literary and the scientific that will charm even readers who didn't know they were interested.
The Barnes & Noble Review
She was 19, married for the second or third time but pregnant for the first, when she left Greenland for a new world across an ocean of imagination and desire. Twenty years later, a grandmother, she would journey from Iceland across the sea to Norway then overland to Rome.

That was 1,000 years ago, at a time when such travels were dangerous, daring, and uncertain in every way -- and nearly unheard of for a woman. Nevertheless, Gudrid Thorbjarnardottir ventured forth intrepidly and was celebrated for her rare courage, as readers of the medieval Icelandic sagas of the Greenlanders and Eric the Red already know.

Like Heinrich Schliemann unearthing the truth of Homer's Troy in the 19th century, Nancy Marie Brown -- with the help of scientists, archaeologists, and 21st-century technology -- uncovers the real historical world of Gudrid and her unlikely voyages, and writes about them with erudition and grace in this fascinating, thoroughly enjoyable book.
--James Mustich

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780151014408
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 10/9/2007
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

NANCY MARIE BROWN is the author of A Good Horse Has No Color and Mendel in the Kitchen. She lives in Vermont with her husband, the writer Charles Fergus.

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Read an Excerpt

chapter 1
At Sea
 
They set sail in good weather. But once they were at sea, the fair winds died. They were tossed this way and that and made no headway all summer. Sickness set in. . . . Half their people died. The seas rose, and they were faced with danger on all sides.
—The Saga of Eirik the Red
 
The first time i saw a viking ship in the water, i was struck with the desire to stow away on it. Writers, even the normally sedate scholarly type, tend to wax effusive about Viking ships. They were “unrivaled,” “the best and swiftest ships of their time,” “the swift greyhounds of the oceans,” “the ultimate raiding machine,” “a masterpiece of beauty,” “the most exquisite examples of sophisticated craftsmanship,” “a poem carved in wood.” “What temples were to the Greeks,” wrote one expert, “ships were to the Vikings.” Said another, “Plato may have denied the existence of ideal forms in this world, but Plato never saw a Viking ship.”
 
        The story of Gudrid the Far-Traveler, however, begins with a shipwreck. As The Saga of the Greenlanders tells it, Leif Eiriksson had just spent a year in Vinland as the first Norseman to set foot in the New World, and was heading home with a ship full of timber and wine grapes. He’d had fair winds all the way and had just sighted the great ice cap when one of his crewmen admonished the young captain.
 
        “Going a bit close to the wind, aren’t you?”
 
        “I’m watching my steering,” said Leif. “But I’m watching something else, too. Don’t you see it?”

         It was a ship—or a skerry. He couldn’t tell which. The older man saw nothing until they came closer, then he, too, could see a wreck clinging to a bit of bare rock. Leif anchored close to the reef and sent his towboat over. He rescued fifteen people—to add to his crew of thirty-five—and as much of their baggage as he could fit into his already-laden ship. The wreck had been carrying house timber from Norway to the Greenland settlement; the men secured it as best they could on the rock, and the next spring Leif sent his boat out to fetch whatever could be salvaged. By then, most of the rescued fifteen had died. The only person known to have survived the journey is Gudrid.
 
        If she had ever shared my delusions of peaceful, sunny, blue-sea sailing, surrounded by a crew of handsome men, she would have lost them abruptly on the first of her eight voyages. She knew the killing force of the sea, of weeks at the mercy of the winds, of fog that froze on the sails and rigging, when “hands blue with cold” was not a metaphor and no land, no shelter, was in sight. She knew how fragile a Viking ship was.
 
        “You can easily sail her down if you are not doing it right,” Gunnar Marel Eggertsson, the captain of Gaia, told me. Gaia was a Viking-ship replica with the dual mission of spreading environmental awareness and arriving in America in 1991, one year before the five-hundredth anniversary of Columbus’s “discovery.” From the west coast of Norway, where the boat was built and financed by the Norwegian owner of the Viking cruise-ship line, Gaia and her diesel-powered chase boat had followed the Viking route to the Orkneys, Shetlands, and the Faroe Islands, to Iceland and Greenland, then over the ice-filled seas to Labrador and Newfoundland. In Nova Scotia, Gaia met up with two other Viking-ship replicas, Oseberg and Saga Siglar (which had been crated and shipped by common carrier across the Atlantic). The convoy then headed south, stopping for speechifying at Boston, Newport, New York, and Washington, D.C.
 
        Sailing a ship down is one way to sink it. I had seen videotapes of Viking-ship replicas under full sail going down with all hands in the Oslo Fjord—and winched back up to try it again. (The crew bobbed to the surface in their bright survival suits and were gathered into Zodiacs.) But I had assumed the untrained crew had simply goofed. Off the coast of Spain in 1992, Gaia’s companion ships, Oseberg and Saga Siglar, sank on their way to the World Expo in Seville. The eleven crew members—all veteran Viking-ship sailors—were plucked out of the stormy sea by the crew of their modern chase boat. The replica ships were not recovered.
 
        Gaia, Oseberg, Saga Siglar, and the later, American-made Snorri (named for Gudrid’s son) are examples of experimental archaeology, of learning by doing. They teach us how these poems, masterpieces, swift greyhounds, and temples actually worked, what this technology meant to people like Gudrid. Gaia is copied from a ship discovered on the farm of Gok-stad, beside the Oslo Fjord in southern Norway, in the 1880s. A chieftain had been buried in the ship in the year 900, a not-unusual way for a wealthy Viking to make his way to Valhalla. It’s the soil in this part of Norway that’s unusual. The burial pit was rich in blue clay, which preserved all the wood it covered. Whereas in many ship burials what’s left are lines of iron rivets in the sand, for Gokstad we have all but the ship’s high stem and stern. We have the rudder, the bailers, the gangplank, even the towboats—“rather crank” little vessels that would capsize easily if sailed, according to Arne Emil Christensen, who was curator of the Viking Ship Museum in Bygdoy, Norway, when I visited there in 1984.
 
        Gokstad, on the other hand, “is a rather optimum compromise of speed, seaworthiness, and a fairly good capacity for men or cargo,” he told me. “You could easily put a hundred people in it for a short trip when you don’t have to sleep.”
 
        At 761/2 feet long, Gokstad is only medium-sized, as Viking ships go. Even so, trees big enough for its keel—a single oak log almost 58 feet long—are rare in Norwegian forests today. When a replica was built in 1893, the oak for the keel had to be sent from Canada.
 
        From the keel up to the gunwale are sixteen long oak strakes, each made up of several carefully joined boards. The strakes bow from stem to stern in an elegant curve; the boards come from trees with a slight bend, so the grain follows the curve of the boat. Although we don’t have a Viking yardstick, it seems the Vikings had the concept of the inch. Twelve of the strakes are exactly an inch thick. The waterline strake is 13/4 inches, while the strake that held the thirty-two oar holes (each with a swiveling cover to close when the ship was under sail) measures 11/4 inches. The two top strakes are very thin: 3/4 inch. The hefty gunwale is almost four by four.
 
        This precision becomes more impressive when you realize that the Vikings had no saws. Those inch-thick strakes were split from tall oak logs with an axe. They were shaped and smoothed by axe, too—there’s a fine cartoon of it in the Bayeux Tapestry, embroidered to celebrate the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. The shipwright has his tunic hiked up and is straddling the plank, scraping it with a long, curved axe, while his fellows chop down more trees.
 
        In the early 1960s, Christensen had made an academic study of Viking tools. Through images in manuscripts and the Bayeux Tapestry, and artifacts from excavated graves (craftsmen were often buried with their tools), he had a pretty good grasp of how the wrights put together the Gokstad ship. Except for the rivets. The strakes lap over each other, giving the technique its name, “lapstrake”; it’s the same look as the clapboard siding on a New England farmhouse. But where the housebuilder uses nails, the shipbuilder needs to nip off the nail point and bend the end against an iron plate to keep the boards from wiggling apart. This clinching step—which gives us the word “clinker-built” to describe such ships—had Christensen perplexed. The Vikings had no nippers.
 
        One day in 1973, he was watching shipwright Sigurd Bjorkedal working on a replica ship. Bjorkedal had a good set of nippers—farrier’s tongs—but they went unused as he riveted the ship. Instead, he snapped off the nail points with the sharpened peen of his hammer, then reversed the hammer to pound the nail flat. From then on, Christensen concentrated on studying living craftsmen, as he wrote, while there is still time. “The tools are the same, so the process must be the same,” he told me.
 
        “You start with a keel roughly T-shaped. To shape a keel, take a wedge-shaped board, make four cuts, and axe away to make a T-shape. Use the axe to make the corners smooth,” he said. Then affix the first strake. “Use a clamp looking like an enormous clothespin to keep it in place. How wide this plank is, and the angle of the next plank, governs the shape of the ship. You shape the top edge by eye from stem to stern in a proper curve. The whole time you can adjust the angles and plank widths by a pure sculptural process. Then you cut ribs.

Copyright © 2007 by Nancy Marie Brown
 
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
 
Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be submitted online at www.harcourt.com/contact or mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Harcourt, Inc., 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.

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Table of Contents

contents
 
a note on the language                                                    xiii
prologue                 Gudrid the Far-Traveler                                   1
chapter 1               At Sea                                                                 11
chapter 2               Ransacking the Past                                       30
chapter 3               A Very Stirring Woman                                   55
chapter 4               The Terror from the North                              78
chapter 5               The Land-Taking                                           103
chapter 6               Eirik the Red’s Green Land                         135
chapter 7               Land of Wine or Walrus                                162
chapter 8               The House of the Sagas                                193
chapter 9               The Farm of Merry Noise                             217
chapter 10             From Witch to Nun                                        237
acknowledgments                                                                   267
notes                                                                                                    271
sources                                                                                               279
index                  293

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
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Sort by: Showing all of 7 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 5, 2007

    A reviewer

    I also read this in one sitting. I lterally couldn't put it down! This is a fascinating story about the Vikings in North America and Greenland. I would reccomend this book to anyone.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 16, 2007

    'Far Traveler' is staying in my library

    I read it right through in one gulp. I enjoyed it immensely. Nancy does her homework! I like to read the Eddas and puzzle over them, and here is a 'translation' in spirit, written in clear and absorbing language. I highly recommend this book to anyone who likes history, is interested in Nordic culture, and enjoys a well-crafted book! You're going to love this 'heroine' :' Stephanie

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 14, 2014

    I am a high school sophomore and I chose to read this book for a

    I am a high school sophomore and I chose to read this book for a research project. The book discusses a wide 
    variety of the Vikings, their time, and the stories that they have had. It goes into depth about the stories, which
     they call Sagas, about a Viking woman by the name of Gudrid. It starts off with giving you two stories
     then changes to the boats and how voyages were. Later in the book is goes into Gudrid and the different 
    Sagas that there are about her life. I wouldn’t recommend this book to you unless you can concentrate and take
     in many facts at once. I wouldn’t reread this book again; I didn’t personally take a liking to it. There were a few
     parts that were interesting, but I felt as if though the author was constantly jumping from place to place. I found
     myself lost at many points of the book. The book however, was more useful then not. This book is good if you
     need the information and you are doing a project, but if you are looking for a more leisure read, I wouldn’t 
    recommend this book because it was mentally exhausting. You couldn’t read too much at a time because it
     would leave you confused. 

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  • Posted January 9, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Highly recommend for any woman who is a history lover.

    Its funny that not many people know or even seem to care that too much about the role and influence that we women have in shaping our history. And you wont find too many books out there that speak on that either. There were A LOT of "women firsts" that got covered up by history. In this book Nancy Marie Brown just happens to point out that the true discovery of North America could be just one of those moments. Could a viking woman have been THE FIRST to discover America 500 years BEFORE Christopher Columbus did? Based on constant archeological digs and a ton of researching on who this Gertrude Carlseffni was it just very well may be true.

    The book reads very much like the Lord of the Rings trilogy, lots of Icelandic style names and a lot of adventuring between Iceland, Greenland, and the coast of Massachusetts which at one point was named Vineland by the Vikings. The book also walks you through the role that viking women had in their every day lives from every day house work to laundry and weaving (which in itself is a highly interesting subject on how it was all done back then.)

    So hop on board the ship and discover for yourself the adventures that this book has stored.

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  • Posted November 25, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    The Far Traveler

    I just finished this book. It also has me interested in what was the Little Ice Age and how the it humbled the Vikings as well as getting to know their world and why they did and lived how they did and lived. The Far Traveler is very much like reading the Lord of the Rings Trilogy all over again. You can see how fascinated Tolkein was w/ the Icelandic culture and where he got a lot of his style and names for people and places for his Middle Earth. I recommand any history buff this book. It is really an amazing adventure.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 1, 2008

    Not for the casual reader

    I found the book difficult to read - jumps around from sagas, the story, the author's archeology, etc. But then I am not a strong reader or historian - just someone looking for an enjoyable book to read at night.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 24, 2007

    Real-life mystery

    For any reader who appreciates a good, real-life mystery and enjoys learning about the old crafts and lost arts in a story of archaeological discovery, Far Traveler satisfies on all counts. As in her previous book, A Good Horse Has No Color, the author writes with such descriptive precision and sense of immediacy that the reader experiences the search for information about this historically significant Icelandic woman as if right by the author's side during the discovery process. A book you want to immediately re-read on reaching the last page when the story comes full circle.

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