God's Daughter by Heather Day Gilbert is a retelling of Eirik the Red’s Saga and Saga of the Greenlanders in the form of a novel. The sagas were written in the early 13th century according to the translation in The Complete Sagas of Icelanders edited by Vidar Hreinsson (Leifur Eiriksson Publishing), though they are an account of events that took place about two centuries earlier. The first part of the novel takes place at the Viking settlement in Vinland (North America) and the second part at Brattahlid, Leif Eiriksson’s farm in Greenland.
The time period is a fascinating one, as we see the first known explorations of European visitors to North America. It is also an interesting time as a period of conversion from Germanic pagan practices to Christianity. This conversion took place relatively late in Iceland and Greenland compared to Anglo-Saxon England and elsewhere in the Germanic lands.
Gilbert builds a convincing world with well-developed characters. I was pleased to see that she did not depict all pagans as one-dimensional evil characters and all Christians as virtuous, as is common with some novels set in Anglo-Saxon times. Rather, the characters are presented as complex and believable individuals with mixtures of admirable and not so admirable features. In the original sagas, Christian Gudrid can at times seem to be “holier than thou.” In God's Daughter, Gudrid struggles with keeping her faith, as she at times agrees to perform pagan rituals for reasons of political expediency. She also fights with temptation from attraction to men other than her husband. Gudrid’s faith helps her overcome her struggles, but somehow we know she will always struggle with these issues! The pagan volva (seeress) Halldis encourages the ritual sacrifice of Gudrid’s mother, but Halldis is also described as a kindly foster mother to Gudrid. The pagan Freydis is shown as motivated by love and loyalty in her efforts to protect her fellow settlers in Vinland. The next novel in the series will center on Freydis; I will be very interested to see how Day handles the truly despicable acts that Freydis commits in the next part of the sagas!
With Gilbert’s simple yet elegant use of language, the Icelandic sagas really come to life. Some Norse words are used to provide a sense of time and place, but not so many that you need to consult a glossary or dictionary to understand the narrative. The details of day-to-day life during this time period were well researched and nicely presented. Several of the characters are skilled in herbal medicine, and I enjoyed the descriptions of healing practices of the time.