Sigrun’s Secret by Marie-Louise Jensen

Another book that, like Constable and Toop, demonstrates just how much effort and author will go to when writing a book and what a difference a bit of research can make – allow me to introduce Sigrun’s Secret.

Sigrun's Secret

Publisher: Oxford University Press
ISBN: 9780192728821
Published: 6/1/2011

Sigrun’s life is fairly normal for a Viking girl. Whilst Sigrun learns her mother’s craft of herblore, Sigrun’s brother and her childhood friend Ingvar go out with her father the chief to trade with other communities, and all is well within their small farming community in Iceland. One day though, a band of rough men come to Sigrun’s farm and their leader demands reparation for the grievous wrong Sigrun’s father is said to have done to him. Witha¬† dark family secret exposed, Sigrun, her father and her brother are all expelled form Iceland and instead move to try to start a new life in York. However, escaping the family’s past proves harder to do than they realise and things become rather complicated.

I’ve got a soft spot for Vikings (even if my history of them is a trifle sketchy), especially as I’m rather fond of sagas, legends and fables (check out the girl whose dissertation had to be explained to her university tutor, the German legend she’d chosen to research was that obscure). So a book set in the Viking era and revolving around York the English centre for Vikingness was bound to interest me, and interest me it certainly did!

As I mentioned before, it’s obvious the amount of time and effort the author put in to her research before writing of Sigrun and her family. Forgive me for slipping into History Geek mode, but it’s all right there in the little touches like the Saxon/Norse rivalries between rulers Siefred and Alfred in York, or the detail on the coins Leif bargains with in the York markets. Researching what life is like in period of history is fairly easy to do, but little touches like that take real effort and are the cherry on top of the literary cake; they just add that little bit more, that little zing! to a scene.

I learnt something new too – did you ever consider that the Vikings were slave traders? I never did, and certain scenes in the book really bring that home. I love it when a book teachers you something new unexpectedly, even if it is as hardhitting as this.

That is something Jensen is especially good at in this book, setting the scene. The farmstead community became very real to me, both through her characters (which were excellent, I could really get behind Sigrun and I loved (if that’s the right word) the fallout after the secret was revealed and the different ways each of the family behaved) and through her descriptions. I got a real sense of community when Jensen described how the farmstead people lived and worked (Sigrun and the loft beds!) and it just brought them alive for me. The city of York or Jorvik was so alive it may as well have been just outside my front door, it was so vibrant! I mean, I’ve been to the Jorvik viking centre, I’ve seen and smelt the street reenactment and this put me in the place of a young Viking woman far more easily than that did (sorry Jorvik!).

Another aspect I really liked was that whilst there is a love interest and one that even I could see coming, it didn’t devolve into a love triangle, which seems tp be happening more and more with the books I read nowadays. Nope, this was a love interest that not only didn’t annoy me, but didn’t turn everyone into a bunch of saps either – it was realistic, and it was tender, and it was one you could really root for too.

The book does have two important messages in it, both of which are handled very subtley and blend in beautifully with the plot. The first is that you must always consider both sides of the argument, which Sigrun is forced to do when the family’s past comes to light. It’s an important point which I think gets forgotten all too easily these days when gossip reigns supreme (…and off the high horse I get). The second is that being a girl can be really rather cool.

Allow me to explain. Sigrun is of course a girl, and she is almightily cool. She’s not a heroine because she adopts more boyish pursuits though, oh no. She’s a heroine because the things she does that are are commonly associated with women are actually pretty damn cool. Things like being able to cure, treat or nurse any ailment through her knowledge of plants and flowers and their medicinal properties, or delivering babies. Correct me if I’m wrong, but nursing and midwifery still tend to be associated with women more often than men, and whereas a lot of heroines throw the sterotype of women out the window, Sigrun doesn’t and still manages to be an inspiration. That is just plain awesome in my book and a refreshing change. Don’t get me wrong, tomboy girls are still great fun to read, but it’s nice to read of a girl doing what girls did in that period and showing off how cool that knowledge can be in the process.

So there you have it, a brilliant period read with some fantastic morals behind it and some excellent scene setting that can make even me with my dodgy imagination feel like I’ve been transported to a Viking’s doorstep. Just dandy!

Find Sigrun here

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