I’ve been readin’ on this trilogy for a while now. In fact, I had a library nemesis who I was trying to get the books from. To my knowledge, she still has book three (stupid limitless teacher renewals!). So a very generous friend of mine lent me her own copy, which is all three books in one. I was so happy! No more wondering who my mystery nemesis was, no more waiting and wondering what would happen to Kristin, or staring at my Amazon wishlist wondering if I should just buy the book.
But with a big tome like that, you can’t really cuddle up in bed, or hold it open with one hand while you nurse the baby on the other arm. Anyway, book three has taken me quite a bit longer than I would have liked, but that is not a reflection on the quality of the book. It is still SO good!
This post especially is in regard to the first book of Kristin Lavransdatter: The Wreath.
First of all, if you’re going to read this book, I’ve read lots of on-line reviews that all seem to agree that the best translation (from the Norwegian) is Tiina Nunnally’s. That’s what I’ve been reading and it is very accessible and natural.
After I read the first book, I was frantic for Michael to read it so I could talk to him about it. I couldn’t help but feel that this was an incredibly important piece of fiction I had read. Sigrid Undset had created a very real female character, living in medieval Norway, who is trying to find her way between her faith, her family, and her desire for happiness.
The first several chapters moved slowly. But you will definitely fall in love with this long-ago, beautiful Norway in the early chapters. They are very beautifully written, and I learned a lot about the culture. Still, I had to push through some of the long and beautiful descriptions. I might not have, except that someone whose taste I respect had recommended it so highly.
Undset has a very subtle style. Sometimes she only gives you little hints of things. Time will pass for the characters, but she only gives you hints (because of tensions between characters) of what happened in the time she skipped over. Later you’ll get more, but there’s a lot of subtlety in her characters. I think this is very true to life. We are not black and white people. We struggle with sin. We are sometimes not honest with ourselves about our own motives. We can confuse ourselves pretty easily, actually.
You follow Kristen from her early years through her adolescence and early womanhood. She grows from a very innocent, but stubborn, child into a willful yet pious young woman. She struggles between passion and piety in a very honest way. In a way, in fact, that I think it will be important for all of our children to read before they head off to college or work to encounter the world without the protection of their parents. Themes of faith, sin, grace, honor, family are woven throughout this book.
And I don’t want to leave you with the wrong impression. After getting past the first few chapters, I could not put the book down until I was finished. (Sorry kids and husband…how’s pizza for dinner?)
Why your Teen should read this book
(Note: I personally think sometime before college but not too early because of some of the mature themes…I’m thinking 17-ish for our kids.)
The themes below that I’ve mentioned are themes I think are good for teens to be exposed to before leaving home. Sure, you’ll have talked about these things before. But what I loved about KL is that these are not overly romanticized caricatures. The people are SO complex and SO real, that I think it is a better help to see the transitions between belief and application.
Whether you choose to talk over the themes with your teens or just let them read it and process it themselves, would be up to you and how perceptive you think they are. I can imagine some teens might need some questions to help them assess the characters/motives/themes. But others may have better developed these skills.
Beware! Spoilers ahead!
1. Our Will vs. God’s Will. While Kristen didn’t make the choices I was rooting for, she was very sympathetic. You still found yourself watching her and sympathizing with her choices even if you didn’t hope for her to make those choices. I think there’s a lot of room for discussion surrounding choice, the perceived will of God, our own ways of rationalizing things, etc. At least in the beginning of her affair with Erlend, you get the idea that Kristin believes that God was answering her prayers by sending him into her life. You can imagine how she wanted to persist in this thinking. You might discuss how Kristin could have tested this idea.
2. The shame of Sin. You watch Kristin struggle with her knowledge of sin and yet her refusal to really repent. She was sorry, but she was determined to have her way. I think it’s good for kids to see a character get her way. You may even be sympathetic to that…and then how it plays out. Nothing horrible happens to her. But somehow, without being preachy in any way, Undset finds a way to portray the subtle shame that creeps in and eats away at Kristin. I think this may be a very honest look at how sin really affects us
3. Infatuation vs. True Love. You will be able to address the question of infatuation. Kristin sees Erlend as a good for her, and decides that she will marry him, even when she is already betrothed to another man. There are many clues. She hears things about Erlend. Erlend confesses things about himself to her that should be concerning. Kristin seem to think that her love should ignore all of these things and love him anyway. But is she just infatuated with the idea of Erlend? She will make any excuse to defend him and refuses to see him for who he is, to the point that she continually follows him into sin.
4. What is Good Character? Eventually Kristin must come to terms with who Erlend really is. And she has to deal with jealousy, with doubt about his faithfulness, with her own sometimes disgust at his lack of control of himself in all areas of his life. This can lead to discussions about character. For our daughters we may discuss what kinds of characteristics to watch for as they encounter love and relationships. For our sons, how they should behave toward the women that they love.
5. Shame and Honor. Is honor important? Why? Is shame just about you? In the book, you see how even your personal shame can cast a shadow over your whole family. People today, with social networking, etc. tend not to care much about honor to the point that they become somewhat exhibitionist. It would be worthwhile, I think to at least make mention of this idea of honor. Even if the idea of family honor is lost (though I hope it is not!), as Christians we should take care to honor our Church and our Lord by our behavior.
6. The Role of Repentance and Confession. So much of Kristin’s turmoil seems it would be easily addressed if she would just repent and confess! This is a great teaching moment for your children. She sometimes seems to be bent on punishing herself, but not ready to repent. People are like that, sometimes. We hang on to our dear little sins.
7. The Importance of Communication. Kristin often feels terribly trapped by her situations, and I think better communication would have helped her. With Erlend, she’s led to believe that just doing what he wants is the same as showing him love. But communicating her own hesitance would have made her resent him less. In the instance of the priest’s son attacking her, she should have told her parents immediately about what happened. Instead she allowed his lies to convince her that she should be ashamed of what had happened (rather than him). Had she talked to her father immediately, her honor in that situation would have been much easier to defend. Communicating with her parents about her desire to marry Erlend, while it would be difficult, would have saved Kristin some grief over her circumstances. Still, she probably knew that with more information she might not get her own way…But was “her own way” really what was best?
8. Respect of Women. Especially for my boys, I want them to see the difference between Erlend and Simon and take note. I want them to take a lesson in how they should treat women, and how they should not treat women. This is a huge part of why I think it would be good for young men as well as young women. My husband agrees, so I think I’m not way off in thinking that they would also enjoy reading this book. I want my daughters to also take note. I want them to see the lack of respect in Erlend and where it leads.
Young people, especially good ones, away at college may struggle with some of these same temptations and be shocked at themselves. They may not know what they can talk with their parents about. They may not know that if they are stuck in a sinful behavior that they will feel better if they get to confession. (I hope my children know all of this by then, but sometimes sin can shock us and make us doubt ourselves). They may not realize that part of loving someone is not just physical and emotional. It also entails respect and choosing the good. They may not realize that they, even the good kids, are susceptible to infatuation and sins of passion. They may not realize that falling into sin is not the end of the world.
In the end, I think every person who is capable of falling in love is also capable of these struggles (perhaps to greater or lesser degrees). I think it’s good for them to read a character who is both concerned about her standing before God, but struggling with her own passions. It is complicated. As Kristin confesses to Fr. Eirik, she had never before understood how people could sin in such a way (fornication/adultery). Until she herself was tempted, she didn’t realize how easy it is to fall.
Isn’t it that way for all of us with all kinds of sin?
And I want my kids to realize that.
That it doesn’t make them into a horrible person if they are tempted into sin, that there is a route for forgiveness and healing, and that even (especially) in matters of love, reason, respect, and honor are important.