Tonight will be my last monthly discussion of “Great Catholic Fiction” at St. Paul the Apostle Parish in New York. The sadness of saying “good-bye” to what has become one of my favorite parish activities is being balanced somewhat by my joy at being able to end my participation in this series with such a wonderful book – Kristin Lavransdatter (volume 1: The Wreath), by Sigrid Undset (1882-1949), Norwegian novelist, Catholic convert, and winner of the 1928 Nobel Prize in Literature.
The Wreath is the first volume in a trilogy about the life of a certain Kristin Lavransdatter, dramatically set in 14th-century Norway. Beautifully written, the book effectively evokes the feel of medieval Norwegian society. The reader is immersed not only in the inner life of the book’s heroine but also in the interpersonal relational dynamics of her family - immediate and extended - and her local rural community. Reading Undset, I felt I could begin to feel what it would have been like to live in such a family, in such a place, in such a time. Interwoven, meanwhile, with the micro story of Kristin and her family is the macro-story of Norway’s nobility and monarchy and that most omnipresent of all medieval social institutions, the Catholic Church. Undset effectively evokes the varied facets of the Church’s presence – powerful monasteries and convents, charismatic itinerant friars, the village priest and his family, still at some level competing against and coexisting with the rooted remnants of older ways. On top of everything else, Kristin goes through a process of personal development that causes her to overstep conventional expectations to insist on her own (but by no means more certainly successfuly) path to personal happiness – a plot contemporary readers may well regard as surprisingly modern (which may actually say more about us than it says about the Middle Ages).
My only regret is that my preoccupation with my move has made it impossible for me to follow reading The Wreath with its two sequels, The Wife and The Cross. But I fully intend to read them as soon as I have the opportunity!