3 out of 4 stars
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The theme of genealogy and family history is addressed in the novel Trail of the Viking finger by John Bean. The family, the Byrnes, as the author postulates, was founded by a Danish Viking, Bjorne the Red.
In the spring of 1783, life hadn't been easy for the Byrne family which had just survived another bad harvest. William, now sixteen, and his sister, Matilda, both worked on their family farm in Church Fenton. Later that year in June, the minds of Matilda and William were dominated by the cataclysmic eruption of Iceland's Laki volcano. This caused many deaths as a result of victims inhaling the poisonous gases being emitted and which caused victims to choke as their internal soft tissues swelled. As a result, all over England and Scotland farmers had not enough hands to gather whatever harvest there was. Later when the winter arrived, the deadly haze of the sulphur dioxide had slowly dissipated. In its place was the most severe winter ever recorded. Bryan, William's and Matilda's father, suggested they should decide what was the best deployment of their labour as so few crops had survived. William and Matilda thus decided to move away from Church Fenton to go and see if they can find new jobs elsewhere. Their preferred destination being Newcastle as it was by then a key centre for new industry particularly in iron goods, tool making and new pumping engines.
With their plans all set, Matilda cut off all her curls hoping to look like a boy when travelling. She further dressed in William's smock and breeches to enhance that look and to hide her bosom. As they travelled to Newcastle through York, they could see that there was no let up in the desolation of the countryside. In York, they made less contact with people to reduce the chances of typhus infection. Armed with a dirk to protect himself and his sister, William took to his role dutifully as they negotiated their way through the unpredictable countryside. Their transport to Newcastle through York was via a lift by a carter who was going to York to pick up a load of glass bottles and take them to a brewery in Northallerton. They would sleep in a "barn above the horses and have a bowl of stew" just to make their money last longer. Police in that period were only to be found in towns where local improvement acts had often included providing for paid watchmen or constables to patrol towns at night.
As earlier stated, the main theme of the novel follows a family tracing its roots from a Viking remnant group that survived a defeat at Stamford Bridge in the hands of Saxons in 1066. To survive in Jorvik (York) in those initial days, this group relied on their skills in agriculture and smithing. Bjorne, Ragner and most of the other Viking survivors still, however, harboured plans of returning to their homelands in Denmark or Norway. For example, Bjorne had been unofficially engaged to his childhood sweetheart, Benta, who lived in a nearby but important trading town of Hedeby that provided an easy access route to Germany as well as the rest of Scandinavia. So he had wanted to go back and fulfil this wish. In the process of tracing his ancestry through Bjorne, the author gives a vivid account of social and political life in the medieval and later times including such well-known episodes in history of the Black Death, the Peasants' revolt and the English civil war.
As is typical of a book giving a cross-sectional account of people in a particular time in history, the book is filled with some melancholic and heartened moments sometimes in equal measure. An incident best illustrates: In 1832 on a spring Sunday while planting seed potatoes, John Byrne and his wife, Margaret, were musing on the rapid changes that were engulfing their society. More and more factories had spread and there was the imminent Ouseburn viaduct over the valley that will be the death knell of windmills around their region. As the owner of a windmill, John is, naturally, concerned. After twenty years operating a mill, he is now faced with the prospect of either a career switch or losing a source of livelihood. Luckily, he is also a trained engineer and, therefore, proceeds to one of the prominent foundries in his vicinity armed with a reference his former employer gave him nearly twenty years ago. To cut a long story short, he did get a job - not as a toolmaker as he had initially envisaged and presented himself, but as a manager who will coordinate the work of twenty tool makers and two apprentices.
Many a history enthusiast will be thrilled to read about how the economic landscape in England progressively changed from an agricultural led one to the dominance of the industrial revolution and which success was replicated throughout Europe, America and the British empire. There was, for example, the development in 1825 of the world's first steam locomotive that could carry people and heavy loads of goods. Steam power also meant more coal mines and development of cotton/ woollen mills in Lancashire and West Yorkshire and in the iron and steel factories in the Midlands.
For those, like me, who may never get the opportunity to know much about their far-flung ancestors let alone writing a book, this novel reminds us of how similar our ancestry as mankind is. Reading the account was in some ways reading about my own ancestors. I could relate to the author's descriptions and narrations of physical and behavioural characteristics which have been passed down and recur irregularly in succeeding generations. And, furthermore, for me to have inherited the level of socio-economic development that I am currently enjoying, I realize my ancestors must have had to go through turmoils, like civil war, premature death due to disease and pestilence and others, just like it's described in the novel. Moreover, the contribution of marriage in stabilizing the family unit in terms of advancing positive character and behavioural traits is also prominently featured. For example, Bjorne the Red was accepted not just as a Viking but also as a berserker. A berserker (with the word having a possible Danish origin) was characterized by a fit of madness. He married Brietta, a Celt, who like the Saxons, were considered to have good blood in terms of behavioural attitudes.
The book has one main flaw, however, and this has to do with its seeming lack of professional editing. It not only slowed my reading but the frequent errors were detracting as well. Secondly, keeping up with the family lineage proved to be a challenge because of the frequent similarity in names among successive generations. One had to constantly keep referring to the table at the beginning of the book on the Byrne's family tree which further slowed my reading.
I recommend this book to anthropology lovers and students. It's also a good read for a general reader who wishes to know more about life in England in the earlier centuries, especially through one particular family line's perspective. However, because of poor editing, I rate the book 3 out of 4 stars.
Trail of the Viking Finger
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