Sunday, August 26, 2018

Katie Rommely Nolan

Katie [center] in the film A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, 1945
Though we see the rich life of the neighborhoods in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn [published 1943 by Betty White] through the eyes of Francie, it is her mother Katie who is the book’s dramatic center.

Katie Rommely is one of four daughters born to Austrian immigrants. Her mother, though illiterate, is full of the stories, myths and legends of the old country. Katie relies much on her mother’s wisdom, though her father is a curmudgeon who won’t allow English spoken in his house.

Katie does learn to read. She falls in love with John Nolan, a sweet Irish singer and dancer, stealing him away from her best friend. They spend their first year cleaning a Brooklyn schoolhouse together and having fun. But when Katie becomes pregnant first with Francie, and then with Cornelius (Neeley) it becomes clear that Johnny is not cut out to be a provider. He drinks with or without provocation. When he causes a ruckus trying to dry out, Katie turns to her sister Sissy for assistance. Sissy coaxes him back to health with sips of whiskey, but the Nolans move because Katie is too ashamed to stay in the neighborhood.

Katie finds work cleaning her own and two tenement buildings nearby. At her mother’s suggestion, she reads a page of the Bible and a page of Shakespeare to her children every night. She is determined that her children will do better than she has. The family lives from hand to mouth and some nights there is no food at all. At these times, Katie tries to make a game of it, telling the children they are explorers down to their last provisions. Katie allows them to throw away food also, knowing it gives Francie a feeling of luxury to pour her coffee down the drain. Some nights Johnny brings home lobster and caviar from his singing waiter jobs and Katie and Johnny talk the night away.

A piano is left in a house they are renting, so Katie gets her neighbors to teach her children and herself to play. As Francie develops a “bad case of growing up,” Katie answer’s Francie’s questions honestly. When a known rapist and murderer tries to get Francie in their entryway, she freezes, but Katie comes down the stairs with a gun and shoots him.

When Katie becomes pregnant again, Johnny loses himself, dying of pneumonia. Katie gives him a fine funeral, paid for with the insurance money. She does not know where to turn for money, but the children get odd jobs and this keeps them through her pregnancy. Little Laurie is born with the help of her sisters. Francie and Neeley graduate from eighth grade and Katie manages to give them a party at an ice cream parlor.

That summer, Francie begins full time work as a flower maker, then as a reader at a clipping service. She says she is two years older than she is, but she is so fast she is given the top job. When school starts, Katie insists Neeley go, but Francie continues working. Katie knows that Francie will succeed on her own, though Neeley needs more help. He is a good ragtime piano player by this time. When the clipping service fails, Francie works as a teletypist. They are no longer hungry and have money to spend, but Katie puts some of the money aside for Francie’s education.

Katie and McShane, a policeman, keep an eye on each other for years. When his wife dies and he quits the force, McShane asks Katie to marry him. Her youngest daughter Laurie will take his name, but he doesn’t expect to replace Johnny as Francie and Neeley’s father. Francie refuses to go to high school as she feels to old for it. Instead she qualifies for college and departs for Ann Arbor, while Katie, Neeley and little Laurie move into McShane’s big house. Katie will no longer need to clean houses.

“Smith’s achievement is to make [Katie’s] steely resolve, her fierce sense of reality, her struggle with her own character, not only comprehensible, but admirable,” said Robert Cornfield in a 1999 review of the book. Betty Smith told her daughter she is writing her childhood “as it should have been.” The ingredient which Smith lays on thick is love. Though poverty affects everything, the characters are loving and faithful to each other. Katie is sad she has learned Johnny is worthless, but she still loves him and fosters love of him in her children.

I myself came late to the reading of this book. The thickness of the relationships portrayed, the holidays, the songs people sang together, their pride combat the sadness, sordidness and dirt of the early immigrant melting pot. Telling it as straight as she can, Betty Smith’s prose builds rather than destroys. An aspirational story appropriate to the times.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Jill Ker Conway

Jill Ker Conway was born on a 32,000-acre sheep station in New South Wales, in 1934. Her parents were resourceful Australians with two sons before Jill arrived. When her father came in from the fields, “my mother’s conversation would be intense and serious, but before long my father’s way with words, puns, and storytelling would have her laughing. They would look out on their world with high good humor. They seemed content,” she writes in The Road From Coorain [1989].

For a brief time, the ranch prospered, entirely dependent on the amount of rain that fell. The family experienced World War II by listening to radio reports. Jill’s mother organized women into a Red Cross group. When Jill’s brothers were sent to school in town, Jill was taught from correspondence courses. Soon she was reading everything in sight, and her father needed her more as a station hand. Jill rode out with him every day, checking fences, mustering sheep, doing cleaning and maintenance. She became an expert in the year’s round of crutching and shearing of the sheep, hanging out in the sheds with the men as they processed and graded the wool.

Years of drought began to pile up, however. Jill’s father died in an accident in 1944 and it soon became clear that the family could not stay on the station. Jill and her mother moved to Sydney, where the boys were in school, leaving the sheep station to a manager. Slowly the years of privation were tempered by a comfortable life. Jill too went to a formal girls boarding school where the students bathed and changed before dinner into green velvet dresses. “I was as intellectually precocious as I was socially inept,” she writes.

Jill’s mother made good decisions about the sheep station, but she was turning in on herself. When Bob, Jill’s beloved eldest brother, died in a car accident, her other brother was sent out to the sheep station and Jill was left alone with her mother again. “My mother’s devotion to me, the self-denial which had sent her to work to educate me properly, her frequent references to the fact that I was her consolation for her past tragedies, weighed on me like the Ancient Mariner’s albatross.”

Jill attended the University of Sydney, in love with history. Here too, she was at the top of her classes, though it surprised her how much history was taught as coming exclusively from Europe. Jill made friends, but in her head she heard her father: “Do something, Jill. Don’t just put in time on this earth.” She hoped, like her friends, to be accepted into the Australian Ministry of External Affairs. When her male friends were accepted and she was not, she was outraged. She abandoned Australia and applied for graduate study at Harvard. Leaving for America also solved the problem of her mother’s dependence on her.

In two subsequent memoirs, True North [1994] and A Woman’s Education [2001], Conway describes the success of her writing on American women reformers of the nineteenth century, particularly Jane Addams; her marriage to John Conway, a Canadian veteran and educator; and her growing interest in administration, culminating in her becoming the first woman president of Smith, a woman’s college in Northampton, Massachusetts, from 1975 to 1985.

Conway’s work was always groundbreaking and she describes how she felt about things very directly. At a time when many colleges were becoming co-educational, she writes: “It seems to me that the cozily domestic, introduced too early in youthful development had the effect of obliterating or muting civic and social responsibility. My nineteenth century feminist theorists about social evolution had all worried about where and how commercial society could instill social values that went beyond personal satisfaction and self-interest. I agreed with them that the development of the civic virtues tended to be slighted in exclusively commercial societies, and that leadership and the talent for action came from an education which did not take the paired couple as its social norm.”

Conway’s success is an engaging tale. She never forgot her mother, either. “She was the reason I’d never stopped trying to expand women’s opportunities.” But after ten years at Smith, she decided to begin writing these fine memoirs. She also taught classes at MIT and sat on many boards, one of which built the John and Jill Ker Conway residence for veterans in Washington, DC. The building opened in 2017, just before her death in June, 2018.

“Fearless and elegant,” Conway’s colleagues at Community Solutions called her. Conway surprised herself about how much she liked organizing and managing. She considered it her duty to listen, but then went ahead and made decisions in terms of her own large-minded vision. You can hear her in her own words here. I loved her conservative/radical political positions which I find very close to my own. I also appreciated her ability to parse complex issues and express them. She makes me take my own intellect more seriously and believe intellectual work might be worth the struggle.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

S. Tilottama

Arundhati Roy
Tilottama appears is The Ministry of Utmost Happiness [2017] by Arundhati Roy, which takes place mostly in Delhi, India. Tilo’s mother, a Syrian Christian from Kerala, has a child with a man of the “untouchable” caste. This child, Tilo, is placed in an orphanage, but then her mother comes back and adopts her, never letting on that she is Tilo's real mother. By the time Tilo studies architecture at Delhi University she is estranged from her family. “The complete absence of a desire to please, or to put someone at their ease, could, in a less vulnerable person, have been construed as arrogance. In her it came across as a kind of reckless aloneness. She gave the impression that she had somehow slipped off her leash,” says a friend.

While building sets for a play, Tilo meets three men, bonding in the momentous year of 1984. Tilo is in love with the quiet, gentle Musa, a Kashmiri who later becomes a rebel leader in Kashmir’s attempt at succession from India. The flamboyant Naga is from a diplomatic family and later a well-known journalist and television personality. The third man, Biplab, becomes a government official. He too is in love with Tilo: “The moment I saw her, a part of me walked out of my body and wrapped itself around her. And there it still remains.”

Tilo does not want to marry, so Musa goes back to Kashmir. He marries and has a daughter, but they are killed in the crossfire while watching a funeral. Musa, who is deeply committed to Kashmir’s freedom, goes underground. He asks Tilo to come to Kashmir. “They had always fitted together like pieces of an unsolved (and perhaps unsolvable) puzzle.” After a night spent together, he tells her “Someone will come for you … You’ll be traveling. I want you to see everything, know everything. You’ll be safe.”

Tilo travels around Kashmir for several weeks, handed off from person to person. She returns to the houseboat where Musa lives, but when he leaves, she is captured by a ruthless local policeman and known killer. She is interrogated, but, knowing Biplab is in town, she tells her would-be torturers to contact him. Biplab, whose name is recognized, sends Naga to find her. Tilo, shaking, is released, but not before her head is shaved.

At his own “funeral” the next day, Musa tells Tilo to return to Delhi, but to get married, if possible. Naga, who could have any woman, is besotted with Tilo. Naga’s mother is horrified when she hears they will marry. Tilo, whose skin is “more cafĂ© than au lait,” seems to Biplab, “utterly, unreachably alone, even at her own wedding. The insouciance was gone.” Tilo and Naga live on an upper floor of his parents’ home in the diplomatic enclave in Delhi, a perfect cover.

After 14 years of marriage, during which Tilo keeps in some touch with Musa, she leaves, renting a room from Biplab. Musa sends her notes and information in the false bottoms of fruit boxes from Kashmir. Tilo wonders “how to un-know certain things, certain specific things that she knew but did not wish to know.” She also spends time at the Jantar Mantar, a public square where political demonstrations go on at all times of the day and night.

One night, a baby is abandoned in the square and Tilo picks it up and takes it home. The police focus on this abduction and question Tilo’s downstairs neighbor. Tilo escapes to go and live in the cemetery establishment of a hejira named Anjum, taking the baby. After some time, a letter from the child’s mother surfaces: she is a Telugu woman, a Maoist, who was raped and knew she was about to be killed.

The cemetery, a refuge of outsiders, is a happy enclave with gardens and animals. Tilo begins a school for poor neighborhood children. Musa visits Tilo now and then. She knows that one day he will not return from Kashmir, and when he doesn’t she grieves deeply, but she is able to “visit him often enough through the crack in the door that the battered angels in the graveyard held open (illegally) for her.”

It is difficult to separate Tilo from her creator, Arundhati Roy. Many of the causes Roy publicizes after becoming an internationally-known author (for her first novel, The God of Small Things [1997]) are represented in some form or other in Tilo’s story. Roy wants to tell the stories of people, birds, animals, trees, dung beetles, who are marginalized and have no voice. She continues to live in the tumultuous country of India, fearless, direct and with little personal vanity. You can become acquainted with her here.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Fanny Van de Grift Stevenson

When Fanny Van de Grift met Robert Louis Stevenson in the village of Grez in 1876, she was recovering from the death of her youngest son. She was married, but had escaped a husband whose philandering shamed her to Europe with her three children. She and her daughter studied art and drawing, in Paris and also during the summers with Stevenson and his bohemian friends. Stevenson was enjoying a healthy summer after a canoe trip and fell in love with Fanny. She was small, practical and intense. Stevenson courted her with stories, writing: “And so we go, step for step, like a pair of children venturing together into a dark room – with both pleasure and embarrassment.”

Fanny realized she would never be a great artist and became worried about morality: her own reputation and that of her daughter. She returned to America, to her husband. Louis, who could not understand why she left, went on a walking trip in the south of France. Fanny tried to reconcile with Sam, her husband, but he hadn’t changed. Becoming ill, she sent Stevenson a telegram. Without approval from his parents or much money, Stevenson set off for America, traveling steerage and then across country by train. When he arrived in Monterey he was starving and again ill.

Their reunion was rocky, but when Fanny realized how sick Stevenson was, she moved him into her Oakland cottage. He had begun to hemorrhage and they both feared he would die. Stevenson felt she was tying herself to a man who couldn’t take care of her. Nonsense, said Fanny [quoted from Fanny Stevenson: A Romance of Destiny, by Alexandra Lapierre]. “What you like most about me is my weak, morbid side; and you’re the only one who sees it. While you, beneath your fragile appearance, you’re a rock!”

When not deeply sick, Stevenson was wild and silly, always working on stories and other writing for publication. Finally Fanny’s divorce was final. Stevenson and Fanny were married and their financial difficulties eased by an allowance from Stevenson’s father. They stayed in the abandoned shacks of a silver mine near Napa for a summer. Stevenson began telling Fanny’s young son Lloyd a story of pirates and treasure.

The Stevensons returned to Europe, but the weather in Edinburgh did not help Stevenson’s lungs. They went first to Davos, Switzerland, to recuperate and then to the south of France. Fanny continued to nurse Stevenson. His father bought them a house in Bournemouth, where they lived for three years. During this time Stevenson was usually bedridden while furiously writing. When he published The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, he was suddenly famous.

After his father died, Stevenson took Fanny, his mother, and Lloyd to America. They hoped to get to Colorado, but Stevenson was too ill. Noting that he always seemed to feel better at sea, they chartered a ship, the Casco, and cruised the South Seas. Fanny herself was usually sea-sick, but she would do anything for Stevenson’s health. He began to feel vigorous and happy.

Told that returning to Scotland would be a death sentence, in 1890 Stevenson and Fanny carved a homestead out of the jungle on a Samoan island, with a large house and a cacao plantation: Vailima. Stevenson asked Fanny’s children and his mother to live with them, feeling that he was gathering his clan together. Fanny and her daughter sewed lavalavas from Scottish tartan cloth for their servants, who were considered part of the family.

In the South Seas, the Stevensons’ sympathies were always with the native peoples, rather than with the missionaries and the white traders. Stevenson visited with Chief Mata’afa whose rebellion resulted in his imprisonment, as well as that of many other chiefs who had participated. This did not divide Fanny and Stevenson, but she did have a kind of breakdown while trying to manage too much at Vailima and losing (she thought) Stevenson’s attention. Their interests had begun to divide. Stevenson turned to Fanny's daughter for help with his books and called Fanny “a peasant.”

Stevenson and Fanny’s daughter took her to Sydney for help. Slowly she recuperated and Stevenson realized how important she was to him. He wrote poetry to her and began a novel with women characters in it, Weir of Hermiston. Suddenly, at the end of 1894, he died of a brain hemorrhage at 44. He was buried at the top of the mountain above Vailima.

Fanny and her children could not afford to keep up the plantation. They sold it and returned to San Francisco where Fanny met a last companion, Ned Field, in a bookshop. Fanny was 55. With Ned she built several houses and published a diary, The Cruise of the Janet Nichol among the South Sea Islands, before her death in 1914.

Everything either Stevenson or Fanny ever wrote seems to have been published. I found Nancy Horan’s fictionalized Under the Wide and Starry Sky moving in its telling of how this courageous couple helped each other. Stevenson wrote of his wife:

Teacher, tender, comrade, wife,
A fellow-farer true through life,
Heart-whole and soul-free
The august father gave to me.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Sister Luke

Audrey Hepburn in The Nun's Story
The story of Sister Luke, told in Kathryn Hulme’s The Nun’s Story [1956], is one of inner struggle and outer excellence so passionate it leaves the reader reeling. Gabrielle, the daughter of a doctor, becomes postulant to a Catholic order of nursing nuns after accompanying patients to Lourdes. Many of them who she believes are dying do not. Their happiness and faith are the real cure.

Gabrielle’s father opposes her entry into the convent, but he has also opposed her marrying Jean because Jean’s mother died insane. Given the religious name Sister Luke, Gabrielle is gradually introduced to the community which runs hospitals and schools, as postulant, then novice, and finally a professed nun. She is awed by the Rule of obedience, learning to drop what she is doing whenever the bell sounds to wake up, to go to chapel, to the refectory and to bed, all done in the company of her sisters. Under the watchful eye of the older nuns and the Mother Superior, she learns to examine her conscience, note her faults and take the punishments meted out.

“One by one the lights in the chapel would be extinguished until there were left only the vigil light at the altar and the shaded lamp that illuminated the statue of the Virgin Mary. When everything else was dark the nuns began to sing. … The awesome antiphon swelled in the dark and expanded it.” This moment, for Gabrielle, made possible the next day.

Eventually Sister Luke is assigned to study at the school of tropical medicines. She longs to go to the Congo, where the Belgians have missions. She is extremely good at recognizing under the microscope the bacterium and viruses that cause various diseases. Other nuns accuse her of pride. Her Mother Superior asks whether she would be able to fail her examinations to show humility. Sister Luke asks “How can I know He would want this from me?” She is told to ask Him. Sister Luke’s whole being rocks with this inner disturbance, but she is not able to fail.

When she is sent to a hospital for the insane instead of the Congo, Sister Luke wonders why. The experience is made memorable by certain violent patients and relationships with her sisters. At last she is posted to the Congo in 1932. On shipboard, she and another sister carry out the requirements of their Rule alongside the very lively life of the world.

The Congo is unlike anything Sister Luke expected. She is soon the nurse requested by Dr. Fortunati for his early morning surgeries (due to heat). He is seen as a genius, but difficult. Her Mother Superior worries that Sister Luke is neglecting her spiritual life, the nurse carrying away the nun. She manages to save a man’s leg when the doctor is not available. And she organizes her black assistants, training them so they become trusted helpers.

At one point Sister Luke gets dysentery and is so sick she is given last rites. She recovers, however, knowing her preparation for death, for which she is congratulated, was a sham. “You are not a nun yet,” she tells herself. She is desperate to learn humility. Going back to her double shifts, she also gets tuberculosis. Most nuns who get it are sent back to Europe, but the doctor arranges a cure, a three-month stay in a second floor aerie where she can rest, eat and become a child again. She learns to live from day to day, finding briefly that she understands what grace is like. She recovers and goes back to her intense schedule. Dr. Fortunati tells her, however, “You are a worldly nun – never will you be what your convent wants.”

Sister Luke is sent back to Belgium in 1939. She works in a tuberculosis hospital as war begins. When she sees Nazi storm troopers dropping out of the sky, she realizes she has hated the Germans since World War I, when they humiliated her beloved father. She also learns of his death assisting refugees as they are strafed by German planes. She begins to assist the lay nurses who are involved in resisting the Nazis, hiding people and deflecting German officers. She realizes she will never make a nun with hatred in her heart. She begins the painful process of leaving the order, certain that “God hates a hypocrite.”

As with many great stories, Sister Luke is based on a real person who became Kathryn Hulme’s dearest friend and partner. Marie Louise Habets was a Belgian nurse who worked with Hulme for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration in Germany at Wildflecken, Germany after the war. Hulme has written several books about this work. At first Hulme has no knowledge of Habets’ background as a nun and is surprised Habets is so happy to find work in the UNRRA. She writes in Undiscovered Country [1966]: “Since I knew what a superb nurse she was and how her services would have been welcomed anywhere in her homeland, her remark made no sense to me. But neither, for that matter, did her extraordinary smooth countenance on which life had left no trace of all the suffering she had seen.”

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Treya Killam Wilber

Treya Wilber met her husband Ken in 1983 when she was 36. She had never considered marrying anyone before, and neither had he. They were each quickly sure they had found their spiritual partner. Just before their wedding, a doctor found a lump in Treya’s breast. They spent their honeymoon in the hospital, having it removed.

Grace and Grit: Spirituality and Healing in the Life and Death of Treya Killam Wilber [1991] tells the story of the years in which Treya and Ken fought the aggressive, metastasizing cancer which kept recurring. The emotional toll the disease took from both their lives is documented in the book, which includes much of Treya’s personal journals and Ken’s commentary. Treya’s journey, the integrity and courage with she lived, continues to inspire. A few months before she died, her body riddled with tumors, her head covered by a pink scarf, she spoke at a conference. You can see the video of the speech here.

Treya was born Terry Killam in 1946 in south Texas. She writes that she was a high achiever, but constantly retreating to her room to read. She got an M.A. in English, but then veered off toward environmental causes, teaching and skiing in Colorado. She spent three years at Findhorn, a spiritual community in Scotland, leaving to help found a similar foundation in Colorado: Windstar, outside of Aspen. She went back to school at California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, studying psychology and East/West philosophies. Friends introduced her to Ken Wilber, a writer and theorist in the new field of transpersonal psychology.

Once married, Treya and Ken bought a house in Incline Village, but there, their partnership fell apart. Ken had given up his own work to support Treya and became ill with a mysterious disease. Though intensively investigating and practicing alternative and holistic treatments, Trey had a recurrence of tumors, chemotherapy and then diabetes. Living between the hope of being cured and having a child, and the brutal recurrences of cancer, they both broke down.

The Wilbers moved back to the Bay Area, and then to Boulder, where Treya was able to have nine months without recurrences. Her intensive work led her to what she thought of as an inner shift, however. Treya had always felt her issues revolved around the pressures of doing rather than just being. She tried to find her way back to “the simple pleasure of being and making, not knowing and doing. It feels like coming home!” She said, “Immediately it came up for me. To stop trying to be a man. To stop calling myself Terry. To become Treya.”

Both Treya and Ken Wilber found themselves in positions in which people without cancer did not know how to react to them. Some “new age” people at this time assumed that people created their own cancers. Treya helped found a Cancer Support Community which didn’t punish people who didn’t get better, but who were deeply involved in their lives and only incidentally in their cancers. She wrote a paper on “What Kind of Help Really Helps,” which was published in the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology. Ken published a paper in the Journal on how it felt to be a support person, also very difficult.

Treya and Ken went to Bonn, Germany, to try a very aggressive chemotherapy, but it failed to stop tumor growth. They also tried an enzyme therapy with inconclusive results. By this time, Treya believed her cancer could not be arrested by anything. It had metastasized to her brain and lungs. She continued with her intensive therapies, without using pain medication and continued writing as honestly as possible in her journals. She did steroids and eventually surgery to reduce the brain tumors and was on oxygen. In January, 1989, she decided to stop. She wrote one last entry in her journal, “It takes grace, yes – and grit!”

Ken had always told Treya that he had been searching for her for lifetimes, that if anything happened, he would find her again. “You promise?” she asked him again and again. Ken promised. He carried her upstairs, she lay down in bed and within two days, surrounded by friends and family, she passed away.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Gudrun Osvifrsdottir

Though only written down in the 13th century, the story of Gudrun of Iceland and the generations before and after her is based on oral histories of actual people. The Laxaela Saga takes place from A.D. 890 to A.D. 1031, the time of the gradual change from the complex world of Nordic inheritance, voyaging and blood feuds to the coming of Christianity. The version of the saga I reference is a translation by A.C. Muriel Press [1899].

Melkorka with her son Olaf the Peacock
History Museum, Perlunni, Reykjavik

Gudrun is introduced as the daughter of Osvif, a great sage. “She was the goodliest of women who grew up in Iceland, both as to looks and wits. Gudrun was such a woman of state that at that time whatever other women wore in the way of finery of dress was looked upon as children’s gewgaws beside hers. She was the most cunning and the fairest spoken of all women, and an open-handed withal.” She grows up on a homestead at Laugar, a place of hot springs.

At 15 Gudrun’s hand in marriage is asked of her father by Thorvald. Osvif does not ask Gudrun about this, and she does not get on well with this man. Two years later “Gudrun separated herself from Thorvald and went home to Laugar.” She is much friends with Thord Ingunson, but he has a wife who wears breeches instead of skirts. Thord separates from his wife because of this and he and Gudrun marry and live happily together. His ex-wife comes after him with a sword however, and succeeds in wounding his arm to the point that it is useless. Nevertheless, when his mother comes to him to ask his help against a man who has been thieving her goods, Thord goes after them. The man and his sons are angry and raise a great spell-working scaffold. They curse Thord, who drowns in a storm at sea.

Gudrun takes Thord’s death to heart, especially as she is about to give birth to his son, who is named Thord. She allows her kinsman and friend Snorri the Priest to foster the child. She remains at Laugar with her father’s family. She is often at the springs, and so too are Kjartan, the son of Olaf the Peacock, and his foster brother Bolli. These two were the greatest friends. Olaf is bothered by his favorite son Kjartan’s attendance on Gudrun because of his forebodings. When Kjartan and Bolli decide to voyage to Norway, Gudrun asks to go with them. Kjartan refuses, asking her to wait three years for him. But Gudrun will make no such promise.

In Norway, the great King Olaf “was ordering a change of faith.” He would not let several ships go home to Iceland until they had declared their Christian faith. Kjartan and Bolli think the new faith unmanly. They plot against the king, but his spies find out. When Kjartan confesses, King Olaf is lenient to them, seeing that they are true men. The King builds a church that winter and preaches at Christmas. Kjartan and Bolli hear him and Kjartan begins to believe because of the way King Olaf treats him. He and a great number of Icelanders go to the King and are baptized. Kjartan becomes a friend of the king and spends much time with him and his sister Ingibjorg.

Bolli returns alone to Iceland. He tells Gudrun of Kjartan’s friendship for the Norwegian king and his sister and asks for her hand in marriage. Gudrun is most unwilling as long as she knows Kjartan to be alive. Olaf the Peacock, Bolli’s foster father, does not think it a good idea. Gudrun’s father, however, believes she should not refuse Bolli. At last Gudrun is won over and she and Bolli marry.

During this year, A.D. 1000, most of Iceland becomes Christian. When King Olaf of Norway hears this, he lets Kjartan return to Iceland. The king's sister gives him a white linen headdress woven with gold for his love, Gudrun. Kjartan is received in Iceland with honor, but Gudrun is unhappy. When Kjartan and his family come for the autumn feast to Laugar, Bolli tries to give him four wonderful horses, but Kjartan refuses. He is silent and asocial all winter. His sister tells him he should marry Hrefna, and not begrudge Bolli his wife. Kjartan agrees. There is a wedding feast and Kjartan gives Hrefna the headdress.

The families of Kjartan and Bolli are neighbors in the Salmon River area and Olaf and Osvip are good friends, “though there was some deal of ill-will between the younger people.” After a feast at Laugar, Kjartan’s sword goes missing. It is found later, but not the scabbard. The headdress also cannot be found. Kjartan retaliates by riding to Laugar with sixty men and besieging Osvip’s family so they cannot leave the house for three days. Kjartan also interfered in a land purchase Bolli was making. Gudrun is angry at these insults and she and her brothers plot against Kjartan. Bolli tries not to be involved, but Gudrun says if he does not join them, “our married life must be at an end.” Bolli does participate in the ambush, and when he is goaded, he takes up his sword. Kjartan throws away his weapons, saying, “I am much more fain to take my death from you than to cause the same to you myself.” Bolli strikes, but then lifts him up and Kjartan dies in his lap.

Olaf the Peacock, Kjartan’s father, is much dismayed, but he brokers a peace settlement and does not allow anyone to take up the blood feud against Bolli. Kjartan is buried in a newly consecrated church. But Olaf lives only three years after Kjartan’s death.

Gudrun's Spring, Iceland
Bolli and Gudrun set up a stately house and a son is born to them, Thorleik. But Kjartan’s mother is still angry at Bolli. She stirs up her sons and they attack and kill Bolli while he and Gudrun are at his sheep pen. Gudrun asks Snorri the Priest to exchange houses with her, as she can no longer live next to Olaf the Peacock’s sons. She and her family move to Holyfell. Shorty thereafter her third son, Bolli, is born.

Despite Christianity, Gudrun broods for ten years. She then urges her sons to revenge Bolli’s death. They are still too young and, with Snorri’s help, she finds a leader. The men kill Helgi Hardbienson, who had dealt Bolli his death blow. Later, when Gudrun’s sons still have hard feelings against Olaf’s sons, Snorri the Priest tells them the blood feud must stop and brokers a peace.

Snorri advises Thorkell, who has spent his life on the sea, to settle down and marry Gudrun. He does this, and “between Gudrun and Thorkell, dear love now grew up.” They too had a son, named Gellir. But Thorkell did not live long either. When he goes to Norway to get timber for building, his ship is broken up and he is drowned.

“Gudrun now became a very religious woman. She was the first woman in Iceland who knew the Psalter by heart. She would spend long time in the church at nights saying her prayers.” Her sons go voyaging and return very wealthy. When Snorri dies, he gives his manor and holdings to Bolli, who becomes a great and beloved man. Gudrun becomes the first nun and recluse in Iceland. “By all folk it is said that Gudrun was the noblest of women of equal birth with her in this land.” When her son asks which of her husbands she loved the most, she says, “To him I was worst whom I loved best.”

This complex tale has a great sense of the real lives of people who lived a millennium ago. “Gudrun is one of the most remarkable female characters in all of literature,” writes Frederick Turner in Epic: Form, Content and History [2012], “with her breakthrough at the end into a new mode of tragic Christian consciousness.”