New Maine Times Book Review 20 July 2011
BIRKEBEINER: A STORY OF MOTHERHOOD AND WAR
by Jeff Foltz
Maine Authors Publishing, 2010
260 pages, $17.95
reviewed by William D. Bushnell
In the early 13th century, Norway suffered constant warfare between two rival royal claimants to the throne. Life was harsh and uncertain – and that was just the weather. If you didn't freeze or starve in winter, then you were just as likely to be stuck with a spear, sword or an arrow, or chopped with a battle ax.
BIRKEBEINER is Camden author Jeff Foltz's outstanding debut historical novel, a heroic tale based on a Norwegian legend of royal conflict, warfare, escape, pursuit and salvation set in the year 1203.
The word Birkebeiner is a Norwegian term meaning "birch leg," for the ancient Norwegian custom of tying birch-bark strips to the legs to keep snow off the legs and feet. Maine skiers should note that the American Birkebeiner is the largest Nordic ski marathon in North America.
This may be Foltz's first novel, but he demonstrates remarkable writing skill. He tells a dramatic and exciting story, tightly wrapped with taut suspense, vivid action, and colorful historical accuracy, not an easy task when historical fiction must be based on a convincing foundation of fact and detail. And Foltz handles that responsibility well.
King Hakon and the Birkebeiners are in a deadly struggle with King Magnus of the Croziers to determine who is the rightful king of Norway. Hakon has tradition and heredity on his side, but Magnus has a bigger army and the power of the church behind him. Bishop Eystein, a brutal and cowardly cleric, has great influence over Magnus and the Croziers. Eystein has his own sinister reasons for wanting King Hakon dead and Magnus on the throne.
As Hakon's fortress at Lillehammer is about to be overrun by the Crozier army, Hakon knows he will soon die, but he cannot allow his infant son, the heir to the throne, to fall into enemy hands. He knows Magnus will surely kill the Birkebeiner child.
The child's mother, Inga, is Hakon's lover, and is equally desperate to save her son. Hakon and Inga were not permitted to marry, thanks to the interference of Bishop Eystein, but they share a deep and passionate love.
Hakon orders his two best soldiers, Torstein and Skjervald, to take the baby and Inga, escape from the fortress before the final assault and flee a hundred miles on skis in deep snow, through dense forests, across frigid snowfields, and over icy mountains to safety at the city of Nidaros (present-day Trondheim).
This is a perilous journey with no certain outcome, as the small party is relentlessly pursued by Magnus and his best warriors. For eight days in bitter cold, the pursued and pursuers suffer from fatigue, hunger, frostbite and fear. The Birkebeiner soldiers use clever false trails, traps and ambush to delay pursuit, but the frantic pace is slowly killing everyone. The two soldiers and Inga vow to die before they will allow any Crozier to touch the child.
Add scenes of vicious medieval battles where no quarter is expected or given, unspeakable torture (don't turn your back on Bishop Eystein), sharp details of Norwegian winter fieldcraft, and the commanding power of motherhood when a child is threatened, and Foltz has created an entirely exciting, entertaining, and credible tale of courage and sacrifice.