By Heather Goodman Lytwyn
The Tricking of Freya, a novel by Christina Sunley, is one of the first contemporary novels by an American writer to explore the lives of the descendants of the 19th-century Icelandic settlers.
The novel’s main character, Freya Morris, is living in New York City in the 1990s, far removed from her family and her past when she is summoned back to the formative place of her youth, a Canadian fishing village called Gimli, where her Icelandic ancestors settled long ago. Obsessed with uncovering a family secret, Freya becomes drawn into the strange and magical landscape, language and history of Iceland. Along the way, we learn the story of her early visits to Gimli, the truth about her exuberant, mercurial aunt, and the full scope of a tragedy that shattered her childhood in an instant.
Christina grew up in New York hearing stories about her Icelandic relatives and their journey to North America following the 1875 volcanic eruption that decimated much of Iceland's farmland. In writing The Tricking of Freya, Christina spent several years researching Icelandic history, mythology, and genealogy, including three trips to Iceland and a stint as writer-in-residence at Klaustrið (The Monastery), a stone farmhouse in a remote area, near where her grandfather had lived. You can read her travel blog and view the photos she took on these research trips to Iceland in January, February and March of 2009 and her Iceland book tour in May 2010. You can learn about her novel writing journey here.
When the hardcover edition of The Tricking of Freya was first published in 2009, the cover looked like the first photo (below), but in the paperback editions, it changed to a new image. It would be interesting to know the story behind those choices.
Here are two reviews that capture the essence of her novel:
“The Tricking of Freya is a fantastic story, full of myth and legend, family drama, epic landscapes, the search for identity, a sense of belonging and unconditional love…Sunley deftly weaves in real Icelandic and Norse history, Icelandic literature, culture and language into her tale, giving it a seriousness and depth that is compelling, romantic and readable…an accomplished debt.” - BookReporter.com
“…almost every word that Sunley writes, and every sentence that she strings together, is beautiful and truthful and revealing. In masterfully crafting a story about a particular people in a particular time, she has written a universal tale about displacement and belonging, about family and history and home.” -Winnipeg Free Press
In the spring of this year, Christina taught a 5-week course via zoom called “Writing Your Icelandic Family Stories.” Thanks to Christina, the class was another opportunity for Icelandic Roots members to get to know each other and share their stories.
Two things Christina taught us stayed with me as I began re-reading The Tricking of Freya; stay clearly within one character’s perspective, and show don’t tell. Christina immediately captures the reader with the point of view of a 7-year-old girl. Her observations of her aunt’s mood swings allow the reader to draw conclusions that a child would not yet grasp. The perfect setup for an author to show without telling.
Whenever we read we are affected by what is going on in our lives at the time. I can’t help but see a parallel to the theme of this month’s Samtal Hour; the value of having regular contact with grandparents when we are very young and how they shape our identity. Until Freya is 7 years old, and they finally make the train trip to Gimli, she has never spoken to her aunt or amma except on the phone. Her connection is limited to family photos on the mantel, and the warning that her “… amma Sigga is a proper lady. You are going to have to be very well behaved.” (p.23)
Freya’s lack of prior knowledge about traditional foods, the Icelandic language, or any Norse mythology, causes Birdie to confront Anna for neglecting her daughter’s education. To heighten our understanding of Freya’s isolation: she has no memory of her father; there are no children on her street in Connecticut; and she is aware that her mother is still grieving the loss of her husband. As events continue to escalate, Freya is thrown into vulnerable situations where she definitely needs to feel connected to someone.
I look forward to our third Icelandic Roots Zoom meeting on August 4 to listen to Christina read an excerpt from her novel and to hear your questions and comments in our conversation with her. Just like going to a book launch, you do not need to read the book to join us. This is your opportunity to meet the author and to learn about The Tricking of Freya.