Kristin Lavransdatter: The Cross – Book Review

kristinLife on this earth was irredeemably tainted by strife; in this world, wherever people mingled, producing new descendants, allowing themselves to be drawn together by physical love and loving their own flesh, sorrows of the heart and broken expectations were bound to occur as surely as the frost appears in the autumn. Both life and death would separate friends in the end, as surely as the winter separates the tree from its leaves. – from Kristin Lavransdatter: The Cross, page 1056 –

Sigrid Undset continues Kristin’s story in The Cross – the third book in the Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy. Kristin and Erlend have moved to Kristin’s birth home high in the mountains of Norway and their lives are now those of farmers and landholders. As Kristin focuses on raising her sons, Erlend struggles with the wanderlust which has defined his life and his troubles. Kristin’s passion for the church, as well as her sorrow for her sins and willingness to hang on to the mistakes of the past, drive Erlend away from her for a time. Later, she regrets her behavior toward Erlend when his unexpected death leaves her a widow.

The Cross examines Kristin’s spiritual growth as she moves from a young mother into widowhood and old age (in Medieval times, old was defined a bit differently than now – Kristin feels “old” when she is actually only in her late 40s). She seeks solace and peace in the Church and reluctantly cuts the apron strings to her sons and allows them to find their own ways in the world. In addition to looking at the struggles of an aging protagonist, Undset also allows the reader to watch Kristin’s sons mature into young men – moving on to marriage, war, and service to the Catholic Church. Kristin’s life with her sons is marked by a deep love for them as well as disappointment and hope for success. Undset artfully reveals the relationships between mother and sons and gives insight into the universal nature of motherhood.

As in The Wreath and The Wife, Undset’s greatest strength of prose is when she describes the Norwegian countryside and gives glimpses into life in 14th century Norway when a simple rumor about a women’s honor (such as a charge of adultery) can mean her downfall.

She knew little of the law in such matters; no doubt she would have to refute the rumors by swearing an oath along with either five or eleven others. If so, it would probably take place at the church of Ullinsyn in Vaagaa. She had kinsmen there on nearly every large estate, from her mother’s lineage. If her oath failed, and she had to stand before their eyes without being able to clear herself of the shameful charge…It would bring shame upon her father. – from Kristin Lavransdatter: The Cross, page 954 –

I found the latter part of The Cross quite compelling with vivid descriptions of the plague and the superstitions which surrounded disease and death during Medieval times. The terror of the people who faced almost certain death when infected with the plague is palpable in this final section.

Undset’s prose is rich and her characters are complex and well-developed. Although the middle book in the trilogy left me a bit cold, I found The Cross to be an intriguing and satisfying read.

Readers who enjoy historical fiction set in foreign countries will undoubtedly want to pick up The Cross. I do recommend reading the entire trilogy rather than just one of the books. Books one and two are essential to understanding not only the setting, but the characters in book three. And although I found The Wife to drag a bit, it provides essential character development and historical and political background to fully understand the context of The Cross.



Read my review of Kristin Lavransdatter: The Wreath

Read my review of Kristin Lavransdatter: The Wife

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    • Kathy on December 21, 2009 at 13:04

    Reading that trilogy is quite an undertaking and commitment and I’m very impressed that you did it. It sounds so good – maybe I’ll get to it one of these days.

    • Allie on December 21, 2009 at 13:18

    This sounds like an interesting series. It’s hard to find a trilogy where all three books are equally good. It’s nice that it ended well though.

  1. I found it interesting how, after all that supposed obsessive mothering, the boys couldn’t wait to get away from K. and some of them even lost all communications with her.

    • EL Fay on December 23, 2009 at 15:59

    I’ve been hearing that The Cross is an improvement over The Wife. I haven’t started it yet, though – I’m almost done with The Wife but I’ve gotten so tired of it I can’t seem to pick it up again.

    • Wendy on December 28, 2009 at 09:33

    Kathy: Thanks – it was a big undertaking at the end of the year, but I’m glad I did it 🙂

    Allie: I agree – hard to find consistency in a trilogy.

    Rhapsody: Perhaps the obsessive mothering is what drove them away? I know that kids who feel controlled and smothered often can’t wait to be on their own.

    El Fay: The Wife was a bit of a drag. I hope you can get into The Cross…which I think is much better (especially the latter half).

    • Richard on December 29, 2009 at 13:57

    Wendy, wish you could have joined us for the readalong! I ended up hating Kristin Lavransdatter for its overabundance of soap opera-style dramatics and what I felt was its completely uncompelling writing, but your appreciation for the trilogy might have made for some interesting discussions with those who were less fond of Undset’s style (I think most readalong participants wound up somewhere in between our two reactions to the work, though). Anyway, nice to see your post and I’m glad you enjoyed the work.

    • Wendy on January 2, 2010 at 14:35

    Richard: I was so far behind all of you until right at the end! But I did have fun reading other people’s thoughts by following the links. I think it is interesting to see how polarized everyone seemed to be – love it or hate it pretty much!

  2. I think of the three books in the trilogy, I enjoyed the first one, “The Wreath” the most. And, that it would have been enough for me to read that just that one to get a feel for medieval Norway. Still, I’m glad I managed to read the entire series. Perhaps, since your pacing was different while reading this, allowed you to enjoy it more.

    • Wendy on January 27, 2010 at 08:13

    Valerie: I also liked the first book the best…and it actually could stand alone, I think. I think reading them all back to back allowed me to enjoy the more because I really got involved in the story and lives of the characters. Breaking them up might give one a different experience for sure.

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