Life 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