Book review: “Birkebeiner: A Story of Motherhood and War”

Christine Foster Meloni
Washington, D.C.

Book cover for "Birkebeiner: A Story of Motherhood and War"

Historical nonfiction books may be tedious at times, so an engrossing historical novel can play a significant role in introducing readers to important people and events in history. But the reader must beware! Facts are sometimes altered or deleted—or invented—to create an entertaining story.

Jeff Foltz’s Birkebeiner: A Story of Motherhood and War is an engaging novel about an event well known to Norwegians and Norwegian Americans alike. Norway is in the midst of a civil war over royal succession. The Birkebeiners support King Håkon Sverresson III while the Baglers (or Croziers) support King Magnus V. When Håkon III dies near Lillehammer in Bagler territory, his baby son Håkon, the heir apparent, must be rushed to Nidaros (Trondheim) to be protected by the enclave of Birkebeiners there.

Two loyal Birkebeiner soldiers are given the crucial mission of spiriting the baby away to safety. First, they must sneak through the fortified Bagler lines. Then they must cross the dangerous mountains and valleys that lie between Lillehammer and Nidaros. To accomplish this mission, they must be excellent skiers. They must be familiar with the treacherous terrain and must be prepared to cope with the hostile elements. They must also be able to outrun the Bagler soldiers who are in hot pursuit in order to kill the baby. Against all odds, they succeed.

There is more or less agreement on this general outline of what happened. Of course, since this event occurred in the 13th century, it perhaps may be considered more legend than history.

Foltz’s retelling of this event makes for a very enjoyable read. It is apparent that he has seriously researched his subject. In regard to specific details of the story, however, he had to make decisions about which “facts” to accept.

First of all, he had to decide about little Håkon’s mother Inga. Was she living in the camp at Lillehammer with the king? Or did she appear on the scene with the baby after the king’s death? Foltz decides that, although they were not married, the two were living happily together with their son. He also decides that Inga would not let her adored son go off alone with the soldiers. She straps on her skis and goes with them. The author actually makes Inga the heroine of his book. (Note the subtitle.)

Foltz also decides who is good and who is bad. He depicts Håkon’s rival, Magnus V, as a relatively indecisive person who has misgivings about the Bagler plan to kill the baby. The author spares no mercy, however, for Bishop Eystein, whom he portrays as an evil man who delights in torturing his enemies with horrific instruments from his tool kit. This bishop, however, was later declared a saint, so perhaps he was not as wicked as Foltz paints him.

Keeping in mind that this historical novel may or may not be completely historical, readers will enjoy it. Foltz is a very good writer. He offers wonderful, nuanced descriptions of the leading actors in the drama. He describes the terrain and the weather very effectively. Most of all, he creates a thrilling atmosphere of suspense as Baby Håkon and his defenders flee with the Baglers nipping at their heels.

This book is definitely worth reading. After finishing it, readers may be curious enough to delve deeper into early Norwegian history. But one must be aware that there is really no definitive history of this period. Accept the uncertainty and relax with this captivating book.

Birkebeiner, by Jeff Foltz, was published by Maine Authors Publishing in 2010.

This article originally appeared in the Nov. 14, 2014, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

Avatar photo

Christine Foster Meloni

Christine Foster Meloni is professor emerita at The George Washington University. She has degrees in Italian literature, linguistics, and international education. She was born in Minneapolis and currently lives in Washington, D.C. She values her Norwegian heritage.