May 05, 2012

Catla and the Vikings

by Mary Elizabeth Nelson
Orca Book Publishers
pbk: 9781459800571
ebook: 9781459800588
191 pp.
Ages 9-13

Catla is only 13 years of age but she must decide whether she will accept an offer to marry the bossy pedlar, Olav, who cares little for any ideas except his own.  This is the decision she is mulling over while collecting plants on the heath away from her village of Covehithe in Northumbria.  But, after detecting vast smoke from the village, that deliberation is quickly put aside as she runs to Covehithe to observe the village being burned by Vikings, a.k.a Nord-devils, and the villagers being herded towards the goats' pen.  Daughter of the headman, Athelstan, and former warrior Sarah, Catla gathers her courage to seek help in Aigber, the village a day's walk away.

Though she fears goblins, fairies, wolves and barrow ghosts, in addition to getting lost, Catla unknowingly distracts herself by raging against the vicious Nord-devils and by pitying herself for being the one left to help the village.  Luckily, after resting at the standing stones overnight, she chances upon Sven, a young man from Covehithe, returning from York.  Companionably Sven and Catla make their way to Aigber, but not before encountering a group of Norsemen themselves heading to Aigber but by water.

Once Catla and Sven reach Aigber and convince Hugh, the headman, about the veracity of their tale, they help that community prepare to shelter mothers and children in a hill fort while planning to defend and even capture the Norsemen who attack.  Only once Aigber is safe will they move on to rescuing Covehithe from the Vikings.

In the mind-bargaining that often accompanies tragic circumstances, Catla promises herself that she will marry Olav if her family is saved.  But her interactions with Sven and the equitable relationship she witnesses between Hugh and his wife, Edith, suggest that there are men who value the ideas and contributions of women, and Catla is both fascinated and appreciative of these attitudes.  In her efforts to help Covehithe, Catla is empowered to see beyond the attitudes of her father and the customs he acclaims.

Mary Elizabeth Nelson's story of Catla and the Vikings is rich in the essences of 11th century England.  The tangible attributes of the houses' roof thatch, to the beer and drinking horns, and the weaponry and clothing are woven through the text, providing a background of authenticity and lushness to Catla's and Covehithe's stories.  But it's the language of her characters at which Mary Elizabeth Nelson excels.  I don't want to be a gull (i.e., so trusting and naive) but the descriptive names for common objects or events (e.g., "short-shadow meal" for lunch; "Longest Day celebration" for the Summer Equinox) harmonize with the setting of Catla and the Vikings while enhancing the historical account (fictional, of course) of modest communities defeating invasions by their infamous foes.  If Mary Elizabeth Nelson is encouraged to follow up Catla and the Vikings (and there are so many directions she could take that sequel), she will find her stories successfully filling a middle grade niche that doesn't plunge or even cusp into the young adult realm.

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