Debut novel by Jeff Foltz tells the story of the Birkebeiners
By Christy Olsen Field
Norwegian American Weekly
A passion for cross-country skiing can take some unexpected turns.
Just ask Jeff Foltz, author of “Birkebeiner: A Story of Motherhood and War.” This debut novel delves into the story of the Birkebeiners.
Jeff Foltz, who lives in Camden, Maine, is an avid cross-country skier, and has competed five times in the American Birkebeiner, the largest Nordic ski marathon (52 kilometers) in North America. After completing the race, Foltz headed into after-ski venue to meet up with his fellow skiers. In the hallway lined with Birkebeiner memorabilia, a painting of two men on cross-country skis carrying a baby caught his eye.
“Those guys aren’t babysitters, so why are they carrying a baby?” Foltz wondered. It was a question that would change his life.
The painting was “Birkebeinerne” (The Birchlegs) by Knud Bergslien, who painted the iconic work in 1869. The painting caught Foltz’s attention several more times.
“My curiosity got to me. The more I researched, the more fascinated I became,” said Foltz.
Foltz researched the historical legend of the Birkebeiners at the National Library in Oslo and spent time at the Holmenkollen Ski Museum. Through his research, Foltz learned that there were three different versions of the Birkebeiners carrying Prince Hakon to safety. Back in the U.S., he continued his study at Cornell University’s Nordic History Library.
“I have read far more Norse sagas than anyone should!” joked Foltz.
He started the novel a decade ago, but didn’t feel he was a good enough writer at the time to complete it. He enrolled in the Masters of Fine Arts creative writing program at the University of Southern Maine to hone his craft. It was here that he received valuable feedback and support by faculty mentors such as Suzanne Strempek Shea (author of “Becoming Finola”), Roland Merullo (author of “Breakfast With Bhudda”) and Michael White (author of “Beautiful Assassin” and “Soul Catcher”).
During his studies, he discovered Inga, the baby’s mother, and how much Norwegian history and the people of Norway revere her. She had to be the main character of his novel.
Two years after her son Hakon’s birth, Inga is with her husband, King Hakon, in the besieged fortress of Lillehammer. The enemy, the Crozier army, is certain to overrun Lillehammer. Once the Croziers breach the walls, they will kill Inga’s child, heir to the Norwegian throne and the prince who may unite the country.
To save little Hakon, King Hakon asks his two best warriors to flee with his son for the safety of Nidaros (present-day Trondheim). It’s a long and dangerous journey on skis through two treacherous winter valleys and over a 7,000-foot snow-blown mountain. Willing to risk everything for her son, Inga insists on going with them. For eight harrowing, exhausting days, they’re pursued by a cadre of enemy soldiers bent on killing her child. Magnus, the Crozier’s military leader whom the church and the bishop call King – and who has lost his own wife and two-year-old son – must lead the chase.
To really imagine what the Birkebeiners felt on the harrowing journey, Foltz traveled to Norway in late winter, strapped on his skis, and traversed the same difficult terrain north of Lillehammer. Though the groomed trails made it easier for Foltz than the Birkebeiners had in 800 years prior, Foltz gained a new perspective.
One unique aspect of the novel is the use of Norwegian words.
“I wanted to give the book some flavor. One of the authors I like interjects Spanish into his novel, and uses in context so it wouldn’t need a translation,” said Foltz.
Foltz is not a Norwegian speaker, so he used five different Norwegian natives to help him translate certain words, from people at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., to mutual friends in New England who knew Norwegian.
“All responded with different translations,” Foltz laughed.
This well-crafted novel is filled with action and human emotion, and strikes a chord with the universal themes of a mother’s love and the ugliness of war. The Birkebeiners is an important part of Norwegian history, and Jeff Foltz’s debut novel tells the thrilling story with a fresh perspective.
“Birkebeiner: A Story of Motherhood and War” is available for $17.95 + $2.50 S&H. The book can purchased through the author’s website (www.birkebeinerthenovel.com), Amazon.com, or by mailing a check for $19.95 (includes shipping and handling) to: Birkebeiner The Novel, 253 Cobb Road, Camden, ME 04843.
This article was originally published in the June 17, 2011 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. For more information about the Norwegian American Weekly or to subscribe, call us toll free (800) 305-0217 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.