book review, historical fiction, history

Review: The Witches of Vardo by Anya Bergman

The Witches of Vardo by Anya Bergman is based on the true story of the witch trials of Vardo in northern Norway, in the 17th century. I did not know about these particular witch trials, and the fact that this book took place in Norway drew me in further. Within the Arctic circle, Vardo is a harsh and unforgiving island, but there is beauty in the dancing Northern Lights, the wild animals, and the nearby Sami people.

The story switches perspectives between Anna Rhodius, once mistress to the King (then Prince) of Denmark, and Ingeborg Ivarsdatter who lives with her mother and younger sister in a Norwegian fishing village. Anna often speaks to the reader as if writing to her former lover who sent her to the island as a prisoner, but we don’t actually ever get a clear reason why she was sent there. My guess is the King sent her there to get rid of her and keep her quiet.

Ingeborg takes the mantle of family protector, often hunting for food, after the passing of her father and brother at sea. Her sister, Kirsten, is an intelligent and sensitive girl with a pet lamb. Their mother, Zigri, has become consumed by grief and takes her anger out of her daughters–mostly Kirsten, who she believes was responsible for witches conjuring the storm that killed her husband and son. Zigri begins an affair with a local trader and merchant, her family reaping the monetary benefits by way of clean clothes and a well-stocked pantry.

Ingeborg meets Maren, her aunt Silvi’s niece by marriage, who was the daughter of famed witch Liren Sand who was burned at the stake on Vardo. Maren is also a girl of mixed race, so her heritage is doubly suspicious to the ignorant people of the village. At first Ingeborg fears Maren’s brand of “darkness” will mar her family’s reputation, but she is inexplicably drawn to her. Maren teaches her to appreciate nature and animals, tells her folk tales of their arctic land, introduces her to the nearby Sami people who are feared by the Norwegians as witches. From the start, there is something magical and mysterious about Maren. When Anna journeys to Vardo, she sees the girl accompanied by a lynx.

The stories of these women and girls converge upon Vardo, as Anna is forced to extract confessions of witchcraft from the women so they are not tortured by their jailer. Ingeborg and Maren seek help from the Sami to journey to Vardo, only to get caught up in the ignorance and hysteria of witch accusations.

Anya Bergman walks the line between realism and fantasy. Maren seems to have an uncanny relationship with animals, as if they are at her command, but we are never actually sure she is a true witch with familiars or if these events occur from pure coincidence. Maren is brash and brazen in the face of hardliner religious zealots, encouraging the other imprisoned women to find their power and make the men fear them. Ultimately what we learn from this tale is one as old as time: men fear women with power, not just power of position or wealth, but inner power and independence, and will do whatever it takes to bring them back under the boot of patriarchy.