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In Search of First Contact: The Vikings of Vinland, the Peoples of the Dawnland, and the Anglo-American Anxiety of Discovery, by Annette Kolodny.

April 9, 2012

In Search of First Contact: The Vikings of Vinland, the Peoples of the Dawnland, and the Anglo-American Anxiety of Discovery, by Annette Kolodny. Duke University Press Books, 2012.
A review copy from Netgallery.

A provocative, scholarly analysis of Norse sagas, nineteenth-century American history and literature, and Native American oral traditions of narratives about Vikings in North America.

Annette Kolodny is a literary scholar with wide-ranging ideas. Her first book, Lay of the Land, was a feminist examination of the writings of European exploration and settlement of North America and the gendered language with which the men describe their conquest of the New World. Her new book is an exploration into narratives about possible Viking contacts in New England and Canada.

Kolodny starts out by asking questions about why American’s need origin stories and stories that make the continent seem empty when Europeans arrived. She then examines the Viking sagas of trips west from Greenland to the spot they called Vinland. The next section deals with nineteenth-century American historians and literary figures eager to claim that Vikings had come to New England and had exhibited traits that the writers claimed as fundamentally “American.” I know the racist, elitist views of my forebearers and I found Kolodny’s discussion of their willful ignorance and distortion depressing. Next she focuses on the oral traditions of native Americans along the Atlantic coast which contain what seem to be references to tall ships with sailors of different descriptions who threaten but do not surprise the inhabitants who saw them. As she points out, Europeans came but they also left. She closes with a story by Joseph Bruchac, a contemporary Native American who draws on oral traditions to fashion a tale in which his people civilize European visitors and help them survive.

In the end Kolodny does not settle the question of if and where Vikings visited what would become the USA. She asks interesting questions about why Anglo-Americans have worked so hard to claim Viking contact and she brings to light conflicting narratives of the possibilities.

Kolodny is first and foremost interested in narratives and texts and examines those relating to Vikings in North America with great detail. Greater detail, in fact, than I wanted. As always her views are stimulating, but those who are not literary scholars will probably find this book a slow and demanding read.

I recommend this book to those who have the skills and background to enjoy it and to any one prepared to make the investment of time and energy it requires.

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