By C.K. Dawson
Once I became pregnant with my first child, I became somewhat averse to stories of tragedy and violence, a phenomenon that only increased post-partum. Thriller television or dark novels that I once enjoyed became lingering reminders of what tragedies could befall my daughter. I regret that I ever consumed some media, since those images are already in my head, they can’t be erased. Years of exposure to literary and cinematic irony have convinced my subconscious that danger will strike my family just when I think we’re safe: I can see sudden death coming to my daughter in a myriad of ways…a snake in the grass as she plays, an unexpected car coming out of a driveway as we walk down the street.
Parenthood brings danger to life in a way that even my own mishaps, be them broken bones or other injuries never did. They say the young feel invincible, but it’s not quite that. Oblivious is more accurate. I envy that oblivion now. Parenthood has the potential to cripple you from awareness of the reality of risk. So I stopped watching or reading stories of pain, preferring lighter classics and happy endings and food writing. I read several memoirs by Americans who moved to France.
Six months after giving birth, a pandemic came. A year later my first miscarriage. Then another. Losing two babies made me all the more fearful to lose my only daughter. My reading life became even more escapist: witty satires from the early 20th Century and cozy detective novels. I clung to what was bright and breezy, avoiding the heavier stories that had once intrigued me, fueling philosophical conversations in graduate school and first date conversations in my single years.
I’ve felt vaguely guilty about it, since one of the tenets of our schooling in our MFA program was to engage, to face the darkness. “The role of the artist is to not look away,” said the filmmaker Akira Kurosawa. Confront what was difficult, and better yet, write about it, especially when it came to faith. “Don’t jump over the cross to get to the resurrection,” the visiting author Uwem Akpan warned us, and that’s stuck with me. Suffering has its own value. Don’t invalidate it in a rush to a happy ending.
So when I told my mom that I’d be reading Kristin Lavransdatter, she warned me: “it’s not an easy story.” I braced myself, ready to push past my discomfort to the beauties of a book I’ve been recommended many times over the years.
It’s not an easy story. From the first page, Undset pulls no punches when depicting the bitter realities of medieval life. Ragnfrid’s loss of three baby sons. The crippling of her second daughter by a fallen log. A horror of parental bad luck so strong that Ragnfrid stays away from her third child to protect her. And finally, her oldest daughter Kristin growing into a beautiful teenager only for a priest to attempt to rape her, and then murder a young man close to her. Woven through all of these tragedies is the ever-constant discussion of the will of God. Prayer was the only protection Kristin and her family had from tragedy, and there was nothing to do but to submit to whatever answer they were given.
Call it the will of God or call it Fate, medieval life included a kind of helplessness that resonates with me now, two years into a global pandemic. With the advent of modernity, the idea of Fate’s fallen out of style. Modern medicine and seatbelts and a wealth of digital distraction have given us the comfort of safety, even if that safety is just an illusion. When horrible accidents befall children, the first discussion is always what could have prevented it, how it must have been a failure of the parents to protect their progeny. Sometimes it was. But sometimes, it was Fate that stepped in. What kind of blame and questions would follow Ragnfrid and Lavrans for Uvhild’s accident these days? We want to do everything we can to keep our children safe, but our illusion of control has made those of twists of fate an isolating experience. Miscarriages discomfort us, because we don’t know why they happen, and there’s little we can do to prevent them. Cancer strikes without cause, and the elderly are consigned to loneliness in nursing homes. We hide away pain and death, afraid of the reminder that it could happen to us. Reading Kristin Lavransdatter reminds me that not only could it happen, but it will. There are few certainties in life, but grief is one of them. Hiding from it won’t change it. But it’s possible, that like Brother Edvin promised Ragnfrid, prayer and trust in God’s will may give the grief meaning. and bring us to the beauties beyond it.
C.K. Dawson is a writer for Verily Magazine with her MFA in Poetry from Seattle Pacific University. Her work has appeared in Poetry International, Breakwater Review, Relief Journal, St. Katherine’s Review, and Ruminate Magazine. She lives with her husband and daughter in the hills just outside Los Angeles.