Kristin Needs a Friend

by Hannah Piecuch and Kaitlin Barker Davis

HANNAH: I just finished part two of The Wreath and all I want to do is fume and gossip about it—forget an actual essay. So much happens! Some of it—wherever Erlend is concerned—makes me furious. 

KAITLIN: Same! It was a relief to feel that way though after the cascade of tragedies in part one. This season of Kristin’s life is sort of like freshman year at college: girl leaves home for the big city, makes questionable friends and choices, falls in love with older boy, questions her belief system, and forms a self separate from her family. 

H: Right. She is at Nonnester Abbey in Oslo being educated by nuns. She’s apparently a good student—already into herb lore thanks to Fru Aashild—and skilled at helping out with needlework on giant tapestries. The nuns like her. Since she’s already engaged and not joining the Abbey in holy orders, she gets to go into town and dance by torchlight on feast days. I don’t know much about medieval Norway, but that kind of freedom surprised me. 

K: Me too! But maybe it’s not so much freedom as that nobody knows what she’s doing. Except her “bed-mate” Ingebjorg. Can we talk about her? That girl is not the friend that Kristin needs. First of all, she  convinced Kristin to buy the shoes she really couldn’t afford—although they sounded pretty fabulous with those red ribbons. 

H: Ingebjorg has a hand in all the early disasters of this section—she’s the one who takes Kristin on the expensive shopping trip and who loses her head and gets them lost in the countryside. She also starts competing against Kristin for Erlend’s attention before Kristin is really even aware of him, and I think that perhaps makes Kristin a little bolder than she would otherwise have been. Not that we can blame the rest of what happens on Ingebjorg. 

K: Can’t we though? Who can we blame it on? Erlend, obviously. But just for a second before we get to him, I really need to talk about Kristin’s affinity for abandoned roads. They do not turn out well for her. Did she not learn her lesson in part one, after Bentein nearly raped her? Granted, she was fierce and totally held her own out there–but then she just finds herself another empty road leading out to the wilderness. 

I know we can’t be telling women not to walk down certain streets, or blaming them instead of the men they encounter for what happens. I also know you have to go off on your own to find yourself, to find what you’re made of. I’ve gone on plenty of arguably unwise adventures, and they all turned out to be majorly formative experiences. But I am hoping Kristin can make some significant plot turns that don’t involve abandoned roads. (Maybe it’s not Kristin I’m annoyed with, but the author? I just don’t want her to overuse the abandoned road device.)

H: I think this is a part of the story that’s hard to imagine–because we don’t live in rural villages connected by dark roads. But it also seems dismayingly current. I mean, I still think twice about running alone in conservation land. And it’s not because of wolves, bears, trolls, or elves. 

K: Some things just never change when it comes to being a woman, I guess. 

Okay, now for the juicy stuff. I’m dying to hear what you hate about Erlend. So many red flags!

H: So many! Kristin doesn’t learn about Erlend’s other lover or his children until she has already spent the evening dancing with him and sleeping next to him under the stars. And after that, she feels a fierce loyalty to him, even as every new revelation about him is negative. Here he is, apparently verging on bankruptcy, miles from his estate, just riding his horse around the countryside for liaisons with Kristin. He is not a catch. 

Kristin is into him in spite of all this. Is she actually drawn to him as a person, or is it just the circumstances? Everything happens so fast between them, and I am not sure I buy their connection. 

K: I think her actions and decisions are tied to her grief over Arne. I was so shocked and sad when he died! Arne was probably Kristin’s first significant loss. She loved him but abstained from that love because it’s what she was supposed to do, since her family had already betrothed her to Simon. She was still bound enough to her community’s codes of honor and religion to let that loyalty override her own feelings. But maybe that loss unhinged her. Loss can erode your sense of certainty in the order of things. And I think Arne’s death left a void she maybe can’t help trying to fill with another true love.

H: I think that is so true. And there are moments when he makes her think of Arne, or think of what she didn’t do with Arne, and she just puts her reservations aside because of that. Maybe Kristin was ready to fall hard for someone, so long as they were more interesting than Simon. 

I think my Jane Austen radar is up. Erlend is cut from the same cloth as Willoughby or Wickham. If he had honorable intentions, he wouldn’t have gone near her. But the counter argument to that is human nature. It’s possible to fall for someone, whether or not you should. Sometimes two people meet and then everything else about their lives has to change. I mean, if that didn’t happen we wouldn’t have novels. 

K: There you go, bringing it with your MFA in fiction. Meanwhile I’m the nonfiction girl judging a fictional character for her fictional life choices! Ha. Yes, you’re right. All good stories, fiction or non, need conflict–novels especially. 

H: Necessary conflict aside, the lines after Erlend seduces Kristin made me feel devastated for her:

“Kristin stood up too–slowly feeling faint and shattered… Her whole body seemed to be aching with astonishment–that this was the iniquity that all the songs were about. And because Erlend had done this to her, she felt as if she had become his possession.” 

First of all, I feel like she just discovered what sex is by doing it. But even more than that, I find the power differential so alarming. She has no idea what she is doing, and Erlend knows exactly what he is doing. She has nothing at all to gain from being with him. And he seems to think he will gain some kind of rebirth or redemption by loving someone as good and pure as Kristin. And then there is the language of possession. I found this scene more disturbing than her fighting off the-rapist-priest-Bentien. She just seems so young.  

K: She is young, she’s 17! I know this is medieval Norway and she’s in a convent, but the girl has done some living. When I was 17, I went to youth group on Wednesday nights and got into good clean trouble with my friends, like driving around at night stealing construction cones and putting them in a boy’s front yard. I’d never suffered heartache or loss–nothing had  happened in my life to shake me, to provoke any questioning or rebelling. I had a boyfriend and a purity ring, and I felt much stronger about the ring than the boy. 

H: So Arne was her youth group boyfriend. Only now that he’s gone she doesn’t have any real friends. When I finished this part, I just had an overwhelming sense of Kristin’s isolation. 

K: A convent seems like the last place Kristin needs to be right now. She went from the isolation of her little mountain village with nobody to confide in to a cloister of nuns, where her one friend seems to make even worse decisions than she does. I guess the cloister is Kristin’s version of going off to college – and in college you don’t always get to pick your roommate as a freshman, but at least you’ve got some other friends to choose from who aren’t nuns. No offense to nuns, I love nuns.

H: She has all these men in her life telling her what to do–Erlend, Simon, her father, even the monk Edvin–but there is literally not a single other woman for Kristin to really talk to. It makes me wish she had a real female confidante. Then again, what 17-year-old listens when a friend says something against the guy they are into.

K: I know, you’re right. I guess I forget that we are twice Kristin’s age, plus a few more years. God, are we really that old? I maybe would’ve listened to a friend–maybe–but probably not my sister. But now, at 38, I’d be lost without my friends, and especially my sister.

But enough about Erlend. We need to talk about hair and clothes. The descriptions of Kristin’s long golden hair, intricately twisted into gorgeous braids and woven with ribbons makes me really tempted to grow my hair out. 

H: I love the scene when Kristin realizes that Ingebjorg is waiting to see what she wears to the dance and goes all in to out-dress her.

K: Yes! For all of Ingebjorg’s faults, she is the quintessential fun roommate–the girl knows how to party and lure boys, she’s into fashion, and she pushes Kristin to get outside her comfort zone … albeit maybe a little too far for her own good. Sigh. I wish we were in a cocktail bar having this gossip fest instead of this long-distance dishing. 

H: Or a pub for mead, to be on theme. 

K: I actually kind of love mead.

Hannah and Kaitlin have been bi-coastal friends for nearly a decade, after meeting at their first MFA residency in Santa Fe—where Kaitlin actually did drink enough mead to fall giggling into a dorm room twin bed, but only after Hannah took fake sips of the bottle she was allegedly sharing with her.

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