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Archive for the ‘Burial Rights’ Category

Although she doesn’t know this, Agnes Magnusdottir will be the last BurialRites convict executed in Iceland. This occurred in 1830. Burial Rites by Hannah Kent is her story. Convicted in 1828 of killing two men, Natan Ketilsson and Petur Jonsson, burning down Natan’s house and stealing his property, Agnes, along with a young girl, Sigridur Gudmundsdottir and a seventeen year old man, Fridrik Sigurdsson, were imprisoned. Sigga won an appeal and spent her remaining lifetime in a Danish textile prison. Fridrik and Agnes, at some point prior to their execution, were moved to different households to serve out their pre-execution days in servitude. Agnes was housed with District Officer Jon Jonsson, his wife Margret and their daughters Lauga and Steina. Each was allowed to choose a priest to provide spiritual guidance, get them to admit and repent their crimes and seek the Lord, prior to their execution. Agnes chose Thorvardur Jonsson (Toti), an Assistant Reverend who had provided a kindness to her years before.

Burial Rites is really two stories in one novel. There is the historical aspect of the book. In the 1800s, Iceland was under Danish rule. There was abject poverty in the country, as evidenced by the primitive living conditions that Agnes suffered in her assigned home. The weather was harsh and people’s basic needs of food and shelter was barely met. The conditions at prison were inhumane. Prisoners were beaten at whim, had little food, lacked clothing for warmth and rarely bathed, if at all. The description of Agnes as initially seen by Margret, is beyond belief. The Danish monarchy took an active interest in the case and handed down verdict and decrees, which Iceland was bound to carry out.

The second story in Burial Rites is Agnes’. Her history as an abandoned illegitimate child, intelligent but poor, forced to find work wherever she could pulls at the heartstrings. Naïve, a person who has had no close friends or relatives, who has been shown no love or tenderness, Agnes misunderstood people’s motives, not recognizing true affection rather than manipulation. Her changing relationship with Margret, especially, after the initial shock that they must harbor a murderess, is gripping and touching. The bond that arises between Agnes and Toti, his caring, compassion and steadfastness, are remarkable.

Burial Rites is not my genre of book, therefore, you can guess Susan recommended it to me. Once I got into it, I didn’t want to put it down. Kent’s writing is descriptive…the bleak landscape of Iceland, especially in winter. The characters are intriguing, District Officer Jonsson and his family, Natan, Fridrik, Sigga, Toti all evolve skillfully through Ken’s lens. Kent juxtaposes man’s inhumanity to man against man’s compassion to his fellow man.

Burial Rites is a great book discussion book as well as a good book for your own enlightenment. It can be a fast read or you can slow down and savor the language and think about humanity. That choice is yours.

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