Vinland revisited: Anne’s tale

Robin McGrath
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Anne Stine Ingstad's book 'is archeology without the boring bits.'

The New Land
with the Green Meadows
By Anne Stine Ingstad
Historic Sites Association
of Newfoundland and Labrador
$19.99; 180 pages

I was about 11 or 12 years old the first time I met Anne Stine Ingstad, the author of “The New Land with the Green Meadows.” I was 38 when I last met her, in Denmark in 1987.  

Anne Stine was one of those incredibly intelligent and stunningly beautiful women who managed to thoroughly intimidate you while simultaneously making you fall in love with her. She scared me to death.    

For the few unfortunates in this province who don’t know who Anne Stine was, she was the archeologist who excavated the Viking ruins at L’Anse aux Meadows and proved that the Norse had attempted settlement in North America 500 years before Christopher Columbus “discovered” it.

To a small girl, the Ingstads were like movie stars. They were handsome, glamorous adventurers, sailing up the coast in a ridiculously small boat, charming the locals (including my parents), hob-nobbing with politicians and doctors, and living rough and dirty without ever appearing rough or dirty themselves.

“The New Land with the Green Meadows” is Anne Stine’s account of the eight years she and her husband dedicated to the L’Anse aux Meadows dig. Bad weather, terrifying storms at sea and on land, the small victories and — above all — her relationship with George Decker and the people of L’Anse aux Meadows and the surrounding communities are all described.  

One of the most interesting aspects of this book is Anne Stine’s rather rueful recognition that her archeological success speeded up the way L’Anse aux Meadows was unceremoniously hauled into the 20th century. The Viking finds brought a road and international recognition, changing abruptly and forever the outport way of life that Anne Stine herself so loved.

Since anyone reading the book already knows how the adventure turns out, there is not a lot of tension in the account, so reader satisfaction comes from the journey, not the destination.

For me, one of the most compelling scenes is not the finding of the famous spindle whorl or the bronze pin, but the description of Anne Stine in Corner Brook, her male shipmates headed for the nearest tavern after six months without beer, while she goes looking for a bath and a copy of Good Housekeeping or Glamour.

She was such a thorough intellectual that I never imagined her wanting to just veg out with a flighty magazine for a bit.

“The New Land with the Green Meadows” was written in Norwegian in 1975, translated in 2006 and finally published by the Historic Sites Association at the suggestion of the Norwegian ambassador to Canada.  

Plenty has been published about the Viking site at L’Anse aux Meadows, but nothing quite like this. It doesn’t touch on the often ugly controversy that surrounded the find, but gives a very domestic, very female, unabashedly sentimental account of what those summer digs were like before the world crashed the party.

The photographs are beautiful, the text seductive, the tone nostalgic and I enjoyed every word of it. This is archeology without the boring bits.

It’s Anne Stine at her most charming.

Maud Karpeles (1885-1976):

A retrospective of Her Newfoundland Fieldwork, 1929 and 1930

By Anna Kearney Guigné

Memorial University

$10; 18 pages

“Maud Karpeles (1885-1976)” is a short, smart catalogue of an exhibition about the folk music collector who came to Newfoundland in the 1930s on behalf of the English Folk Dance Society.

Although the booklet, and presumably the exhibition, is centred on Karpeles, it puts her work into context, providing a potted history of folk song collecting on the island. It covers the local collectors like James Murphy and Johnny Burke, and the female adventurers including Greenleaf and Mansfield.

The map that illustrates the musicologist’s travels by rail, boat and road, and the extracts from her diaries, as well as the numerous photographs, give a brief but vivid picture of her work and accomplishments. This is a Coles Notes to Newfoundland music.

With My Love

By Sarah Sexton

Self-Published

$15; 85 pages

Ninety-year-old Sara Sexton’s book “With My Love” proves that not all adventuresome women come from away. Sara came from a Newfoundland outport to St. John’s to study to be a teacher, a journey that was probably as daring and demanding for her as the journeys taken by Anne Stine Ingstad and Maud Karpeles.  

“With My Love” is a small book, mostly consisting of brief portraits of the author’s parents, siblings and children, but it is bursting with the joy of life. Newfoundlanders know Sexton as the mother of Tommy and an unrelenting warrior in the battle against AIDS.

However, she is an extraordinary person in her own right, as is evident in this work.

Part of what makes this brief autobiography sing is the way Sexton mixes the old language of Newfoundland dialect and the most up-to-date phrases picked up from her children and grandchildren.

On one page she’s explaining that she didn’t get pregnant for three years because she must have “lain on her oars,” and on another she describes doing without during the Depression as “sucking it up.”

Sara Sexton, as we get to know her in “With My Love,” is just the kind of woman that adventurers like Anne Stine and Maud Karpeles came to Newfoundland to meet. How lucky we are to have her and her children for our own.

Robin McGrath is a writer living in Goose Bay, Labrador. Her most recent book is “The Birchy Maid.”  Her column returns Nov. 30.

Organizations: Historic Sites Association, Anna Kearney GuignéMemorial University, English Folk Dance Society.Although Greenleaf

Geographic location: Green Meadows, Denmark, Newfoundland Corner Brook Canada Goose Bay

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