Baldur’s Song: A Saga (David Arnason)

David Arnason’s third novel tells the story of Baldur, a young boy from Gimli who finds himself in Winnipeg during its boom-town days at the turn of the nineteenth century. 

Baldur is something of a naïf, and relies on his honesty and integrity more than his wits. This demeanour serves him well. As his father says to him late in the novel, “You are like Olaf the Peacock in Laxdaela saga. The world gives you everything you want without much effort. You should be grateful.” 

He is grateful. His appreciation and sympathy, his ability to place blind trust in others and deal fairly with them, provide him with substantial rewards.

Arnason himself appears in a frame narrative, claiming Baldur as his great-grandfather and that the novel consists primarily of Baldur’s journals. But the question of how true this story might be, and whether the character is actually based on anybody, becomes irrelevant. As Arnason states, “I am a writer and can believe what I want and make it happen in my writing.” 

The story blends a few genres — it’s a love story between Baldur and Lara (a young girl he meets as a child and pursues into old age), a coming-of-age story, a picaresque (a story where a character travels and has comic adventures), and even an elegy that both mourns and celebrates the early Icelandic settlers. It’s also a saga, the story of a worthy man told in a mythic tone but with a realistic plot. 

If this all sounds complicated, it isn’t. Arnason’s writing is clear and crisp. Recounting his earliest memories, Baldur says, “I remember next that the house was filled with people. The cows lived at one end of the house and the people lived at the other end. Everybody except my mother, my grandmother, my brother and me were sick. Every few days, somebody disappeared and never came back.”

This type of prose is deceptive — it seems simple, and easy to write, but it isn’t. It’s also a refreshing change from the heavy overwriting that typifies most Canadian historical novels. Elsewhere, Arnason writes, “The lake was filled with fish and everything promised joy.” 

This kind of bare, lyrical description is especially welcome when Arnason begins to describe boom-town Winnipeg. Most writers of historical fiction can’t resist the temptation to rain down interesting but insignificant details until the reader is drowning.

Arnason gives you what you need, what serves the story. He doesn’t try to impress you with his research, just engross you with his tale. He’s more likely to make a joke than trot out statistics, and so while the book might not satisfy readers primarily interested in the historical setting, it’ll please those who come to the novel wanting to be entertained and moved.

Arnason is one of Manitoba’s most accomplished writers, and has published two books of poetry, six collections of short stories, and written and edited non-fiction collections, plays, and many other works in addition to two previous novels. 

His previous novel, King Jerry, was nominated for the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour, and although Baldur’s Song isn’t primarily comic, the narration is light-hearted in tone. At one point Lara tells Baldur about her boarding school. 

Many of her schoolmates “had apparently been sent there because of their behaviour, and Lara seemed to approve strongly of the behaviour that had brought them there.” Arnason likely would as well. 

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