In 1830, Agnes Magnúsdóttir and Fridrik Sigurdsson were led to a turf platform on a snowy hill in Iceland and beheaded. They were surrounded by 150 farmers from the area, who were ordered to attend. Magnúsdóttir and Sigurdsson had been sentenced to death for the murder of two men, a farmer named Natan Ketilsson and a visitor, Pétur Jonsson. (Sigrídur Gudmundsdóttir was also convicted and condemned to death for the murder, but her sentence was changed to life in a labor camp, where she died a few years later.) Theirs were the last public executions performed in Iceland and form the basis of Hannah Kent’s terrific historical fiction book, Burial Rites.
Kent’s story begins as Agnes is ordered to stay with a farming family at Kornsá, where she will receive spiritual guidance from Assistant Reverend Thorvardur to prepare for her execution. Imagine being the family ordered to make room for a convicted murderer! It’s a grim situation for Jon and his wife, Margrét, and their two grown daughters, Steina and Lauga, who already share their small turf hut with farmhands and a workmaid.
Their hut resembled this Icelandic hut (image: Helena Lovincic/Getty).
The family and Agnes sleep in the same room, or badstofa, much like this one (but maybe not quite as nice, since their walls were turf inside as well) from the National Museum of Iceland (Image: tripadvisor.com)
Agnes arrives emaciated, bruised and covered in layers of filth, as she has been shackled and beaten since her conviction. Over time, the family adjusts to Agnes in different ways. Lauga hates Agnes and shuns her, Steina is sympathetic, Margrét is wary and Jon stays away. Agnes is an excellent farm worker, however. She is as skilled at cutting hay and outside labor, as she is with cooking, sewing and knitting and this hard work earns her the family’s respect.
It is during Reverend Tóti’s visits that we slowly learn about Agnes’ sad and lonely childhood and her complicated and intense relationships with Natan, Sigrídur (Sigga) and Fridrick. Tóti and Agnes soon become friends and Margrét, too, warms to Agnes as we learn more about the murder.
Agnes slowly becomes a tentative member of the Kornsá family, but the inevitable execution looms over them all. It seems an impossible ending and I found myself hoping that the final chapters would somehow conclude in a different way. Kent portrays Agnes in a partially sympathetic light but she leaves the reader to judge. She describes the sober business of executing convicted murderers in what was the cold reality of justice during that time and she evokes a desperate mood as Agnes approaches the platform on that cold icy day.
Here is a picture of the stone marker at the execution site. (Photo by Rosanna Boscawen)
Kent does a great job portraying these historical events and tells a powerful story during a time when people had to devote all their energy to the basics of survival, no matter what the circumstances. She writes in a simple and convincing way of a harsh land and time that is perhaps unfamiliar to a lot of readers. But she also brings out the beauty of both landscape and human spirit, making the story relevant in modern times.
We will never know the full story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, but Kent allows us to imagine…
I also enjoyed reading this post from Picador: “Burial Rites: a photo essay from Iceland” – contributed by Rosanna Boscawen.
For more information about the murders of Natan Ketilsson and Pétur Jonsson and the executions of Agnes Magnúsdóttir and Fridrik Sigurdsson check out the article “Tough Justice, 1830-Style by Quentin Bates” from the International Crime Authors Reality Check.
I was thinking that Burial Rites would make a good movie and was not surprised to read that Jennifer Lawrence has signed to star in the film adaptation. You can read all about this here in an article from The Guardian.
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