Book Review: ‘The Soul of the Family Tree’ by Lori Erickson

One morning, in a fling of middle-age thrill-seeking, Lori Erickson filled a small glass vial with her spittle and mailed it to AncestryDNA. Given that Erickson’s last name is Erickson and that she hails from Decorah, Iowa, arguably the most Norwegian-American small town on the continent, the results of the DNA testing were not surprising: 81 percent Norwegian, 16 percent Swedish and 3 percent Celtic.

The testing company’s results also included information on likely geographic regions of origin and a list of over 600 potential relatives: A web of familial connections equivalent to a genealogist’s thick notebook of data and diagrams.

Erickson no doubt pondered the results. Could her biological DNA be analogous to her spiritual DNA? Could the double helical configuration of her Nordic DNA be analogous to the intertwining of spirituality and travel, a lifelong interest of hers?

The Soul of the Family Tree (Westminster John Knox Press) is her decidedly affirmative response. Erickson welcomes us aboard a literary longboat, dragon heads fore and aft, and sets sail on a genealogical and spiritual pilgrimage to explore all things Nordic, past and present.

Although The Soul of the Family Tree is a pilgrimage, it is not the quintessential out-and-back trek (think the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu). Instead, the text presents a series of ventures like expeditions: into Nordic lore and mythology, to historical sites, to contemporary celebrations. The old Viking stories were oral, eventually recorded in written form in the Nordic and Icelandic sagas.

These accounts of famous Viking figures, like Leif Ericksson (a purported but unverifiable relative of the author) and the intrepid Gudrid the Far Traveler, provide descriptions of Viking adventures from Scandinavia to Iceland, Greenland, Vinland and back. Some of the characters were heroic, yet others were notably despicable, bringing Erickson to observe, “Genealogy makes it difficult to claim the moral high ground.”

Recognizing that spiritual heritage is grounded in place, Erickson traveled widely to sites, ruins and holy places to learn ever more about her Nordic heritage. Her travels take us to the archeological site at L’Anse aux Meadows and the Viking reconstruction at Norstead, places that invite the reader to reimagine the hardships endured by these industrious adventurers. Other travels take us to the Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim, Norway; the Borgund Church in Sogn og Fjordane; and many sites beyond. Fortunately, traditions live on in contemporary reenactments such as the Midwest Viking Festival in Moorhead, Minnesota, where battles axes, looms and pots of vegetable stew bring history to life.

The Soul of the Family Tree, as a literary work, is carefully researched and informative, concisely expressed, lighthearted in tone and woven together with humor like fine, handmade Scandinavian linen. The book is companionable, one you would want as a friend. After reading Erickson’s Family Tree and thinking more about genealogy, more about my own destiny, heritage and family (that is, my öorlog), I finally mailed in the glass tube from my DNA test kit — hoping the results will show that I am at least a few percentage points Norwegian.

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 304.