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Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center

The Gripping Beast by Margot Wadley

March 1, 2011

St. Martin’s Press:  New York
2001 (HC)

American art teacher Isabel Garth sets off on a sentimental journey to the Orkney Islands, the childhood home of her recently deceased father.  Though absent from the storm-tossed islands off the northern coast of Scotland for almost half a century, her father had regaled her with tales of this far-off land and maintained a correspondence with his childhood friend, Ben Gowan.

Thus begins a finely crafted, evocative novel of this wild land, still lost in the mists of time when Viking raiders were re-writing the heritage of the British Isles.  But Isabel’s idyllic search for her father’s past and her desire to illustrate the journals that recounted his memories of his homeland turns mysteriously grim when a self-styled New Age witch warns her of grave danger should she remain in Orkney.  It soon becomes apparent—at least to Isabel– that some of the local inhabitants of Digerness are not pleased with her presence on the island.   Were her personal effects rifled through in her hotel room?  Was she deliberately pushed into the roadway on a busy sidewalk?  Was the break line on her rented auto deliberated tampered with?  Or are these figments of her overwrought imagination—especially since she is dealing with major emotional issues of her own:  an unplanned pregnancy by a departed lover, the death of her father, and now the discovery of the recent death of her father’s best friend, Ben Gowan?

The answer to Isabel’s may lie in the persistent rumors that Ben Gowan—and perhaps even her father—had discovered a horde of Viking treasure while still youngsters.  Had the treasure trove been re-buried somewhere on the island and were present day tomb robbers afraid that Isabel had discovered its location in the latter day trans-Atlantic correspondence between the two old friends?

This is an engaging tale of mystery written with an artist’s eye for evoking a sense of place.  The poetry of Margot Wadley’s prose describes the Orkney Islands as a place of wonder and incredible beauty—from its rich array of birdlife along the age-old cliffs looming over the North Sea to the equally rich archaeological treasures of standing stones and ancient tombs and barrows.  In one brief paragraph, the author sums up the wild beauty of this far-off outpost of ancient civilization:

Here, behind crashing surf and craggy cliffs, stretched out low hills and pastures, at once both wild and pastoral.  Here flowers bloomed out of the bones of a violent past.  Fence posts imitated gravestones.  Hooves of sheep and cattle kicked up hidden silver and gold, or opened the craws of forgotten graves.  Pillaging Vikings were transformed into Orkney farmers.  A bloody Viking warrior became a saint.  (p.172)

Three trowels for this beautifully written book from a first-time novelist.  Sadly, Margot Wadley died in an auto accident in October of 2001, shortly after The Gripping Beast was published.