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Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center

Women of the Dunes by Sarah Maine

May 1, 2019

Atria Paperback:  New York
2018 (PB)

Sarah Maine has penned an atmospheric and evocative novel that examines universal themes of love, greed, violence and courage from the vantage point of a headland called Ullaness on the west coast of Scotland and the people inhabiting that remote outpost for the last 1200 years.

Archaeologist Libby Snow is thrilled to have landed the job of excavation supervisor to project director Declan Lockhart, medieval scholar at a Midlands university for a field school investigating Ullaness (Ulla’s headland) and its suspected burial mound, ruined chapel and the cell supposedly occupied by the medieval monk Odrahn (Oran) about 800 A.D.  Libby’s interest in the dig goes beyond scientific inquiry in that from childhood on she had heard stories told by her grandmother, repeating stories told by her grandmother, Ellen MacKay, who had emigrated from Scotland to Newfoundland in the late 19th century, of the drama that had unfolded on this headland in the distant past.  The legends told of the Norse maiden Ulla, who, in the company of a small number of Viking attendants, including her lover Harald, washed up on the headland where the monk Odrahn lived in chaste isolation.  She implores him for aid, explaining that she is fleeing her violently abusive husband Erik—Harald’s brother.  As with all legends lost in the mists of time, the stories become garbled and confused with the telling and re-telling over the centuries.  Libby hopes the archaeology conducted at Ullaness will at least begin to separate historic fact from legend and myth.  The tale has been made even more murky as Libby’s great-great grandmother Ellen MacKay had descended into senility and had conflated herself with Ulla and spoke of murder committed at Ullaness.

The archaeology site is part of the estate controlled by Hector, the seventh baronet, Sturrock of Ullaness, and Libby soon discovers that the baronet’s brother Rodri Sturrock is the representative of the estate with whom Declan Lockhart has been negotiating and with whom Libby must now deal.  Rodri is distant and obviously protective of the heritage of Sturrock House and Ullaness.  Part of that heritage, Libby is aware, includes the period of time in the 1890s when her great-great grandmother Ellen was in service at Sturrock House.

Even before the field school students arrive on site, Libby unearths skeletal remains in the mound believed to be Odrahn’s place of burial.  But they are the remains of a late 19th century man.  Suddenly Ellen’s mad musings in her declining years seem possibly less mad.

The dig begins in earnest when the field school students arrive but the mysteries continue to pile up both in the past and in the present.  Narrative flashbacks to the time of Odrahn and Ulla and to Ellen’s days of service at Sturrock House in the 1890s seem to suggest that history may indeed repeat itself.  And Libby’s archaeological investigations are challenged to separate fact from fiction, while at the same time she and her new friends face very real contemporary dangers.

Four enthusiastic trowels for Sarah Maine’s Women of the Dunes.