This light, breezy, and thoroughly enjoyable volume is a practical introduction to all aspects of medieval Norse life and culture, written by an American writer from Seattle who is proud of her Norwegian roots.

Kjersti Egerdahl was, as she explains early on, a high-school princess at her local Sons of Norway parade, albeit one who waved to the crowd from the back of a convertible on Norway's Constitution Day.

This juxtaposed approach, which she knowingly adopts, is consistent throughout the book. She delves into certain aspects of Viking culture from 1,000 years ago in granular detail, such as their drinking toasts, while suggesting the best examples of Norwegian kveik beer currently available for delivery.

Family ties

Illustrated with lovely line drawings by Josh Lynch, The Viking Hondbók - Eat, Dress, and Fight Like a Warrior is divided into four main sections: The Village, The Kingdom, The Vikings, and Valhalla. 

These sections cover home life, society, Norse migration, and belief systems, respectively. In each case, the everyday specifics are the focus. 

Here, we're not interested in which battles were waged by the Norse in the Middle East but what Viking sailors had to eat on the long voyage getting there.

Marriage contracts, textile colorings, the ingredients for bread, washing habits, so much in this book makes the reader think, "Of course!" and then wonder why most Viking books are fairly dull accounts of fratricidal conflict in long-lost locations or Byzantine interpretations of Snorri Sturluson's Sagas.

What was life actually like on a day-to-day basis? Why is the Old Norse word for Saturday laugardagr, meaning "wash day," when the Anglo-Saxons washed once a year?

Armed with a healthy irreverence, Egerdahl is equally respectful of her heritage. 

She describes her proud Norwegian grandfather passing through Ellis Island as a child in the 1920s and then banning his native language from being spoken in the house as soon as he managed to settle in Seattle.

It was her father, Ed, who searched for his roots, learned Norwegian, and founded the Scandinavian Languages Institute attached to the National Nordic Museum in his hometown.

Egerdahl family vacations were spent in Egerdal in Norway's far north. The homeland's name remained unchanged, despite the carelessness of a clerk's pen at the immigration office by the Statue of Liberty a century ago.

Yes, many of those interested in Norse culture will know about the major traditions and celebrations. 

However, Egerdahl introduces us to the smell of the fish oil lamps. She invites us to the dining table where most eat with their fingers, occasionally using a knife or spoon that belonged to them and them alone.

She leans upon the law to point out the shocking fact that leaving a baby outside to die due to family poverty was legal until the 1200s.

Egerdahl delves into the specifics of Viking home life, focusing on the everyday rather than grand battles or sagas. Photo: LGieger / Shutterstock

Cats and dogs

The much-celebrated role of women in Viking society has a certain truth to it: marriages were arranged as contracts settled by a handshake. 

However, Scandinavian women could divorce as they pleased, and widows retained the wealth and property of their deceased husbands. That still isn't true in a lot of the world today. 

Nevertheless, this sense of equality between the sexes is tempered by the lovely observation that a kitten was a popular wedding gift for a bride, as a cat would keep the house clear of mice. 

The women's place was most definitely in the home.

A dog would be used to herd and hunt, and the relationship with its master was so close that they were often buried together, a ritual that frequently involved sacrificial killing.

Egerdahl is most at home, in fact, in and around the homes of 1,000 years ago, highlighting the ways the Norse households circumvented the lack of yeast, which only became popular in Europe after Louis Pasteur's discoveries in the mid-1800s. 

This is hands-on history, and all the better for it.

If there's any criticism, it's in the title, The Viking Hondbók, which seems unnecessarily Norse – unless there was a legal requirement not to use the word "Handbook" – and in the subtitle, How to Dress, Eat, and Fight like a Warrior, which undersells it tremendously. 

Yes, this is written in a way that might appeal to a teenager (apart from the adult humor and references to hangovers), but The Viking Hondbók is so much more than that. 

You could argue convincingly that if you're going to read just one book about Viking life and you've only got a day to do so, this should be the one to buy.

The Viking Hondbók: Eat, Dress, and Fight Like a Warrior by Kjersti Egerdahl, published by Running Press in 2020, can be purchased on Amazon here.

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