By Judith Byron Schachner
Reviewed by Kenny Brechner
The idea that history is written by the winners is perhaps less precise a notion than that the recording of history is a game in which the writer always wins. History is, in fact, often written by sore losers. We may not wish to go so far as Napoleon Bonaparte in referring to history as "a pack of lies agreed upon", nonetheless the premise that the occurrence and recording of history have relative degrees of concordance is of paramount importance to all concerned.
A clear example of history written by sore losers concerns the image of the Vikings handed down by European historians. The exploits of the Vikings were chronicled largely by monks, the treasuries and persons of which were regular targets of Viking raids. Their depiction of Vikings as bloodthirsty madmen, as mythical creatures rather than human is unsurprising. The power of recorded history, however, is to be seen in the fact that the image has stuck.
Consider the battle of Hastings, for example. Despite the fact that the superb Icelandic historian Snorri Sturlason had written in the thirteenth century that "The Norseman had no wish to go to England to make war there," because they were groaning under the economic and physical strain of Harald Hardrade’s constant levies, modern historian David Howarth could write of 1066 that "No Viking King had to justify an aggressive war; no cover story had to be devised...On the contrary , Norway had plenty of warriors frustrated by two summers without a battle, longing for the ecstasy of a fight, itching for plunder, not even needing an invitation."
Plainly, Howarth is describing mythological Vikings and Snorri historical. That we should prefer true history to historicized myth is an opinion shared by Judith Byron Schachner, author and illustrator of a splendid new picture book, Yo Vikings.
Yo Vikings is a book with a very unusual point of emphasis, the interrelation between daydreams, imagination, and reality. The heroine of the book, Emma, is a girl whose imagination and interest in reading, writing and drawing, allow her to live very strongly in a world of daydreams. A school project on the Vikings, and a librarian of Scandinavian descent, combine to draw Emma away from being "Emma the Red Fox" to become "Emma the Red, Viking Explorer."
Emma, accompanied by her little brother Ollie, sets out to know and embrace the Viking world. When a Viking ship replica is offered sale in the newspaper she convinces the owner to turn it over to her care for "$128.00 in change, 2 baseball cards, and 1 very sharp fox tooth." No one believes Emma’s declaration that a Viking ship is coming for her birthday until it arrives, "not a drawing or some crazy adventure made up in Emma’s head. The ship was as real as her friends and oh so beautiful. Silhouetted against the last blaze of twilight."
Beautifully written and rendered, Yo Vikings has the great virtue of celebrating things worth celebrating, Vikings, reading, imagination and intellectual passion.