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The Windeby Puzzle

The Windeby Puzzle by Lois Lowry


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Book Review

Estrild wants to break free from what people expect her to be in this Iron-Age society and show women that there is more to life than children and chores. Varick wants to prove he isn’t as disabled as everyone believes him to be. But to reach those goals, both discover that courage is vital.

Plot Summary

On the Windeby Estate in 1952, peat cutters discovered a body. Though the corpse looks relatively new, it’s actually ancient—buried in the peat bog for more than 2,000 years. Researchers come to the conclusion that it’s that of a teenager. But how did this Iron-Age teen die? And perhaps more importantly, how did the teen live?

Lois Lowry, author of The Giver, Number the Stars and dozens of others, explores what this individual’s life and tragic death might have looked like.

Lowry imagines the body was that of a young teen girl named Estrild, who wants to break free from her expected role in society and become a warrior. However, in her Iron-Age village, women are simply expected to bear children and work from dawn to dusk. With her friend Varick’s help, Estrild trains in secret, learning how to hold a shield, wield a sword, and tie her hair into the knot that warriors wear. In the spring ceremony when the warriors are named, Estrild will learn her fate.

While Estrild is fighting, Varick is fighting for a place in society—any place. His mother died at birth and his father died in battle only a few short years later, leaving their young crippled son to fend for himself. In exchange for the materials of his father’s weapons, Varick is allowed to sleep in the forger’s shed and work for food.

But though he isn’t of much use to the community, Varick loves to learn. He studies nature and analyzes the anatomy of any animal he can. When the forger falls and dislocates his hip, Varick’s skills are put to the test. The greater test remains how one so weak and poorly cared for can endure the hard life before him.

Christian Beliefs

Christianity is mentioned.

Other Belief Systems

Ghosts, sinister spirits, pagan gods, spells and omens are mentioned. We’re introduced to druids and pagan priests who read signs. They and the community’s council make important decisions for people.

Authority Roles

Varick is neglected because his parents died. Estrild’s parents are fair, but they don’t share her beliefs about a women’s role. In their minds, women bear children and work in the home while men are warriors.

Profanity & Violence

The bog body is discovered at the Windeby Estate. The author describes how the bones in bog bodies decay but the skin, hair and nails don’t. Most bodies buried in bogs met violent ends with many displaying bashed skulls, nooses still around their necks and stab wounds.

Human sacrifices are mentioned. Animal sacrifices are described. The author mentions that one of her children passed away. Bloody battles between the German tribes are mentioned. Estrild’s uncle and Varick’s father both die in battle. Estrild’s baby brother dies.

Drawing lots is mentioned. Potions are brewed for pain relief. Drinking and drunkenness are mentioned. One of the children discusses how she wishes her family owned slaves to ease the workload. It’s mentioned that slaves trying to escape are beaten and hung.

[Spoiler warning] In the first story, Estrild is stripped naked and drowned in the bog for trying to be a warrior. In the second story, Varick commits suicide by entering the bog because he doesn’t believe he’ll recover from pneumonia.

Sexual Content

Adultery is mentioned.

Discussion Topics

Estrild believes she must be a warrior to live a life that matters. Read 1 Corinthians 10:31. What about your life do you think matters to God?

Varick loves to learn about science and nature. What do you like to learn about?

No one in the village sees Varick’s worth because of his disabilities. Read Jeremiah 1:5 and Psalm 139:13-16. How does God value people?

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Additional Comments

This book portrays the brutal nature of the Iron Age while also pulling back the curtain a bit on the author’s writing process. The tragic nature of the stories might be difficult for young readers.

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Book reviews cover the content, themes and worldviews of fiction books, not necessarily their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. The inclusion of a book’s review does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.

Review by Rachel Pfeiffer