The Great Canadian Beer Festival

DSC01487I don’t drink but I got a free ticket to The Great Canadian Beer Festival in Victoria. The tickets are 40.00 for each of the two days. It’s gotta be hipsters, I thought. Someone goes for both days that is 80.00 plus each three ounce glass is 1.50. I gotta see this.

I was right about the hipsters. Massive crowd, thousands upon thousands, every age of course, but mostly between twenty and forty. A lot of guys who look like they ride bicycles. Lean, muscular. Beards, lots of beards. Tatoos. It was a living art gallery. One guy was covered in mathematical equations. I expected pot bellies. These guys had abs. Lot of guys in groups. Maybe soccer, baseball teammates.

Lot of women in pairs. Short shorts. Long hair. Trolling. Not much luck. The guys were there for the beer.  I left early, maybe the action would be later. Beer lust.

Good crowd. Friendly. Long lines at the booths where they got their plastic glass filled in return for tokens purchased just inside the gate.

All the vendors were Canadian micro-brewers. Barkerville at Booth 25 came from Quesnel. One micro brewer was so micro itself that they don’t sell their beer anywhere but at their brewery. I was told the beer was excellent. There was a brewer from Quebec.

Axe & Barrel from Victoria was offering Citruc Witbier, India pale Ale, Raspberry Sour, Sitka Spruce Tip IPA Cask. The Raspberry Sour is made with local Saanich raspberries, cultured with Ladtobacillus delbrueckii, mosaic hops that tive it a fruity aroma. My Irish grandfather loved his beer. Made his own in the basement. He wouldn’t have recognized hipster beer.

Bomber in Booth 32 offered Prairie Beard Golden Ale brewed with 70% Saskatchewan barley and 30% Saskatchewan wheat in Biggar, SK.

Crannog from Sorrento, BC had line ups that never stopped growing. Their lead was Backhand of God Stout. My grandfather loved stout but I don’t think his had a distinct coffee/chocolate presence. They were also offering a Crabapple Ale.

There was the Dead Frog form Aldergrove, Fuggles & Warlock, Garrison from Halifax NS (Star Trek Klingon Warnog, a blend of rye, clove and tartness), Glutenberg from Montreal that promised a pure little bomb of flavours with its IPA’s citrus aroma, hop freshness and bitterness, Okanagan Spring from Vernon with a black lager. Altogether, there were sixty-four micro-brewers.

There were food trucks and tents with chairs and tables. A lot of blue portable toilets. Entertainers. I felt sorry for the entertainers. There was a juggler and a guy who made balloons into silly creatures, musicians of various kinds including a good C&W band but they were completely ignored. People wanted to taste beer, talk beer, admire beer. I felt so sorry for some of the entertainers that I stood and watched them just so they could say they had an audience. They were good. But not as good as the West Coast Pale Ale from Granville Island with its up front bitter hops balance with a malt base, finishing slightly fruity with notes of tangerine and pineapple.

As I was leaving, I noticed hundreds of bicycles on racks along the outside fence, bikes chained to posts, bikes everywhere. I was right. The crowd was made up of people who think nothing of hopping on a bike before breakfast and dashing off to Sidney. The Gore Tex riders I envy as they race by. Beer, beards, abs, bicycles, short shorts, long hair, pink hair, green h air, oh to be young again.

Even though I don’t drink, it was a fascinating afternoon, and a great success. May Howe Sound from Sqamish, BC sell lots of its Devil’s Elbow IPA. And may Three Ranges from Valemount, BC slake the thirst of many with its Swamp Donkey Brown Ale.

 

 

The Elite

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My Irish Grandfather emigrated to Canada but his loyalty to England was such that when England joined the war against the Kaiser, he joined the army. He was no privileged scion of a wealthy or politically important family. He was a glazier, a drayman, a common working man. Neither Ireland nor England had done much for him. But the UK needed him so he went for training, shipped to England, ferried to France,  entered the horrors of trench warfare, became a machine gunner and sniper, was poisoned with mustard gas that left him with damaged lungs the rest of his life. He was sent back into the lines where during a battle, shrapnel tore through his right hand. He and other soldiers lived in muddy, filthy trenches, and his wound infected. There were no antibiotics in those days. He was shipped to a hospital in England. He was still there when the war ended. He was shipped to Montreal. He was in hospital there until the infection finally cleared up.

 

My ex-wife’s father came from a family that was English, that is, had emigrated from England the generation before. When England needed help, he joined the RCAF. He trained in Saskatchewan as a fighter pilot, then shipped overseas for the battle of Britain. He was killed three days after my ex-wife was born. All she ever knew of her father were her mother’s stories, his university record, his poems, and photographs in a black and white album. His body was never found. His bones lie somewhere on the ocean floor off Holland.

 

These are the people that the elitists make contemptuous comments about. These are the kind of people that as far as the elitists are concerned should never be allowed to vote. Not rich enough, not educated enough, not important enough. These are the people that the elitists sneer at and refer to as the populace, the people too stupid to understand the incredibly difficult issues the elite face when making decisions for the proletariat.

 

David Cameron misread the beliefs and feelings of the plebeians when he called for a vote on remaining in the European Union or leaving. How could he not. He was born to wealthy parents. His father was a stockbroker who made a lot of money.  His wife was the daughter of a 2nd Baronet. Cameron was educated and Eton and Oxford. From birth he lived a life of privilege. In his world, my grandfather and my father-in-law didn’t exist. They were just the populace that was there to be used as cannon fodder to protect the interests of the upper class.

 

Decades after WW1, my grandfather said to me, his voice bitter, that on Christmas, he and his fellow soldiers ate canned meat out of the can and strawberry jam while the officers dined on full Christmas dinners. Of course, the really privileged weren’t at the front at all. They were in England and Canada making fortunes supplying the war effort. The lives of the elite matter, The lives of the populace don’t matter to the elite.

 

Articles in papers like The Globe and Mail in Canada and The Guardian in England are at the service of the elite. They appear to discuss Brexit but what emanates from them is the complete contempt that the elite politicians and civil servants and business people have for you and me. They work together to make each other rich. Ordinary people shouldn’t have referendums. After all, they aren’t intelligent enough to really understand the issues.

 

It is interesting, though, that there was no outcry against referendums by the elite and their mouthpieces when the referendums went the way the elite wanted on voting reform and Scottish independence.

 

Do I know how Brexit will play out? Nope. But neither do all those so-called experts. They parrot lines that even a cursory glance reveal to be false. Does that mean that some of their concerns aren’t valid? Of course not. Even the privileged, coddled, and spoiled get things right some of the time. Do the people who support Brexit know how it will play out? No, of course not. There are too many people and forces involved to predict final outcomes.

 

Do I think the EU is a failure? I don’t know enough about the complexity of the EU to have an opinion.. This isn’t about whether Brexit is or isn’t going to benefit England. It’s about how the privileged, the connected, the one percent, the insiders, don’t want people like you and me to have a direct say in our democracy. How we should leave it for our betters to make decisions for us.

 

The same people who have ranted against referendums where you and I get to have a say, have nothing to say against the fact that the rich and powerful get private audiences with politicians. They get to tell the politicians what rules they want, what rules they want changed. They get to have their own private little referendums every day.

 

Current events have made it clear that the current political systems are rigged. They’re rigged to help make the rich richer, the powerful more powerful. If you have enough money and connections you can get laws passed that will make you more money and give you more power.

 

TNo wonder the rich and powerful don’t want the populace (that’s you and me) to have a direct say in government policy. We’re good enough for cannon fodder but not good enough for a direct say in how our government should govern.

The Icelanders Go West

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Go West young man, go West. In 1871 that was the advice of Horace Greeley, the editor of the New York Times.

Horace Greeley said that anyone who had to earn a living should go where workers were needed and wanted, where they will be hired because they are needed, not because someone is giving them a job as a favour. He added some conditions to his advice. Before going west, he said, a young man should learn to chop, to plough and to mow.

Because of geography and shipping routes, the Icelanders arrived in Quebec City. Some made their way even further East to Nova Scotia. But that did not last. The Icelanders were late comers. The good land was already taken. Others went to Kinmount, Ontario. After a disastrous year, they, too, continued the journey West. That journey West, with many stops and starts, would continue over the years until Icelandic immigrants reached the furthest West possible, first Vancouver, then Victoria, British Columbia. This weekend, we have all gathered to celebrate that long, arduous and often dangerous journey.

Following their dream of travelling to Amerika and the life it offered had a high price. Not in the fares people paid but in the lives lost. In the first stage of this saga, people died and were buried at sea. Later, they died in Nova Scotia, in Kinmount, they died on the journey to the promised land of New Iceland.

These sacrifices were not made for frivolous reasons. They were made because in Iceland there was a shortage of land, a lack of opportunity, a rigid social system, and natural disasters created by cold weather and volcanic eruption.

Horace Greeley had said learn to chop. The movement West was made harder by the fact that the Icelanders didn’t know how to chop. How do you learn woodsmen’s skills when your forests are dwarf birch?

Greeley said learn to plow. They didn’t know how to plow. How can you plow lava deserts and glaciers? How could they learn to plow when no crop other than grass would grow?

They did know how to mow, but as more than one writer has pointed out, they mowed what we would think of as short     domestic grass, not prairie grass that reached to the top of a man’s hips. On the immigration forms, they called themselves bondi, farmers, but they were not farmers by any definition in the West. They were herders.

According to Dr.Thompson in his history of Riverton, the settlers were unprepared for one of the coldest winters on record. They were faced with conditions so unbearable that many of the stronger adults, and the older children capable of seeking work, walked to Selkirk and Winnipeg. He says “the men found work at 10 to 20 dollars a month on the farms. Women and children were hired as domestics in Winnipeg homes. Only about one hundred were left in the original settlement when scurvy broke out. Thirty-four of the remaining one hundred died from the disease.”

Faced with the difficulties in New Iceland, many of the settlers began moving West to Brandon, and to Argyle. It is hard for us to conceive how slow travel with horses or oxen and wagons was. What made it possible for people to move further West was the building of the railroad. As the railway moved West, settlers took wagons, cattle, and equipment in the boxcars to the end of the rail line, then unloaded and drove away onto the vast prairie.

It wasn’t until 1886, that the first train reached Port Moody, B.C. In 1887, the first CPR passenger train arrived in Vancouver. Some Icelanders were on those first trains to BC. We have been coming to BC ever since.

Horace Greeley said go where you will get a job because you are needed, not because someone is doing you a favour.

Icelanders followed this advice in the past and their descendants have followed this advice in the present. In preparing this speech, I began to think about the members of my family who have moved West. One of the first was Valentinus Valgardson. He was married to Thora Sigurgeirson from Hecla Island. They got as far as Moose Jaw. They stayed and he became both a teacher and a farmer. My father’s brothers, Earl and Allan, moved to Edmonton and Calgary. My cousins Rudy and Sandy Bristow moved to Victoria and Vancouver. One of my father’s aunts moved to Vancouver. My family marks the Icelandic trail West.

Hulli Bjarnason was a successful businessman and our neighbour in Gimli. When  he retired, he and his wife Gusta moved to Victoria. Their three daughters, Linda, Margaret and Carol also came West. Keith Sigmundson came to be the head of pysychiatry. Elroy Sveinsson became a salmon fisherman. Janis Olof Magnusson, from Winnipeg’s west end  went to Regina, Saskatchewan, then to Victoria to work as an agricultural economist. I went from Gimli to Winnipeg, to Victoria to be a professor at the university of Victoria. There’s Glenn Sigurdson from Riverton and Heather Ireland from West End Winnipeg. Heather can tell you about the migration from Lundar to Winnipeg and the trek west. The exodus West came from every community. This room, this city, this province, is filled with people of Icelandic descent.

Richard Beck came from North Dakota to Victoria to retire. He brought with him his passion for all things Icelandic and he and his wife, Margret, created the Richard and Margaret Beck Trust at the U. of Victoria. With the income from that money, the trust has brought over a hundred experts on many aspects of Icelandic history, society and culture to give lectures. The Beck Trust has sponsored summer school courses, including courses in Icelandic film and language. Glenn Sigurdson moved to Vancouver to work as a successful lawyer and then negotiator. Yet, he recently published a book about the Lake Winnipeg fishery called Vikings on a Prairie Ocean. In this journey west, our heritage has not been forgotten.

We’ve come here under many different conditions. Bob Asgeirsson told me he left Winnipeg  in a raging blizzard to  have a holiday in Vancouver. When he got off the train in Vancouver, there was a light, warm rain. He bought a return ticket to Winnipeg, quit his job and moved to Vancouver.  Ian Sigvaldason who is originally from Arborg moved to Salt Spring Island to open the Pegasus art gallery.

There are here, today, the descendants of the group of Icelanders who left Riverton and Hecla and Gimli in the late thirties and early forties. They were fishermen and boatbuilders. One of their descendants Lisa Sigurgeirsson Maxx is with us. Ken Kristjanson of Gimli tells me that a number of this group tried to get his father and uncle to join them. Many of that group settled in Steveston.

There are enough of us living on the West Coast to have Icelandic clubs in Vancouver, Victoria, Naniamo, Bellingham, Blaine, and Seattle.

There are endless stories of this journey West both historic and current. But one of the most fascinating is that of Christian Sivertz and Elinborg Samuelsdottir. Although Christian’s last name was Sivertz, he was a hundred percent Icelandic.

Christian Sivertz and Elinborg Samuelsdottir both came separately from Iceland. They knew no English. Christian arrived in Winnipeg in 1883. Christian worked long, hard hours in Winnipeg for little pay. He travelled West to Victoria in 1890 for greater opportunities. He was 25 years old.

After he arrived he met Elinborg Samuelsdottir who had left Iceland in 1888 with two brothers and two sisters. They had spent two years in Winnipeg.  At the time they arrived in Victoria there already were about 20 Icelandic families.

I mention the Sivertz family because I got to know Ben Sivertz, the youngest son, quite well. On many a Sunday in good weather, although he was in his 80s, he would leave his retirement home and walk a mile uphill to my house with a bottle of expensive gin. He’d arrive looking as neat and tidy as the naval officer he once was. He’d have a drink of gin and coffee and a visit and then I’d drive him back to his retirement home where we’d have lunch. He was so modest that I knew Ben for a long time before I discovered that he’d been awarded a medal, the OBE, for his work during WWII. It also took quite a while before I discovered that he was rich. He is the only person I’ve ever known who owned an original Van Gogh. Horace Greely’s advice, travel West, young man had proved prophetic. Ben’s parent’s trip West had given their children exceptional lives. Opportunity existed and they made the most of it.

I also mention the Sivertz family because their story is so typical in many ways.  They came to Canada because there was a lack of opportunity in Iceland in the 1880s. They didn’t know English. They first settled in Winnipeg.. They came to Victoria and joined a small community of Icelanders who had arrived before them. Ben says about his father, Christian, that he was proud of being Icelandic, but also, of being a British citizen.

The Victoria that the Icelanders came to was very British. It was a place of coal barons who could afford to build places like Craigdarroch Castle. It was a city with aboriginal people who had a highly developed culture evident in the totem poles and art work and in their buildings. It was a city of street cars and four story stone and brick buildings. There were newspapers and aboriginal canoe races on the Gorge. There was high tea, formal dress, outdoor picnics, and cricket.

When we gather as we are doing this weekend, we remind ourselves of our heritage with the nostalgia of vinartera, of kleiner, of brennavin, of clothes from the time of immigration.

But there is something here, among us, right now, that is invisible that in the past and present we have carried as we have traveled West. It was an essential part of our luggage. That is the desire for education. The immigrants carried that from Iceland to New Iceland, and from New Iceland West.

While literacy was wide spread in Iceland, the opportunity for an education was not available to many. According to Vidur Hreinsson  in Wakeful Nights, his marvelous biography of Stephan Stephansson, when Stephan was a boy he made every possible effort to learn and longed to go to school but that was impossible for the son of a poor lodger. The extent of his  yearning for formal schooling became evident on a Thursday in the fall of 1865. Stephan was outside during a storm, when he saw three people ride by the farm, heading towards the mountain pass. His friend Indridi was travelling to Reykjavik to go to school. On seeing his friend leaving for school and knowing he could not go, Stefan was overwhelmed with grief. He ran out among the tussocks and threw himself on the ground , sobbing in the rain.

It was not just Stefan who longed for the opportunity to get an education.

Think about the situation of those first settlers in New Iceland. They landed on a sand bar as winter was beginning. They had ratty second hand Hudson Bay tents for shelter. Their first task was to build as many log cabins as there were stoves.

Yet, nine days after their landing at Willow Point, John Taylor, their leader, sent a letter to the Lieutenant Governor of Manitoba saying

“The Icelanders in the colony are desirous of having a school for their children as soon as they can put up a schoolhouse They have a teacher with them and wish to be connected to the regular educational system of Canada.”

Nine days after landing. Wanting a schoolhouse. That, to me, is amazing. They had traveled all this distance with great difficulty, had undergone severe hardships, and now were in the midst of the wilderness in a completely foreign land and what they wanted was a school house.

The settlers could only build as many cabins as there were stoves. The result was crowded, inadequate shelter. Some of the food the Icelanders were sold in Winnipeg was of poor quality. Once the lake froze over, to keep from starving, they had to learn how to fish under the ice. Yet, before Christmas, Caroline Taylor, the niece of John Taylor, opened a school in English. Thirty people enrolled. Imagine the situation. Winter, snow drifts, blizzards, no roads, isolation, inadequate food, illness because they didn’t have the cows they were promised. In Iceland, milk had been a major part of their diet. Yet, they had a school. And people struggled through the snow and cold to get there.

The next year when the smallpox started, the school was disbanded. Temporarily disbanded. One hundred and two people died from the smallpox. The settlement was devastated. Yet, once the smallpox was over, Jane Taylor restarted the school, this time with sixty-three students.

In the following years, Rev. Pall Thorlakson held classes. In 1885 Gudni Thiorsteinsson organized and taught classes. There was Sigrdur G. Thorarensen and Johann P. Solmundsson and Bjorn B. Olson. All of them and many others were determined to see that children would get an education.

The desire for their children to be educated was carried by the westward traveling Icelanders all the way to the coast.

Ben Sivertz says at the beginning of the book he wrote about his father that his father was a laborer and his mother did housekeeping. His father, Christian, finally got a job as a postman delivering mail. Being a mailman paid enough that they had their own house and they could afford to educate their six sons. Their sons did not need to become indentured servants with no future.

Henry, the eldest, took teacher training and taught school before joining the army. He was killed in the war. Gus, the second son, became an optometrist and then a reporter with the Vancouver Sun.  Chris earned a Phd and became a prof of Chem at U. of Western On. Vic earned a  Phd  and became a Prof chem. U. of Washington   Sam was a bank officer in Shanghai until WWII He then joined the armed forces and after the war became an office manager    Ben, the youngest son, became a Navy officer. Then he joined the Department  of External Affairs setting up consulates.  He became the last Commissionaire of the North West Territories.

There were many others who came west. Some stopped in Brandon, Manitoba,  in Regina, Saskatchwan, in Foam Lake, Saskatchewan, in Calgary and Edmonton, Alberta. Some stopped in the interior of British Columbia where they improbably became ranchers and orchardists. Others came to the coast and created Icelandic communities in Vancouver, Port Roberts, Blaine, Bellingham, and Seattle, etc.

There was Gisli Gudmundsson from the Western Fjords and his wife Sigurbjorg. The lived in Wpg for several years, then went to Victoria. From there to Point Roberts.

Jonas Saemundsson from Grafarkot. He came to Amerika in 1889. He lived in Wpg, then went to Victoria and finally to Point Roberts in 1904.

Arni Myrdal. He emigrated with his parents and lived with them through the misery in New Iceland, the notorious small pox, scarlet fever and many illnesses that followed. His two sisters died there that winter. He went to Pembina and from there to Victoria. He went to Point Roberts.

There was another Icelandic settlement that most people don’t know about at Osland on Smith Island in the mouth of the Skeena River.  This is seven hunded kilometres north and the site of a large salmon fishery. It was a small settlement but it included Haldorsons, Johnsons, Philipsons, Freemans, Odddsons, Grimsons, Kristmansons, Snidals and many others. It was settled by a mix of bachelors and families between the early 1900s and 1940s.

 

These people had made the great trek West. They had created an Icelandic colony on an island. They fished, raised animals, worked in the cannery in Prince Rupert. Elin Einarsson’s memories are in the Osland history. This is what she says “At times during the winter months we would be locked in by the ice that came down the river. Before winter set in my father would go to Prince Rupert for supplies—sacks of flour and sugar, butter in 14 pound boxes and a quarter of beef. The men would hunt deer for extra meat during the winter. My dad made a good root cellar with a cement floor below our house. We stored vegetables from my mother’s garden there. Potatoes in large bins and carrots and beets in barrels of sand. During the summer my mother was kept busy tending the gardens and the animals while the men were fishing. She would salt fish and preserve salmon and fruit in jars for the winter. Every weekend she baked a layer cake spread with jam filling for the family. Vinartarta was special and only baked at Christmas and Easter. “

  1. Olafson says, “Lots of wild berries,–blueberries, huckleberries, salmon berries and salal and crabapples. Mom grew gooseberries and currant and once in a while we’d have a few plums and apples off the trees.” This is a Canadian talking. This is an Icelandic Canadian talking. This is someone talking who has come West, who has adapted to a new land and made it his own.

These people came West, as far West as it was possible to go, and made Canadian lives for themselves. They made a living the West Coast way boat building, running a shingle mill, logging, pile driving, sheep raising, goat raising, working in fish canneries.

Their children and grandchildren got educated and became doctors and lawyers and nurses, university professors,  and started their own businesses. They found good jobs and had their own families. The original settlers made a heroic journey from Iceland, to Scotland, to Quebec City, to New Iceland, always west, across the prairies where headstones in lonely graveyards testify to their journey but they reached the West Coast and they found, I believe, what they were seeking: a good life for themselves and their families.

How, after all these miles, all these journeys, all this time, has this pilgrimage West worked out? At the beginning of the Icelandic emigration, there were great fears that our heritage would be lost. We would forget the golden age of the Sagas, that we would lose our pride in our Viking ancestors, that we would no longer be connected to this land of fire and ice that our distant ancestors had settled in the late 800s. Icelanders were not the only ones who these fears. On maps, you can find places like New Denmark, New Sweden, New Germany, New England. Places where everyone would stay the same and have no contact with all those other foreigners. However, the land would not allow it. The opportunities would not allow it.

We are very fortunate. We came to a place where we could adapt and adopt, could integrate, but keep our identity, be proud of our history. I recently heard an aboriginal survivor of the residential schools say they took away our identity. We have seen and continue to see the tragedy that has created. Fortunately, we have managed to keep our identity and the benefits that go with that identity. Like Christian Sivertz, we can be proud of our Icelandic heritage and be proud of being Canadians.

How has trek West worked out? Each of you will have to ask yourself that question but for myself coming West has provided everything those early settlers hoped for.  Has our community, over one hundred and forty one years continued to carry both Icelandic values and history with us? Have we been true to the dreams of those early Western Far Travelers? I can best answer that question by pointing to my grand daughter, Rebecca, who graduates from UBC in a few weeks  and two days after that leaves for Iceland on the Snorri program. Her connection to the Icelandic past and the Icelandic present is shared by many in the West. This INL conference and all of you who have come to it proves that.

The Mighty Beaver

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Many years ago when I taught high school in Snow Lake, Manitoba, I was invited to go dip-fishing for whitefish. We travelled by boat to the mouth of a creek, hiked up along the creek until we reached a beaver dam. We lined up along the top of the dam, played our flashlights over the water and tried to dip fish from the base of the beaver dam. That was the closest I ever got to Castor Canadensis, the Canadian beaver. The images of that evening came flooding back as I read a book called Once They Were Hats, a book exploring and explaining the past and current role of beaver, their tree cutting, their dam building and their saving of our land.

I’d seen notices of Frances Backhouse’s latest book subtitled “In search of the Mighty Beaver”. When I had a chance to attend a reading and Question and Answer period put on by The Professional Writers of Canada and hosted by Rosemary Neering, I immediately marked it down as a must-go-to evening. Fran started the evening by reading selections from the book and telling us about how it came about.

She’d wanted to write a book about animals but a publisher had said no, that is too broad. You need to focus on one animal. She really likes woodpeckers so she thought she’d do a book about woodpeckers but the truth be told, there isn’t a lot important Canadian history to go with woodpeckers. She settled, wisely, on the life and history of the beaver.

That, it turns out, was the easy part. It took her six years to research and write the book. Part of the drag was created by the fact that she was writing the book as a thesis for her MFA degree in Creative Writing at the University of Victoria. Those members of the audience who had experience with doing research associated with a university rolled their eyes in sympathy. However, that wasn’t the only anchor. The other was that the beaver and native history and folklore are inextricably intertwined. That meant a lot of permission forms being filled out before material could be collected and used. Like the industrious beaver, Fran kept at the task until, at last, she had written a book that I enjoyed immensely.

I may be biased, of course. I’ve known Fran for a long time but, more importantly, many decades ago, a book that had a tremendous impact on me was Ring of Bright Water. It was about the adopting and living with two otters. I am, I admit, a sucker for books about animals.

Fran said in her comments that her classmates, when she first presented the material she was writing in a good, objective, journalistic manner, told her that she should forget about the objective manner and tell the story in the first person. They were right. The first person gives a personal, casual touch to a narrative that could be distant and dry.

Her opening sentence in the introduction says “The beaver has a major image problem. A chubby rodent with goofy buckteeth and a tail that looks like it was run over by a tractor tire”. We learn that in 1851, our first postage stamp was the Three-Pence Beaver. That didn’t stop Senator Nicole Eaton calling the beaver “a dentally defective rat”. That may be because they were chomping on the dock at her summer cottage.

Fran tells about her travels across North America searching out beaver and beaver experts but also tells us about Jacques Cartier stopping :at an Iroquoian town called Hochelaga” which may mean “beaver path”. In Ancient Antecedents we learn about beaver the size of bears and get to meet Natalia Rybcyznski at the Canadian Museum of Nature’s research collection. Yes, there are people who spend their lives learning about beaver and their impact on our planet.

There are the native legends including the one of the beaver that can be killed and eaten but is constantly resurrected and we hear of Ida Calmegane’s Tlingit songs. And, of course, no book on the beaver would be complete without a chapter on Archibald Stansfeld Belaney (Grey Owl). Fran describes her hike in to visit his cabin. She then tells us that it wasn’t just Grey Owl who domesticated beaver. They enjoy, it would seem, lying in front of the fireplace as much as any dog.

Of course, we have to get to hats because it is hats that nearly drove the beaver to extinction. Beaver pelts were so valuable for making hats that pelts were treated as money. As part of understanding how beaver pelts provide the materials for felts to make hats, we get to visit Smithbilt and get to see how those fancy hats are made. However, at the end of that chapter, we follow Fran out of the store without a 20X beaver hat because it costs 895.0.00 dollars.

There are still a lot of chapters to go that are filled with surprising facts such as discovering, along with Fran, that there are beaver who live on the salt flats, beaver that build dams of stone when there is no wood available, beaver that travel great distances over land to find suitable streams and ponds. We meet fascinating people, trappers, traders, scientists, and pest removers (not all people think beaver are great guests).

With climate change drying out parts of North America, with water running off too quickly, beaver are now being recognized as a natural way to keep water in the ground. They’re thought of as eco-system engineers. There were between 60 and 400 million beaver in North America before people started killing them to make hats. There were “At least 25 million dams.” Belatedly, it is being recognized that they were a major part of creating a sustainable environment.

I said to Fran that over the years beaver have re-established themselves in a local creek outside of my hometown. There are aspen trees and willow for dam building and food. There’s water. And maybe, just maybe, we’ve grown up enough as a society that we don’t have to kill everything in order to make a few dollars.

Grímur Hákonarsson

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After the showing of Grímur Hakonarson’s movie, Rams, I introduced myself to him and arranged to meet him the next day at Victoria’s quintessentially British emporium, Murchie’s tea room. For the next two hours we discussed not only the making of Rams but also his films that I’d been able to watch on Icelandicfilmsonline.

He started by saying that his parents, Hakon Sigurgrimsson and U. Stefansdóttir, were from Flói. They had grown up in the country but like many Icelanders had moved to Reykjavik. As a result, Grímur had grown up in Reykjavik but was often sent to the countryside during the summer to live on a farm and when he was seventeen, he was sent to a farm where he lived and worked for strangers. It was part of the Icelandic growing up ritual. He learned about sheep. More importantly, he learned about the relationship of sheep farmers to their sheep. He said that many sheep farmers have a special relationship to their animals, particularly their sheep. This isn’t surprising since in Iceland, where the only crop was hay–no grain would ripen–the welfare of the sheep was paramount. The sheep provided milk and meat plus skin and wool for clothes. As well, he has relatives who were sheep farmers who had to deal with scrapie, a deadly disease that was brought to Iceland by an imported English ram in the 1800s. Like many experiences that influence a writer, these events lay waiting to be assembled and developed until he was ready to fit them into the story of two brothers who raised sheep in an isolated valley.

He writes and directs his own scripts and does it successfully. That, in itself, is quite amazing to me. I’ve had a dozen radio dramas produced and have sold a couple of TV scripts. As well, I’ve had a number of my stories made into films and, in my experience, most film makers cannot write a decent script. Grímur is a happy exception. He has a sense of narrative and understands the needs to link events together in a causal chain. As director he has an eye for detail and its use to express human emotion.

Writers have been compared to ravens who collect shiny objects to put into their nest. That image doesn´t do the writer justice in the sense that it implies the nest will be filled with brightly colored, happy baubles. Those shiny objects might also be finger bones or teeth or observed images that capture some aspect of a person. An example of Grímur’s ravenness is a scene in which a character cuts his toenails with a huge pair of scissors (one person suggested that the scissors were so large that she thought their actual purpose must be for sheep shearing). Grímur said that he had seen his grandfather cut his toenails with scissors like this and had tucked away the image.

Like all successful writers, he’s also got an eye for observing people’s behaviour and how they act out their emotions. A notable moment in his film, Wrestling, was after the two male lovers had quarreled over no longer keeping their relationship secret. The married farmer who had pushed the idea and was rejected is seen driving his tractor towing a large tank spraying liquid fertilizer. When I said to Grimur that I thought it was a perfect example of his ability to create a visual expression of someone’s repressed emotion, he laughed and agreed.

When he was a teenager, he started to make films along with his friends. He made two short documentaries. He then went to FAMU, the Czech film school. He made a short called Slavik the Shit. The plot is simple, there isn’t much dialogue, and the technique Grímur will develop is apparent as he focuses in on the tight scenes in which the setting reflects the internal life of Slavik. There are closely framed pictures of the bareness of Slavik’s work place, including one in which he is trying and failing to repair a toilet seat. In these scenes, it is the carefully modulated facial expressions of the main character that shows us what he is feeling. It is not mime because mime exaggerates, is larger than life to make its point, but with Grímur taking advantage of the possible intimacy of film in close ups, he is able to show us how his characters feel rather than have them tell us. If he were not a close observer of people and the tiny behaviours that reveal their controlled, repressed emotions, he could not do make his close up scenes so revealing. He does this exceptionally well in Rams with both his main characters: Gummi and Kiddi. They are externally stoic elderly, Icelandic farmers, but seethe with emotion, hate, fear, rage, jealousy, and since it is not revealed in dialogue, it has to be shown in their faces and in small actions.

I found Grímur particularly fascinating because he has the ability to make both documentaries and dramas successfully. Again, he bridges a gap many cannot cross. He admires traditional Icelandic life and wants to render the lives of the characters in an authentic way. Our lives are made up of small details, small events. We live in patterns. In Rams he has a sequence of scenes in which one of the farmers brings the main character a leg of lamb. Gummi cuts up the leg, makes a lamb soup and we watch him dish it into a bowl. The attention to detail is exquisite: the kitchen, the preparation of the food, the eating of it. It is in small scenes like this that Grímur allows the audience to get to know the character and care about his fate.

In his drama, Wrestling, we see the same techniques at work. Here, he chooses as his central image, glima, a form of Icelandic wrestling. Glima is little known outside of Iceland. In it, two men each wear a harness around their waist and under their crotch. They face each other and grasp each other’s harness on each side. Face to face, as close as if they were dancing as a couple, they begin to move in unison, attempting to find a moment when their opponent is off balance and can be thrown down. Wrestling’s plot turns on the fact that the two main glima contenders are gay–even though one is a married farmer–and lovers. Scenes of glima are repeated and choreographed so that a room full of men practicing looks like they are dancing. He has taken a traditional Icelandic activity and infused it with a modern dilemma and gradually reveals through details that might as easily have been in a documentary the lives of the two main characters.

There is about Iceland, a stately beauty. The land is stark. It has been a country of endless tragedy through historic violence, natural calamity, political oppression and disease. And yet, in the Icelandic sagas amidst the carnage and chaos, there is humour, Grímur says about himself that he has a dry sense of humour. He sees the fact that something which is admirable can also be ridiculous. In Rams, it is obvious that he admires the battling brothers, but he also makes it clear that their behaviour is absurd, even childish.

He crafts his narratives carefully. It took him three years to write the script for Rams. He knows that his toughest audience are the people the story is about. For them, the details must be accurate. The central scene in the film is an annual local competition to judge the best sheep. Not only is this scene about what goes on in the local valley and so must be accurate but Grímur deliberately chooses local people for roles. They know whether something is being portrayed correctly. He says that the stable of professional actors in Iceland is small so he is always looking for people outside this group. The main characters will be professional actors but many others can be local people. His concern for local people is apparent not just in  his attention to authentic detail but in his saying that he hoped the film would bring tourists to the area where the film was made.

His desire to get things right is apparent in the fact that a year and a half before the film was made, Grímur started working with Sigurdur Sigurjónsson and Theodór Júlíusson, the two actors who played the brothers in Rams, giving them books to read, writing a back story about the lives of the characters they would play. That way they would be able to act in character. As well, they had to learn about dealing with sheep and how to drive a tractor.

Something admirable In Grimur’s films is his willingness to take the risk of silence. That forces the audience to pay close attention to the visual images, the landscape, buildings, people, animals. When there is a lot of dialogue, visual detail is reduced to background. When there is silence, visual detail is foreground. In Rams, the film opens with the landscape of a farm in an isolated valley. It is important for the film to establish the possibility of isolation and to place the focus on the landscape, the sheep, the main character and the adjoining farms. This is all done in near silence.

Grímur emphasized that he wants a balance between humor and drama. In Rams, two elderly brothers, Gummi and Kiddi, who have adjoining farms have not spoken in forty years. The behaviour of the brothers is absurd but not uncommon among families and authentic in that Icelandic farmers have historically been known for being contentious. There is no attempt to explain the cause of the conflict. Grímur says it is unnecessary. It simply exists. However, there are hints in the film such as when we hear that Gummi actually inherited both farms because his father didn’t trust Kiddi. This domestic drama is shot through with humour. There is the dog that carries messages between the brothers when they have to communicate. There is the unorthodox use of a front end loader as an ambulance.

In his documentary, Viður Goes to Europe, he follows Viður in his search for the finest of Europe’s buskers. The documentary is gritty, its focus close in on the buskers, many aging, facing an environment that is becoming less and less friendly. Although aging, they are filled with romantic, youthful notions, they keep trying to live out their image of themselves as troubadours. Somehow, Grímur shifts from this gritty rending of reality to his short dramas such as Slavik the Shit and Wrestling, to keep the elements of the documentary while at the same time letting the necessity of the drama take over the story line. If he didn’t have that ability, instead of making Rams, he would simply have made a historic documentary of the effects of scrapie, the tragic sheep disease in Rams. Although the appearance of scrapie is the precipitating factor in Rams, Grímur knows that the real drama is the relationship between the brothers and their lifelong conflict. Few, if any of us, will ever face having to kill our sheep because of scrapie, but nearly all of us suffer from sibling rivalry. It is that which makes the film universal.

As a side note but with an implication of Grímur’s willing to take risks and overcoming them was his decision to have sheep play such a large part in Rams. Having animals in films is a big risk. Their behaviour is unpredictable. He says that he first tried to work with sheep from one farm and found that they were not used to being around people and difficult to manage so he used sheep from another farm.

In less sure hands, Rams would be a documentary or a character study but Grímur’s ability as a script writer means that he subtly works out the implications, not just of the brother’s conflict, but the implications of the appearance of scrapie for the sheep farmers.

The success of Rams has opened doors for Grímur. Not only has the film won a major award, Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes Film Festival, it is being widely distributed. It appears it will do the impossible, that is not only be critically acclaimed but actually be a commercial success. With the attention the film is receiving, Grímur is getting numerous offers to make films. The offers will pose their own challenges. With the possibility of money for larger films for larger audiences, will he be able to stay true to his desire to create films about the people he admires and loves?

Rams–Movie Review

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There isn’t a lot of money in Iceland to finance the making of movies. No big costume dramas, no casts of thousands, no endless special effects because they all cost a lot of money. That means Icelandic movies are inclined to be dramas about the daily lives of people in Iceland. In spite of the financial limitations, Icelandic movies have regularly won prizes in Europe but they seldom make much money because the audience is limited.

Rams, by Grímur Hákonarson, will break this pattern. It is set in Iceland and it is about the daily life of Icelandic people. The main characters are two elderly brothers, Kiddi and Gummi, living in an isolated valley on adjacent sheep farms. Old animosities have meant the brothers haven´t spoken for forty years. They are the quintessential Icelandic sheep farmer-bachelors: independent, argumentative, difficult to get along with, and proud. Anyone who knows his Icelandic literature, on seeing the brothers as the movie begins, can’t help but think of Bjartur of Summerhouses in Independent People. And Grímur said in his comments on the night the movie was shown at the Victoria Film Festival that he had read Halldor Laxness´s Independent People five times so it is not surprising when similarities to Bjartur appear.

The film opens with one of the brothers in a field with farm buildings and houses in the distance. The opening is admirable for its use of imagery rather than dialogue to establish the basic elements of the narrative. It places the story in an isolated valley with more sheep than people. The farmer is walking toward the sheep. He stops to tighten the fence between the farms. He also stops to rub the head of a ram. In this largely silent landscape, the major elements of the story, the farmer, the sheep, the separation of the two farms, is laid out. This is a film filled with significant but unobtrusive detail. The attention to detail in every frame comes from Grimur’s experience in making documentary films.

Then the focus shifts to a sheep that has something wrong with it. The farmer picks it up and carries back toward the buildings. It is the first hint that something might be wrong in this bucolic landscape. It also is the beginning of a plot in which small details that seem insignificant will begin to turn the story toward the final outcome. In a successful plot, every event must cause another event. There should never just be a series of events without causality. Rams with its subtleties, its hints and suggestions, carefully fits the causes of each coming event into everyday life so that what happens is both logical and necessary but not obvious.

The use of silence emphasizes the importance of the sparse dialogue, makes the audience pay attention to every word that is spoken. It also forces the audience to pay close attention to actions, whether it is one of the brothers eating mutton soup or a prize ram impregnating a group of ewes.

A central scene is a local sheep competition in which Kiddi‘s prize sheep edges out Gummi‘s. Although this is only an annual local event to determine the best sheep, it provides opportunities to demonstrate how important it is to the participants. Gummi‘s reaction to his prize sheep being relegated to second place makes clear the intensity of the competition. The story line moves slowly because this is a story of local, personal values that the viewer must come to understand. For the film to work, a non-Icelandic audience has to understand the role of the sheep in the lives of the local people.The precipitating incident is the discovery of the disease scrapie. It attacks the spine and brain of sheep and there is no cure. With careful layering of scenes, the film prepares the audience  to understand how serious an event this is and validates the behaviour of the brothers.

Since there is no cure for scrapie, the local veterinarian decrees that all the sheep in the valley must be killed. When that happens, it not only means that the valley’s sheep farmers will lose their livelihood but it will be the end of a breed of sheep that has existed back to Iceland´s earliest history. Anyone who knows Icelandic history knows that sheep made the continued habitation of Iceland possible. In a country with only one possible crop, hay, the sheep provided milk, wool, and meat for both local consumption and trade goods. Although Iceland has urbanized, its rural traditions are still strong. The end of sheep farming in the valley is emblematic because it is not just the end of a way to make a living but the end of a way of life.

In a different context, the conflict of the two brothers might have seemed trivial; the scheming and planning to defy the order to kill the sheep, absurd. However, in the context of the film, the events move the narrative toward tragedy. With sparse dialogue and no large physical events, the intense focus of the film is on the two brothers. Gradually, although the viewer is shown many rams, it becomes clear that the rams in the title are the two brothers. At loggerheads over some long distant conflict only hinted at when it is revealed that both farms are in Gummi’s name because their father didn’t trust Kiddi’s judgement.

The movie has a solemnity about it. The landscape, the conflict, the seriousness of the situation for the local people all contribute to the mood. However, the film is shot through with wry Icelandic humour. Although the brothers haven’t spoken to each other for forty years, they do communicate by a collie that carries messages back and forth between them. There is also an unusual use of a front end loader that brought startled laughter. This stage business is amusing and enjoyable. At the same time the humour is more than stage business. The situation of the brothers is, in some ways, ridiculous and the ridiculous can be amusing, but Grimur takes some of his directorial cues from the sagas where a bleak humour is often mixed with  the most horrific events.

The stars are Sigurður Sigurjónsson and Theodor Júlíusson. With their ferocious beards and weathered faces, they might be Viking chieftains during the time of the great conflict of the Sturlungs. Much is demanded of them as actors because so much focus is on their physical expression rather than their dialogue. They began preparing for their roles a year and a half before the film was made. Grimur developed back stories for them, that is the lives of their characters before the time of the film, so that their character’s actions would be logical and consistent with their current lives as elderly sheep farmers.

The attention to detail in the visual images and in the characters, the fitting together of the incidents that comprise the plot, unifies and intensifies the film. Grimur spent three years writing the script. His attention to detail in all the film’s aspects–characterization, plot, setting, dialogue, and theme–give the film the sense of reality that might be found in a documentary while, at the same time, create a narrative voice that can be trusted.

Because of the intense local rendering, in less adept hands, the film might have been parochial. Instead, the story takes on universal implications. It is about men and sheep at one level, about rural displacement at another level, but at the most important level, it is about the fierce family resentments between brothers. The film explores the forces that separate us but also those that bind us.

When Rams was shown at Cannes, it won the Un Certain Regard prize. It has been selected for the 2016 Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar. The film has been sold to more than forty countries. It has the distinction of being an Icelandic film that not only will garner prestigious prizes but might actually be commercially successful.

Shown at the Victoria Film Festival, sponsored by the Richard and Margaret Beck Lecture series, and introduced by Helga Thorson, the head of Germanic and Slavic studies, Rams played to a sold-out house.

Virgin Mountain Icelandic Film

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The Vic theatre was packed. Extra chairs were lined up at the rear. A quick trailer for the movie, Rams, was shown. There was no need for the trailer to encourage people to go to Rams. Both Virgin Mountain and Rams had been sold out for days. The audience for the annual Victoria Film Festival know their films and were aware that Virgin Mountain, the Icelandic-Danish film by Dagur Kári, had won not only the top prize at Tribeca, but also an acting award for lead Gunnar Jonsson. As well, Icelandic films have steadily developed a reputation for excellence.

Helga Thorson, the head of German-Slavic Studies, and the new head of The Richard and Margaret Beck Lectures on Icelandic Literature, greeted the packed house, mentioned that anyone who might be interested in the ongoing lectures could pick up a pamphlet in the lobby and that the Beck was financially sponsoring Virgin Mountain.

The film began brilliantly with nothing but images, no dialogue. It was obvious that this was going to be a film in which we were going to be shown the story, not told about it, and with its quiet beginning that is was going to be a film of subtext that would demand the audiences’ attention. There is no dialogue to break the audience’s focus on images and the need to interpret them. The film creates an intimacy between the main character, Fusi, and the audience, beginning the process of creating an understanding of the silence in which Fusi lives.

Gradually, his life at work, at home and beyond are revealed. At work, he is bullied, at home, he lives with his mother and her boyfriend, and beyond is limited to every Friday going to the same Asian restaurant and ordering the same meal. Often, he sits in his truck and calls a local radio station to ask for the disc jockey to play heavy metal. At home, he entertains himself by reconstructing historic battles with toy soldiers.

At forty-three, his life is settled, determined. He is socially inept and unpracticed. His huge body (the mountain in the title) makes him an unlikely object of an woman’s romantic fantasy. Into this predictable life, a precipitating incident occurs in the person of his mother’s boyfriend who is determined to get Fusi out of the house. He gives Fusi a certificate for line dancing lessons for his birthday. His mother gives him a cowboy hat. Protesting all the while, Fusi does go to the first lesson but before it begins, he retreats to sit in his truck in the falling snow.

He sits in the dark watching the light from the door that leads to the dance lessons. It’s a wicked winter night out. Nearly everyone has left when a figure we can only obscurely see through the falling snow appears, comes up to the truck window, and asks if Fusi would mind giving her a ride. Fusi is taken aback but agrees. And so, as in much good narrative, the repetitious, unbreakable, known present is disrupted.

New possibilities arise as he agrees to give Sjöfn a ride. It is a pattern we have all seen and experienced in both life and drama. What makes this film brilliant is the way Fusi’s the new possibilities are played out.

When learning to write narrative, whether fiction or drama, one of the hardest lessons is to understand and master the relationship between text and subtext. Many students deny subtext exists, that is, until asked if they ever flirt. A discussion of flirting with its subtle suggestions of desire and possibility begins to open an understanding of how to create unstated possibilities. Dagur Kári is someone who understands subtext and uses it to great effect to create both sorrow and laughter.

In an early scene, Fusi goes for his usual Friday pad thai at the same Asian restaurant and the proprietor says, “The usual?” Later, when Fusi takes Sjöfn to the restaurant, not only is her presence such a change filled with hope that the proprietor gives them a complimentary appetizer. The scene is filled with information for the viewer. The delight of the proprietor says something about the fact that Fusi, in spite of his seldom speaking, being a genuinely likeable person.

Sjöfn says to Fusi, you come here every Friday, you must be an expert on the menu and he has to admit that he always orders the same thing. Not only is the scene humorous as she asks her questions and is taken aback by Fusi’s answers, but Fusi’s short confessions reveal how small is the world he has created for himself. The scene is brilliant but it is only one of many that is brilliant.

The restrained dialogue works very well. Life is filled up with silences. But actions can be filled with meaning and dialogue can counter point it.

When Fusi first gives Sjhön a ride, their conversation is both crazy and funny. “You’re not weird are you? You aren’t going to rape me?,” she asks. Fusi has to think about the question before replying with his rather puzzled no. She asks him a number of questions and his answer is always no, but it isn’t a defensive no or an angry no. It’s a no that says what she is asking is inconceivable. In a scene with his mother, he’s cooking in his mother’s kitchen, his mother comments on how his cooking has improved and asks about Sjhön. The dialogue is common, ordinary but filled with his mother’s fears.

This is a movie of deft moves by the director, by right on performances by the actors, major and minor. It is not a big movie with a large landscape, a cast of thousands, a pounding musical score, violent action. It is like a delicately constructed box filled with surprising compartments. Some of the compartments contain tears, some laughter, some deep thought, some hope, some compassion, some disappointment. It creates individuals and scenes that will stay etched on the viewer’s memory for a very long time.

In a film with so little dialogue, every word is important. Every word must move the plot forward and, doing triple duty, reveal character while developing theme. Gunnar Jónsson is known in Iceland as a TV comedian. He understands the importance of words, their pacing, and the way they are said. His (Fusi’s) repeated, not quite comprehending no’s do more than a speech would from someone else. Playing against him is Sjöfn (Ilmur Kristjánsdóttir) and she, wracked by euphoria and depression, has a voice filled with emotion. She brings possibilities, not just of sex (as some of Fusi‘s coworker baggage handlers at the airport would see it) and love, but of Fusi escaping the small, insulated life he has created for himself.

After watching Virgin Mountain, I thought of the magic casket that Steinar of Hliöar made for the king of Denmark. “It was divided into several compartments of different sizes. Under the largest compartments, which were detachable, was the bottom; but there was more to that than met the eye, because under it there lay three, some say four, secret compartments which no one could open except by an ingenious special device”. And so does Dagur build his film, scene by scene, each one so there is much more than meets the eye, each one creating the layered reality of what looks on the surface like a simple life.

A Perplexing Mystery

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The Silence of the Sea
Yrsa Sigurdardottir
Hodder, paperback, 15.99
One of the great strengths of Yrsa’s murder mysteries is the existence of a protagonist in Thora Gudsmundsdottir who is so well drawn that the reader feels that he knows her. Thora appears in a number of Yrsa’s novels. In many less well written novels, the main character remains static, there is no development of the character as time is static. In Yrsa’s novels Thora’s character is developed, not just through her actions (in this novel, she is offered a bribe and turns it down) but through her personal life. Readers of her mysteries have followed the Thora’s family events, with her son getting his girlfriend pregnant when he is just sixteen. The couple moves in with Thora. The grandson is born. We also follow Thora’s relationship with her ex-husband and her developing relationship with her boyfriend, Mathew. The complications of Thora’s life round out her character, make it easy to empathize with her and involve the reader emotionally. This is true of all the Thora novels but when they are all read, the effect of character development is much greater.

No murder mystery will work if there isn’t both conflict and suspense. In The Silence of the Sea a group of hastily thrown together individuals are to take a very expensive yacht back to Iceland because the owner has lost much of his money in the Icelandic banking crises. The boat has been repossessed. The trip should, except for the often foul weather between Europe and Iceland, be quite uneventful. However, once the trip begins, events begin that place the characters’ lives in danger. A group of strangers trapped on a yacht far from land creates the potential for conflict and suspense as to the outcome. There are all the classic conflicts: person against person, person against the environment plus internal conflict.

Yrsa’s plots are intricate. She involves a lot of people in the narrative. A good mystery is one that provides all the clues necessary for the reader to resolve the crime and identify the criminal but done in such a way that there is no anti-climax with the reader figuring out the solution before the end of the novel. The Silence of the Sea and Yrsa’s other books will often draw readers back to do a second reading so that they can mark the pages where there have been clues they’ve missed. A well written mystery is a bit like a complex puzzle with all the pieces finally being put together to create a final picture. There cannot be any gaps in the picture. All the pieces have to fit. Edgar Alan Poe, the originator of the mystery, said something like in a good story there needs to be everything that is needed but not a word that is not needed. Now, that’s a tough demand.

Another characteristic of a well written mystery is the effective use of setting. Both the narrator’s and the protagonist’s credibility are at stake if there are mistakes the details of the setting. When I was teaching creative writing, I called these clincher details. These are the details that have to pass the test of the most knowledgeable reader, not the dumbest, most ignorant. I found it interesting in the Acknowledgements that Yrsa says “Special thanks are due to Michael Sheeham for explaining various points in relation to yachts and sea voyages.; Arnar Haukur Aevarsson, first mate, for sharing his knowledge of telecommunications at sea, steering systems and other aspects of navigation; and finally Kristjan B. Thorlacius, advocate to the Supreme Court, for information on the legal side of missing persons’ cases.”

The Silence of the Sea meets all these requirements. An engaging protagonist, conflict, suspense, an interesting setting both micro and macro and a riddle that left me saying “Oh!” at the end. “That’s what happened.”

Buy Silence of the Sea. The greatest compliment one can give a mystery novel is to say it is a page turner and it certainly is that.

Victoria Cribb’s translation is excellent.

Yrsa’s Someone To Watch Over Me

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Yrsa Sigurdardottir
Someone to Watch Over Me
Hodder and Stoughton, 15.99
Trans. B Philip Roughton
I’ve had lunch and supper with Yrsa. I was impressed. Not just by her writing but because not only is she a prolific writer but she is also a civil engineer, a grandmother and the author of acclaimed children’s books. I didn’t ask but I expect that like Wonder Women she leaps over buildings in one bound. I’m biased because I like murder mysteries and I particularly like Icelandic murder mysteries. I’ve got a bit of a crush on her main character, the lawyer, Thora Gudmundsdottir. That’s in spite of the fact that she has a German boyfriend, Matthew, who has moved in with her. She also has a two children: ten-year-old Soley and nineteen-year-old Gylfi: Gylfi’s girlfriend Sigga; and their son, Orri, now two and a half.” Gylfi got Sigga pregnant when he was sixteen. As the story begins, Thora’s parents appear. They’re dimwits about money and have got themselves in a terrible bind. They want to move into Thora’s garage. Hmmm, as much as I like Thora, I think I’ll leave her to Matthew.

One of the great strengths of Yrsa’s mysteries about Thora is that her main character is besieged by life. She worries that her parents moving in may cause Matthew to move out. She has to deal with Bella, the most obnoxious secretary in Iceland. Business isn’t always brisk and Thora and her partner scramble for work. This is the opposite of one of my favorite detectives when I was a youth: Nero Wolf. He was astute, calm, intellectual and raised orchids. While I will never lose my affection for Nero Wolf mysteries, I now much prefer Thora’s tangled life and her struggle to keep it under control while she sorts out the chaotic lives of the people who come to her for help.
Although Iceland is a society in which there isn’t a lot of mayhem, there has been a financial disaster brought on by bankers thinking they could ride the wave of speculation that was going on worldwide. Iceland was the first country to crash. There were international implications and complications but those most affected were ordinary people. The currency plunged in value. People lost their homes, their jobs, their savings. Yrsa sets the novel amidst the chaos of the financial crises. She brings the society to life.

Iceland, like all societies, has its psychopaths, its mentally challenged, its physically incapable, and its degenerate. It has its honest, honorable, loving, socially responsible people. The novel brings us into contact with the worst but also, in some ways, with the best. One of the best is Grimheidur, the mother of a man, Jakob, with Down’s Syndrome who has been convicted of setting a fire that killed five people. She fiercely believes in her son’s innocence.

Thora begins the process of collecting information that might be used to establish that Jakob is innocent. Her investigation brings her into contact with people she normally would not meet. She has to deal with, as in real life, people whose response is governed by their own self-interest. She learns about the tragedy of a young woman who can only blink her eyes.

“Hi.” He extended his hand. “I assume you’re Thora.” She nodded and he sat down at the tiny table that barely accommodated the two cups of coffee Thora had ordered, assuming the man would turn up on time. Now her cup was empty and the other one had stopped steaming.” The book is full of little scenes like this filled with what I called clincher details when I was teaching Creative Writing. These details give the narrator authenticity of voice. They allow the reader to suspend disbelief and enter the narrative.
I ridiculously stayed up until 1:30 in the morning reading Someone To Watch Over Me. I slept in the next morning and staggered into the kitchen in a disheveled state to make coffee.

If I have any qualms about the book it is simply that there are so many characters I found as I approached the end that I had to go back and look up just who they were. Yrsa constructs her plots well so her characters all had an important dramatic function but I did lose track of Margeir, the radio announcer, for example, in the last few chapters and had to flip back to remind myself. It’s really just a quibble when a book is 475 pages.

If you like a good plot, suspense, conflict, good characterization, setting, enjoyable writing, then buy Yrsa’s latest effort. Philip Roughton does a fine job of translation.

The Lies of Christmas

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The lies of Christmas. They’re all around us. Every day in every way. I saw lies everywhere I walked in the mall. There were signs that said or implied, buy this coffee maker and you’ll be happy. Buy this shirt and you will have a wonderful Christmas. Love, many of the signs said, can be judged by how expensive the gift. The more you love someone, the more you should spend on them. The more you want someone to love you, the more you should spend on them.

Show your family and friends how successful you are. Buy them this jewellery. Buy them these golf clubs. Buy them gifts that cost more than what your brothers and sisters bought, or your uncles and aunts, or your neighbours.

The signs all chanted buy, buy, buy as I walked by. Some signs whispered. Some shouted. One had a new car wrapped with a red ribbon. A gift for someone you love, a gift you can put In your driveway so everyone can see how much you love your wife or your husband or your fiancé or you son or daughter.

The strange thing is that when I look back on decades of Christmases, I remember very few gifts. What did I get for my sixth Christmas. I dunno. What did I get for my fourteenth Christmas. I dunno. What did I get for my twenty-fourth Christmas. I have no idea. I do remember I used to always get a book for Christmas. I remember the gifts under the Christmas tree, gifts that we opened on Christmas Eve. I remember that there was always a gift from Santa on Christmas morning. But I’ll be darned if I remember what they were. When I was twelve I got my Cooey. 22 single shot. Another year I got a football but I don’t remember what year it was. Probably when I turned fourteen. A gift I do remember and will never forget is the finely knitted vest my grandmother made for me. Like her cooking, it was made with love.

What I do remember are Christmas’s at my mother’s parents. Grandma Smith didn’t have a dining room but she had her fold out table all set with her best plates and cups and glasses. She was a wonderful cook and she had turkey and dressing, mashed potatoes, gravy, vegetables and her special scones. The house was hot from the cooking so we had the front door open and the cold air made clouds as I flowed in. We talked and people told stories and after supper we had tea and sweets and my brother and I fell asleep sitting with my parents on the couch.

I remember Christmases in Gimli at my parents’ house. Exciting Christmases because my grandparents would come from Winnipeg. We watched for them to arrive on the bus. Some of my father’s siblings and their husbands and wives and kids would join us. My parents’ best friends and their two daughters would come through the door. I’ll never forget those Christmas suppers. The smell of supper cooking, the setting out of the table, the laughter, the joyousness of our friendships.

When I think of Christmas’s past, it is people I think of. I don’t regret the disappearance of the gifts, whatever they were but I regret the loss of the people who came through our front door, who shook our hands, who hugged us, who were obviously happy to see us, who embraced us in their friendship. There is nothing so precious at Christmas as to be among people who love you.

I thought as I walked through the mall what lies the signs whispered. I would take a Christmas without the blenders, the DVDs, the vacuum cleaners, the head phones, the ear buds, to be surrounded by friends and family. Yes, the Magi brought gifts to the Christ child, but they didn’t do it as a promotion for the myrrh, frankincense and gold industries. They didn’t do it to boost GDP.

They didn’t do it to buy Christ’s love.

There’s nothing wrong with gifts and may you enjoy the gifts you receive this season and may those you gift enjoy the gifts you give them but remember that love comes from the giver and the receiver not from the price tag on present.