Rachel

Rachel Valgardson
It is with a great deal of sorrow that we announce the death of our mother and grandmother, Rae.
The last part of her life was spent in Betel, Gimli, Manitoba. Most people don’t want to go into a nursing home but she did. Practical person that she was, she recognized that her increasing deafness and macular degeneration meant she needed the care available at Betel.
Rae was predeceased by her husband of sixty-nine years, Dempsey Valgardson, her son, Dale, her mother, and her father. She had two brothers both of whom died as small children.
Rae is survived by her son, William (Bill), her daughter-in-law, Olena, her grandsons, Val and Shawn, and granddaughters, Nancy-Rae and Kim. Rae has six great grandchildren: Sean, Rebecca, Jordan, Holly, Dawson and Mackenzie.
Rae was born in Winnipeg. She attended Kelvin High School. Her parents came to Gimli as summer cottagers. They hired Dempsey’s father to build a cottage. Dempsey was working with his father singling the roof on a hot summer’s day. The family story is that Rae took so many glasses of water up the ladder to the roof where Dempsey was working that she sunburned the back of her legs.
After they married, they stayed for a time with Dempsey’s grandfather. Rae, a city girl, had to learn to live with a woodstove and a grumpy old man. A year later her parents bought them Captain Stevens’ house where they lived most of their lives. Rae adapted to country life and always said that being an only child had been lonely but that she was never lonely after moving to Gimli. There were lots of relatives and friends for Christmas dinners and Icelandic Celebrations and birthdays and weddings. She was active in the Lutheran Ladies’ Aid and taught Sunday school. The home of Dempsey’s step-mother, Katherine, was like a second home for her.
She went to Dempsey’s fish camps with him, cooking for his fishing crews. She traveled by boat in both storm and calm. She drove the muddy road between Gimli and Frog Bay transporting supplies. Her great joy, though, was taking a car load of children—her grandchildren and their friends—to the fish camp for weekends. She baked endless lemon pies, played endless games of cards, created a happy place for numerous children.
Rae’s life changed one day when Dempsey came home from a meeting of the Credit Union board. He had the Credit Union books with him and asked Rae if she’d take care of them for two weeks. Those two weeks turned into twenty years. At first she conducted Credit Union business in their living room but then Dempsey built the commercial building at Centre and Third. She once said the hardest thing about being a manager in the early years was going to conventions where she was the only woman.  Something she was greatly proud of was that she never hired a man because she felt opportunities for women were so few.
This city girl from Irish Protestant parents adapted so well to Gimli and its Icelandic culture that someone once suggested her for Fjalkona. However, her father came from Magheraluljenny, Ireland, not Reykjavik, Iceland.  
Some people are remembered for making money. Some for attaining political power. Some, like Rae, for making butter tarts, for Christmas dinners, for having an open door and an open heart.

Yrsa’s pins and foxes

My Soul To Take (Harper, 15.99)

Yrsa Sigurdardóttir
There is pleasure in reading a well constructed murder mystery. The beginning punctuated by minor incidents and details that seem no more than background and setting but, by the end, are crucial to the solving of the mystery.
A well written novel doesn´t trick the reader by withholding information. Instead, the evidence is there in the story and, as the story unfolds, the reader, along with the detective, can fit the pieces of the puzzle together. The skill and talent of the author is in the creating of the puzzle, in the pacing of the information, in the creating of suspense. Done right and the book is a page turner, a book a reader doesn´t want to put down.
My Soul To Take by Yrsa Sigurdardóttir fits the bill.
Her novel begins with a crime being committed in the distant past as a little girl is lowered down a hole to her death. The novel then shifts into the present in which a current murder occurs. Then a second murder occurs in the present. The murder in the distant past is known to the reader but not to the lawyer/detective.  As the original story of the little girl threads its way through the present events, it give the novel a heart. By the time we reach the end of the novel we are prepared to weep along with Lara for a tragedy that has occurred many years before
Thora Gudmundsdöttir, the lawyer with an insatiable curiosity and a determination to know why and how things happen, is an interesting type of detective. Her life is complicated by her being a single mother with two children, an ex –husband, and a German boyfriend who doesn’t speak Icelandic. Her personal relationships add both a sense of pathos and hilarity. The children, with their natural self-involvement, are not the slightest bit interested in either their mother’s work as a lawyer or as a solver  of crimes. They are more concerned with having to listen to a father who thinks he’s a great Karaoke singer.
What makes this novel particularly Icelandic isn’t just the setting but also the use of Icelandic folk lore. The folk lore isn’t just background colour but an essential part of the story.
For example, the both Thora and the reader are mystified by the details of foxes and pins only to have their importance revealed little by little  until it is obvious that they are crucial to the unraveling of the mystery.
As a reader, I appreciate the flashes of humour created by the inclusion of minor characters such as the sex therapist who works at the resort where the murders take place. Yrsa even uses her boyfriend Mathew’s not knowing Icelandic as a plot element and a device for adding levity. Nothing is wasted in Yrsa’s novels for both the sex therapist and Mathew, Thora’s boyfriend, have a role to play in the plot.
The opening of the novel is heart wrenching but I didn’t let that keep me from reading the rest of the story. Thank goodness, for as a reader of murder mysteries, I was intrigued by how the author handled plot, setting and character and how, gradually, a complex puzzle was finally assembled. Yrsa, in her day job, is an engineer, and it is obvious that she is used to fitting complex structures together.
I’d add this My Soul To Keep to my list of books by Icelandic authors to put under the Christmas tree.
(If you are in Gimli, Manitoba, all of Yrsa’s novels can be found at Tergesent’s bookstore.)

crime fiction by yrsa

 Photo credit for Yrsa and fan, P. Baer
It’s not often that when an audience begins to gather for a Richard and Margaret Lecture at the University of Victoria, that the room has to be changed for a larger one. The fact that this is what happened for Yrsa Sigurðardóttirs lecture, Nordic Noir and the Writing of Crime Fiction reveals the popularity of Yrsa’s writing.
Although she did not start writing until 1998, she already has four crime novels published in English:  Last Rituals, My Soul to Take, Ashes to Dust, and Veins of Ice. Those who want to practice reading Icelandic could do worse than buy a copy of one of her novels in both Icelandic and English and read both.
The audience for Yrsas lecture was ninety percent women. From the questions they asked after the lecture, it was obvious that the female members of the audience were intrigued not just by Yrsas writing but also by the fact that she is a civil engineer who has worked on hydro construction projects in Iceland. Add in the fact that she is both a mother and grandmother and you can see why a major question was, How do you do it?
At the beginning of the lecture, Yrsa defined Scandinavia for the audience: Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Iceland. All of these countries have small, peaceful populations and low crime rates but crime fiction is highly popular. Only Finland has a lot of violence and Yrsa put that down to Russian and Lithuanian mobsters.
She said that in actual fact there are no murders in Iceland that are the result of tricky plots or conspiracies. The murder rate is low. There is so little violence that the police dont carry guns. Some years there wont be a single murder. When a murder happens, it is usually two men drinking at a party. Usually in a kitchen. They are both drunk. They get into a fight. One grabs a knife off a counter and stabs the other. There are lots of witnesses. Theres no place to run. The killer waits. The police are called. The court sentences the killer to sixteen years in jail. End of story. Theres no mystery.
Yrsa said that there is a difference between a thriller such as those written by Steig Larson where the worst is yet to come and a crime novel where the worst has already happened.
There is a history of Icelandic crime fiction but it is small. Around 1910 there was Jóhann Magnús Bjarnason who was called the Sherlock Holmes of Iceland. In spite of Iceland being such a peaceful society, there currently are a lot of Icelandic crime writers such as Arni Þórarinsson, Eyrún Tryggvadóttir, and Helgi Ingólfsson.
The most successful of the crime writers is Arnaldur Indridason. Hes written 14 novels. He has won major awards for his murder mysteries including the Golden Dagger for The Silence of the Grave.
Many audience members wanted advice on how to succeed as a murder mystery writer. 
Yrsa said to start with killing someone good or innocent. Nobody cares about who bumps off a drug pusher. Set up a mentally challenging and intriguing murder and then solve it. Use every opportunity to make the solution more difficult and complex for the investigator. The protagonist has to be believable and sympathetic. 
If the reader doesnt like the main character, she wont buy the next book.
Readers want someone they can relate to. Dont shovel information onto the readers. Slowly introduce secondary characters when appropriate, not all at once. Make sure your characters have different names so readers dont get confused. Make the heros characteristics consistent.
Her rules obviously work because her mysteries have been translated into 30 languages. The United States, it turns out, is the most difficult market. A lot of her books are published in Germany but very few in the USA.
She ended her lecture with an astute comment. After the Icelandic economic crash, she realized that all those to blame were men. Since women are just as capable of being greedy for money and power that was a clear indication that the old boy system didnt allow them to get to the top.
 (This article first appeared in a slightly different form in Logberg-Heimskringla. Google it and buy a subscription.)

The Younger Generation

(from my diary)
There’s This Old House on TV and then there’s this old house. Built in 1929 by an English Architect by the name of Spurgeon, it has more leaded glass windows than any other building in Victoria except Craigdarroch Castle. Two outer doors and four inner doors are leaded glass. Except, I’ve discovered, the lead in the doors isn’t lead but zinc.
There are fifteen other doors, all of which need to be stripped. The saving grace is that the previous owners used latex over varnish. When I scrape with a putty knife, the latex comes away in flakes and sheets, except, of course, in the rough spots. In the rough spots, it clings with fierce determination. My goal was to lift the paint while preserving the fine underlying finish. The result is that I now have piebald doors.
I’ve had better luck with the stairs to the second floor. Over the winter, on evenings when I was feeling bored or lonely, I’d sit and scrape away paint. I managed to get both the steps and the baseboard partly done. Who knows how long this job would have taken but for my son and his wife returning from four years in California. They’d gone to San Diego so he could get a Master’s degree in kinetic sculpture and since there are no ads in the Globe and Mail pleading for kinetic sculptors to make themselves known, his wife’s taken a job at the University and he’s fixing things around the house.
It’s amazing the skills you acquire building sculptures that move. The first thing he fixed was the microwave. It had taken on a life of its own, giving itself instructions. I’d punch the keys, it would whir into life, then abruptly shift to doing some unasked task. It had even wakened me at night with its beeping and I’ve rushed downstairs more than once to see it humming away. I’d taken to leaving a glass of water in it but finally, in desperation, unplugged it. It’s glowing eye faded to black.
I hate to admit it but I missed my microwave. When the kids went together and gave me this microwave one Christmas, I shook my head in disbelief. I’ve got a stove, I said, what would I use a microwave for?
Now, with this white box crouched cold and lifeless in the corner, I had to heat up soup in a pot. I’d forgotten what it was like to have to wash pots.  I phoned the Bay and the repairman said it would cost so much to fix that I might as well throw the microwave out. Reluctantly, I put it on the washing machine at the back door, ready to toss it onto the garbage truck. When I got home my son had it dismantled and was checking the circuit board. I kept expecting something terrible to happen, like a nuclear explosion or our all becoming instant boiled eggs but when he reassembled it, it obediently obeyed our commands.
He then drilled a hole in the floor and moved the TV to the corner I’d been meaning to move it to for years. He replaced the faucet assembly on the kitchen sink. He dismantelled the downstairs toilet, taking it right down to the lead lining in the floor, then reassembled everything so it worked again.
It was after that that he tackled the stairs. He waited, of course, until I was off to Iceland. He knew I’d be gone long enough for the job to be completed. He ripped off the modern carpet I’d had put down six years ago (it has to be replaced by an Axminster style runner and brass rods) stripped the paint off the stairs and the baseboards, experimented with some stain until he was certain that oak color was right for the stairs and Jacobean was right for the baseboards. Then he sanded and stained and varathaned until the stairs have a fine luster to them.
We haven’t got to the doors yet. I was going to get them dipped but when you multiply the number of doors by the eighty dollars, the sum is substantial. Instead we’ll do it outside to protect ourselves from the fumes. We’ll lay the doors on sawhorses and gently strip away the paint. Then my son will take the job in hand, sanding and staining and shellacking until Spurgeon, wherever he is, will nod with approval of this younger generation who think there’s nothing wrong with being able to do a bit of everything.

Occupy Laxness

The members of the Occupy Movement have a long winter ahead of them. It would be a winter well spent if they used it to read and discuss the work of Halldor Laxness.
Laxness experienced firsthand a society where the one percent exploited and abused the ninety-nine percent in ways that, today, are shocking. It’s what made him, for a while, interested in Communism. His fascination with the ideals of communism was, in turn, destroyed by the reality. As brutal as capitalism was, communism proved even more brutal for there was even less accountability. Dictatorships of any kind have no room for dissent and have control of the police and the armed forces. There are no rules except the ones the dictators make to benefit themselves.
The land owners in Iceland frequently exploited and abused those who owned no land. They also controlled the political process so they could make the rules that would guarantee their remaining in power and have cheap labour. The vast majority of people were little more than indentured servants.
When Laxness writes in Independent People about Bjartur of Summerhouses and his relationship to the people at Myri, he is writing about the exploitation of ordinary people by the rich. Bjartur has worked for eighteen years as a hired man in order to save enough money to put a down payment on a piece of poor land. He buys the land from his former employer, he takes a mortgage from his former employer and, although it doesn’t say so explicitly, he probably also rented the sheep and paid as much as sixteen percent interest on their value.  When the crash at the end of WW1  (there are always crashes and the people who benefit from them are always the rich since they have the capital to buy the wreckage cheap), Bjartur, like all the people many decades later, in 2008 in Iceland and the United States, who lost their homes, loses his home. He has nothing to show for his years of work, first as a hired man and then as a crofter. The landowner at Myri takes back the land. Bjartur is left with nothing. Sounds like a bank in your neighbourhood, perhaps?
In Paradise Reclaimed, Laxness writes about Steinar of Hliðar a farm owner who has fared better than Bjartur. He has inherited a small farm. He manages to take care of his family through hard work and a meticulous maintenance of the land and animals. However, he leaves his family to go to Denmark and then the United States. In his absence, an unscrupulous Icelander, Björn of Leirur, who works as an agent for Scots buyers of cattle, destroys the precious home field of Hliðar. Without the grass it provides, Steinar’s wife and children cannot support themselves. Björn of Leirur also gets Steinar’s young daughter pregnant. He is an older man and she is so young that she has just been confirmed. That means she is possibly about fourteen. Sound familiar, the sexual exploitation of the children of the ninety-nine percent, by the one percent who feel the law does not apply to them? They can hire our sisters and daughters, our nieces and cousins as bunga bunga girls for orgies, they can have sex with our male children. After all, they’re rich, they have political power, they believe they are entitled to have whatever they want.
No police sauntered through the brokerage houses casually pepper-spraying the brokers and bankers who created and exploited low interest rates and who created and sold worthless subprime assets. No police have gone to Penn State to spray those accused of child molestation and cover up. No police went to Italy to spray the former Italian prime minister and his colleagues who are charged with sexual misdemeanors. No police in Europe pepper sprayed the politicians who have come close to destroying the world economy. That’s not what the law is for.
In Christianity Under the Glacier, Laxness presents a clear picture of the one percent in the form of Godman Singmann. He is an Icelander who has gone abroad and made a fortune. He builds a house on church land, something he has no right to do, a house so large that it over shadows the church. He believes that his wealth has given him the ability to replace Christ and to resurrect the dead. Godman is a picture of the Icelandic bankers whose arrogance was so great that they felt they were invincible.  Laxness, time and again, in his novels, does not just give us a picture of what has been in the past but presents us with pictures of our present and future. It’s not just the Icelandic bankers that believed they were Godman. They exist in every country.
The exploitation of Bjartur, the destruction of Steinar´s family and farm, the appearance of Godman with his belief that he and his money can replace God, is all about us and our lives.
There are a thousand lessons and revelations in the books of Laxness. Perhaps a thousand thousand. What he has to tell us is not less relevant because of when they were published but more relevant today. He is prescient in even the smallest things. For example, some sociologists believe that you can see a society’s values by looking at its architecture. I would agree. When Laxness describers the church at Glacier and the larger structure built there by Godman, he foretold the future. When I was a child in Winnipeg, I used to wait at a downtown bus stop in front of a church. The church was the largest building in the neighbourhood. Now, just as the church at Glacier was made smaller by Godman’s much larger house, the Winnipeg church is smaller than all the secular buildings around it. 
There are no churches as large as the temples built by oil companies or banks . The money changers, tossed out of the temple, have created their own temples and we know who is worshipped there. These temples dominate our skylines and our lives.
During the coming winter, read Laxness, Occupiers. Not quickly, not skimming, but slowly and thoughtfully, so you can learn the lessons of Laxness, the Icelandic Nobel prize winner . He will help you to understand a great deal about our society today.

Intergalactic Resurrection



The title of this edition which is called Under the Glacier instead of Christianity Under Glacier offends me.
It offends me in the same way that the White House calling a Christmas tree a holiday tree offends me. The titles of books are usually chosen by marketing departments. The author has little, or even, no say in the title. Nor do his descendants. I assume that Kristanhald Under Jökli was renamed with the idea that dropping the word, Christian, from the title would increase sales. Since the entire book, from the first word to the last, is about the condition of Christianity in Glacier and, by implication, in Iceland, leaving Christian out is both misleading and absurd. Like, we´ll leave Christian out of the title and trick people into buying this book because they´ll think its about glaciers.
As for the book itself, I often found the satire hilarious. As a Lutheran with an Icelandic background, I frequently recognized the foibles and pretensions of myself and my community.
But there´s the rub. A satire, to be appreciated, needs readers who know intimately what is being satirized. Unlike previous novels of Laxness´s that I have read, that contain within them all the necessary information for understanding and appreciation, this novel does not.
The novel begins with Embi, a not particularly committed theology student who isn´t much interested in becoming ordained, being chosen to investigate the state of Christianity at Glacier. With Embi being chosen for a task that should rightly belong to a devout theologian, the satire has begun.
What has sparked the investigation are rumours of odd happenings at Glacier. Burials are often delayed, baptisms and confirmations not performed, and there supposedly has been a strange burial on the glacier instead of in hallowed ground. The church building itself is reported to be in disrepair and a much larger secular building has been built next to the church so the church is overshadowed.
Embi travels to Glacier. On his arrival, he notices a sign that says ‚ “PIMUSES REPAIRED HERE.” Embi discovers that the local pastor, called Jón Primus, has a stellar reputation, not as a theologian, but as a repairer of primus stoves.
The irony and satire of Jón Primus and his many technical skills would be lost on a non-Icelandic audience. The wry smile and laughter would come from the knowledgeable reader who knew how they needed to raise sheep and go fishing to survive. Religious duties for such men had to come second to getting in the hay for without hay their sheep would die and without sheep, the pastor would die. Although there were tithes of sheep and fish for the pastor at some times, by some people, many pastors depended on their secular skills to survive. It is no wonder that it is their secular skills for which they are named and appreciated. 
Henderson, when he traveled in Iceland in 1814-15 distributing and selling Bibles, commented extensively on the condition of the clergy.  “The total number of parishes in Iceland amounts to 184; but as many of them occupy a great space of ground, it has been found necessary to build in some parts two or three churches in a parish, which has increased the number of churches to 305.” The ministers are “all natives of the island, and are maintained partly from certain tithes raised among the peasants. The provision made for their support is exceedingly scanty. The richest living on the island does not produce 200 rix-dollars; twenty and thirty rix-dollars are the whole of the stipend annexed to many of the parishes; and there are some in which it is even as low as five.
Ministers needed, also, to perform many other duties. Henderson says that “besides attending to the spiritual wants of his people, Sira Jon (Jón Jónson of Audabrecka) devotes a considerable portion of his time to the healing of their bodies, and is celebrated all over the north for his skill in medicine. Since last new year, he has had more than two hundred cases.”
In 1872 when Burton is in Iceland, conditions hadn’t changed much.  He says in Ultima Thule that while the bishop’s salary is $3416.33 Danish dollars, thirty-nine ministers make only about 300 rigs dollars a year. This is a very small amount of money and while he says the ministers have some other sources of income, he admits that the clergy are “compelled to be farmers, fishermen, and craftsmen.”
The naming of Jón Primus is an occasion for a smile or a laugh for the tradition of naming people according to their work was so strong that it survived the emigration to Ameríka. In Gimli, Manitoba, and elsewhere in New Iceland, there were many Valdis and Helgis and so the butcher became Valdi Butch and the garage man, Helgi Highway. Much of the naming was, and still is, ironic.
When Embi asks Tumi Jónsen for the whereabouts of the pastor, Tumi says that he has gone to Ness to shoe a herd of horses. Jón Primus also does electrical work. He´s handy to have around. However, when Embi asks about the pastor´s doctrine, Tumi says, “We’ve never been aware that Pastor Jón had any particular doctrine.
Poor Embi, hopeless, hapless, making notes and tape recordings, he tries to make sense of Christianity at Glacier. The answers to even his simplest questions are convoluted and evasive. The rumour that a burial has taken place on the glacier turns out to be true. 
A local Icelander, Gudmundur Sigmundsson, has made a great deal of money abroad, and is the owner of the secular building on church property, a building much larger than the church. He returns. He now calls himself Godman Singmann. 
Although this book was published in 1968, the Occupy protesters would recognize someone who thinks he’s Godman and belongs to the one percent. Today, he would definitely be an Icelandic banker. Godman espouses a new religion that believes in biotelekinesis and intergaltic communication and intergalactic resurrection. Pastor Jón, in spite of his secular activities, has literally nailed the doors of the church shut against such things and refuses its use for an experiment in secular resurrection.
Jón Primus, in reply to Godman´s theories, replies , “That water is good.” He sticks to simple truths instead of bafflegab mixed together from an assortment of religions.
Great fun is made with the stereotypes in the novel, with the theories and fads, with the quirks of Icelandic society. This novel contains the famous scenes of Embi never being offered anything but cakes instead of meals. Many a host both in Iceland and North America has said “There are good treats here but not seventeen cakes.” Icelanders and Icelandic North Americans alike know that it is Pestle-Thóra , Jón Primus´s housekeeper and her many cakes that is being referred to .
I would put this book under the Christmas tree but only for someone who knows Iceland and some Icelandic history. Otherwise, the reader is likely to stop reading among the conversations Embi has with people when he first arrives at Glacier. It would also help if the reader cared about Christianity in Iceland (and elsewhere) for beyond the irony and satire there are serious points made and questions raised. For the knowledgeable reader, this book is as relevant today as it was when it was first published.

Craft Fairs

I know Christmas is coming because the craft fairs have started. As we get closer to December, there will be as many as two or three on a weekend. There’s the one at Sidney that’s held in the Sancha Hall. There’s stuff for sale you couldn’t imagine. There’s more earrings for sale than there are people in Sidney. There’s more earrings for sale than there are people on Vancouver Island. There are earrings made of old blue jean cloth, bottle caps, melted plastic, ribbon, rolled magazine pages, copper, silver, gold, sea shells, computer innards. There are earrings made of feathers and even laquered spaghetti. If every person in Sydney bought two pair, there’d still be a semi-trailer load of earrings left to send to Quebec as an apology for our being called British Columbia.
There’s Christmas wreaths made out of plastic bags, sea shells, the corks from wine bottles. There’s a forest of cedar wreaths. Some wreaths are made of intertwined willow and others from dried bull kelp. You can’t say people on Vancouver Island lack imagination.
 There’s jams and jellies. I always buy a jar of Oregon Grape. If I’ve been too lazy to pick blackberries, I buy a half dozen jars of blackberry jelly. There’s home made mustard pickles, bottles of vinegar with plants floating in them. The health department made them  take the bottles of salad dressing with garlic cloves off the tables. Garlic and oil can form botulism. There’s cookies that look like trees and snowflakes and Santa Clause.
There’s always a lot of knitting. Sweaters for kids and sweaters for women but never any sweaters for men. Sidney men don’t wear sweaters, I guess. Or maybe because Sidney’s a retirement town there aren’t that many men left and their wives knit them all the sweaters they need. I’ve thought of filing a complaint of systemic discrimination over the lack of men’s sweaters year after year. However, no one would sell me Oregon grape jelly if I did.
There’s a craft fair at one of the arenas but I won’t go there anymore. They charge too much to get in and they don’t even give you a credit against your first purchase. It’s a bit like having to pay to get into a department store. Besides, they mostly have pottery. If you’re a pottery mavin, it’s the place to go. You can get pottery for everything from spoon holders to garlic jars. The sellers are up scale. They wear white tailored blouses and ankle length skirts and have had their hair permed. They all have business cards with raised printing. If you went to their house for supper, they’d swirl their wine in their glass and sniff it before letting you have some.
The best craft sale I ever went to was at Shirley. Shirely is north of Sooke and before Jordan River. It is so small that if you turn your head to look at a cow or somebody’s goat, you’ll miss it. It’s really just a small municipal hall painted CNR red even though there are no trains on the west side of the Island. Some stubble jumper must have brought the paint with him after he sold the farm.
I’d been to Jordan River. Jordan River is bigger than Shirley. It has a restaurant, a take out, a dry sort where the logging company organizes the logs by size, a small park and four houses. A lot of surfers go there in the winter. I like to sit in my truck and watch them ride the waves. A lot of kayakers also surf the waves. There’s a whole flotilla some days. While I was up there one Sunday we got a real West Coast storm. On the way back, the road was covered in branches. A tree had fallen across the highway but someone with a chain saw had already cut a piece out of it. Around here, people carry things like chain saws in their truck. You never know when it might come in handy.
When I got to Shirely, I saw a sign was up and cars were parked outside so I stopped. When I went in, the hall was lit with candles. A tree had taken out the power line. There was a wonderful, quiet feeling to the soft light and shadows. The coffee tasted particularly good as I drifted from table to table. Everyone was talking to everyone else. I expect in Shirley most people know each other and talk to each other all the time. But there quite a few people like me, non-Shirleyites who’d dropped by, and they were all talking, too. People are like that when they are faced with natural disasters.
My all-time favorite, though, is the Sooke craft fair. I’d pass up a trip to Europe rather than miss going to Sooke in November. Sooke’s half-way, sort of, between Jordan River and Victoria. It used to be a tiny fishing village, logging town. Now, like most of the island, it’s filled up and spread out with stubble jumpers who’ve jumped across the mountains to grow roses or kill salmon after driving a combine for forty years.
The hall is the second most important building in town. The most important building is the Legion because its got bingo and cheap beer. The Sooke hall is about four times the size of the Shirley hall. It’s raised up so you have to  climb a steep set of steps. The last time I started up those steps, a very attractive woman in a long wine-coloured dress with a lace vest was standing at the top. She had shoulder length curly dark hair pulled back and tied with an elegant pink ribbon. She was wearing rubber boots with a red line around the bottom. She saw me looking at the boots. She had, she told me, two pair of socks inside them. White cotton socks, then wool fisherman’s socks over those.  Her table was in front of the door and there was a terrible draft.
There’s a double set of doors. In the space between them, there’s always a something interesting. One year it was two reindeer someone had made out of logs and tree branches. The sculptor used an axe instead of a carving knife but there was no mistaking what they were. One year there were snowmen made from sheets.
When I go inside, I always follow a plan. I don’t want to miss any of the tables so I start by going to the right, looking only at the objects along the walls. It doesn’t matter how interesting something might be, if it’s on an inside table, I ignore it. As I worked my way around the tables,  music students played pieces up on stage. There was an audience of moms and dads and uncles and aunts in front of the stage. They clapped at the end of every piece. Some of the dealers clapped, too. They were the ones who didn’t have any customers at the moment.
There’s more stuff for sale than at the Bay. And the Bay in Victoria is four stories and covers a city block. At least it seems that there’s more stuff in the hall. No refrigerators or freezers but a lot of small items you can cram onto a table. There’s bottles of home-made fragrance. There’s pot pouris. There’s bees wax candles and bees wax plaques to hang on the wall. There’s walking sticks cut from the local forest. There’s the blacksmith with iron work. There are carvings in cedar that are done by sandblasting. There’s always wooden toys. If you don’t see just what you want, the builder will make you a toy to order. At least he did for me last year. He even delivered it to my door. There are things you put in the freezer or microwave and then wrap around whatever part of you has got arthritic There’s always some Cowichan knit goods. The Cowichan are a native tribe knit sweaters and socks and mittens. The knitted goods are big and bulky and warm and good for wearing when you go digging for clams.
It takes me at least two hours to see everything. Some things I go back to look at twice. I did buy a matching baby blanket and cap for the grandchild of some friends. The pattern is so intricate the knitter couldn’t have made more than a dollar an hour.
I never go to the Sooke craft fair without stopping at Mom’s cafe. Mom’s is right across the street. It’s got booths and a juke box with lights. There’s a blackboard with the names of the specials. It’s mostly families at the tables. Unless you’ve got a friend with you or have spent all day cutting down trees don’t order the roast beef dinner. It comes on a platter. The platter is filled to the edges. When you go to Mom’s you go to eat, not have your plate decorated with food art.
I used t think that craft fairs were all about buying and selling things. And they are, sort of. But there’s not much profit in them. Craft fairs around here are more about sharing something you’ve made. There’s a lot of pride in the items set out on the tables. Some people start right after  New Years, knitting or sewing or carving, getting ready for next season. Everything is reasonably priced. When I buy an item, it’s not the five or ten or twenty dollar bill that makes people’s eyes shine. It’s my thinking enough of something they’ve made with their own hands that matters. That’s what sends them back to the workshop to build something they’re out of and deliver it to my door days before Christmas even though it’s only a ten dollar item.

American Thanksgiving

This is a difficult time for America. Strife stalks the land. There is division even at the highest levels of government. Yet, when I think of America, I always feel a sense of gratefulness.  
This American Thanksgiving, I am thankful for Cottey College. For Nevada,  Missouri. For all the people I was privileged to know there.
After graduate school in Iowa, I couldn’t find a job so I went back to Winnipeg, Manitoba to teach English and Art at Tuxedo-Shaftsbury High School. Nice school but I wanted to teach college and, if possible, university. Around February I sent out job applications to many colleges and universities in Canada and the USA. Just before the Easter break, I received a letter from Dr. Hondrum, the president of Cottey College, 
 saying they might be interested in hiring me. He wanted me to come for an interview.
The moment the Easter holiday began, my wife and I bundled the kids into the station wagon and, headed for Missouri. We dropped off the kids with friends in Iowa City. Outside of Kansas City, we ran into a blizzard, not a snowstorm, a full-blown blizzard. We kept driving until we reached Nevada, Missouri. We found refuge in a motel. I wondered, as I saw the snow pile up, why we had come. I said to my wife, “We might as well have stayed in Winnipeg.”
However, he next morning the snow was melting. The daffodils showed through the snow. The redbud trees were blooming.
Cottey was a private women’s college owned by the PEO sisterhood. I’d been described as a diamond in the rough by some of my friends but it was a pretty rough diamond for a place like this. At one time it had been a finishing school, preparing young women to become the wives of successful men. That had changed and now the college was educating young women so that they could be successful in their own right. There still was
an emphasis on good manners and culture. 
There was a red brick buildings in which there were rooms with original watercolors, grand pianos, antiques. People smiled a lot. My wife talked to staff members. I had my interview. We mustn’t have been too gauche because I got the job.
We returned to Winnipeg, spent the summer in Manitoba, but toward the end of August, we packed up and drove south. Nevada, Missouri, the Bushwacker Capital. This town was the scene of an ambush of Union soldiers that was repaid when the blue coats returned in force and burned the town to the ground except for the home of two sisters who had buried the soldiers who had fallen. My kids went to the same school as the kids of Frank James had attended.
It was a world beyond my ken. Mrs. Berry, the head of public relations, bless her soul, turned up the first morning with a home-made apple pie. The college greeted the new faculty and students with a watermelon picnic and a BBQ. The picnic was outdoors at the college’s club house that overlooked a small lake. I held my poetry workshops in the drawing room with the original watercolors and the grand piano. I held my fiction workshop at the clubhouse. The young women and I cooked breakfast in the club house kitchen before having classes in front of the fireplace.
The phys ed teacher gave my son private swimming lessons. The music teacher gave him flute lessons. We dressed up and went to Celebrity concerts of the kind you would only expect in a large university, not a college the size of a small high school. We met people like Leonard Nemoy. We went on bus trips with the students and staff to canoe on the Little Niangua River in the Ozarks.
Our children were in grade two and three. The students at the college were often homesick and missed their brothers and sisters so they adopted our kids. They took them downtown for cherry cokes a lot. Coca Cola with cherry  syrup was the drink of the day.
Every year we visited Silver Dollar City and when relatives came to visit, we took them all there. A local craftsman built me a dulcimer. We went to Arkansas as often as possible and, on holidays, we went to Galveston and Padres Island.
We drove to Kansas City on weekends where I taught a private fiction workshop in the basement of a bar.
The sound of the cicadas in fall was as loud as a winter storm blowing through Manitoba hydro wires.
  
Our children hunted Easter eggs in the Dean’s yard.
Cottey College was created by the PEO sisterhood and during the years I was there, 1970-74, 200,000 women contributed financially to the college. The college is larger now. 
As for the rough edges, some of them got smoothed off as I, along with the students, practiced our manners. Good manners never undermined academic accomplishment, I discovered.
Four years of mimosa trees, pecan pies and people saying please and thank you. How could one not be thankful for that?

Silence of the Grave

If you know someone who likes murder mysteries, you have to put this book under that person’s  Christmas tree.
In Silence of the Grave, we see the police detective, Erlendur, caught up in what looks like a death that happened so long ago that it no longer matters. As his colleague, Sigurdur Óli, says, whatever happened, happened a long time ago. If there was anything untoward in the death, anyone involved would be dead by now. 
Sigurdur Óli is having his own problems. His live in partner is being overwhelmingly passionate and while he appreciates it, it also scares him because he senses that it is the precursor to a discussion about marriage and having children. During the course of the novel, he bobs and weaves, gives some ground, bargains for time.
 Elingborg, the third member of the police team, is a bit frustrated by Erlendur´s dogged persistence over something that probably doesn´t matter. There can be lots of reasons why a skelton might be uncovered in the building of a housing development. People do get buried outside of graveyards. It could be a forgotten burial plot. The discuss, argue the possibilities, all the while that an archologist and his team are carefully clearing the soil away from the remains.
Erlendur has his own personal problems. He´s obsessesed by the death of his brother in a blizzard many years before. He was holding his brother´s hand and in the cold and snow let go. Erlendur was rescued but his brother was never found. He´s also trying to cope with two children he abondoned to their mother twenty years earlier. His daughter, Eva Lind, has forced her way into his life, angry, resentful, bitter, defiant, accusing. During the novel, she clings ot life by a thread.
The mystery of the skeleton ends up involving many people, unearths many stories, reveals a dark side to Reykjavik past and present. It´s a side of Reykjavik that tourists seldom glimpse, a world of drugs, prostitution, and violence.
Indridason, in creating the detective, Erlendur, has created a character who is anything but a super-hero. He is filled with regrets, self-recrimination, blindnesses, an inability to deal effectively with personal relationships. He’s human. And that humanity makes him attractive, compelling, a person worth knowing.
Indridason’s ability to create and control a highly complex plot line is great. The murder mystery is wound intricately with the stories of Erlendur’s two colleagues, his family, the back story of events that took place during WWII.
He creates his setting quickly, easily, making it easy for the reader to see where the events take place. He expertly uses the setting to fore shadow  later events. On page 20, the narrator says, “Four bushes caught his attention, standing up out of the brush about 30 metres away. He walked over to them, and thought he could tell that they were redcurrant bushes. They were bunched together in a staright line to the east of the foundation and he wondered, storking his hands over the knobbly, bare branches, who would have planted them there in this no man’s land.”
In reading a novel by Indridason, don’t every pass over details lightly, dismissing them. They’ve been chosen carefully and no matter how innocuous they might seem, they lead the reader relentlessly toward the ending.
How engrossing is this murder mystery? I started reading it on the ferry to Salt Spring. Kept reading it, stopped only to put the occasional log on the fire and to eat a halibut dinner. There was much to be done but I ignored it all until the novel was finished. I’ll have to work twice as hard tomorrow but once and Indridason novel is begun, it is hard to put down.

Steamship poster

We’ve all heard of the ships of the emigration but how many of us have actually seen a travel schedule for those ships? 
These were real ships, real crews, with fares to be collected, schedules to be met. These are the ships that took you to your destination in Iceland or, if you were leaving Iceland, took you away to the distant shores of your dreams. Here is one of the posters your ancestors would have seen and studied closely.
Think how intently they would have read the information, the dates, the cost, the accommodation. 
If they were thinking of leaving Iceland, taking young children, how important would be the length of the voyage to Scotland? If they had carefully saved their rigs dollars, had them hoarded in a sock under their pillow, they would have memorized the cost of the fares and, at night, counted their coins once again to see if there were enough silver there to buy a passage and, if there weren’t, they’d have lain in the dark, thinking about how they might get the rest. 
These posters held people’s futures. Ameríka. Ameríka. The land of dreams and opportunity. In Independent People Laxness has the fare of the youngest of Bjartur’s sons paid for by a relative already in Amerika. That youngest son later sends money so that one of his brothers can follow him to Amerika but the brother squanders the money on a horse because he has become infatuated with a girl who is above his social station. There will be no Amerika for him. 
In Paradise Reclaimed, the main character, Steinar of Hliðar, does go to Amerika where he eats turkey and porridge but only at the ruination of his family. He eventually sends money so that they may join him in Utah.
Amerika was on everyone´s mind. Many left. Many more would have left if they could have raised the cost of the fare. 
The well-to-do farm owners were opposed to emigration and the loss of cheap labour and tried to keep information about Amerika from reaching their workers. In one instance, an agent who was to give a talk in Reykjavik about the opportunities in Amerika was unable to do so because a group was organized to make so much noise that he could not be heard. In spite of the actions of the farmers, word did spread, small-holders who had sheep and land to sell, often could raise the necessary money. However, many were unable to take their entire family so some children were left behind, sometimes wives were left behind, but with a promise that when there was money to pay for their passage, the family members would be brought to Amerika.
Some families sold everything, travelled to the ports to meet the ships that would take them to England or Scotland for the first leg of their journey only to have the ships come so late that the potential emigrants, having had to spend their money for room and board, could no longer could pay for a ticket. There are many stories of individuals borrowing money from friends and family and, when they arrived in Amerika, making their first priority paying off their debt.
In Paradise Reclaimed, when the unscrupulous purchasing agent who works for the Scots’ buyers of cattle wants to stop Steina from taking their son to Amerika, he goes to his friend the sheriff and says, “I demand that the Hliðar folk be restrained from leaving while the case is being investigated.” He’s objecting to Steina, the young girl he’s got pregnant, taking their son to Amerika. That’s in spite of the fact that he’s denied being the father and driven the family to ruin with the result that they all have become paupers. 
The sheriff replies, “Have you considered what sort of a favour you are doing the taxpayers by interdicting parish paupers from emigraitng?” “I know of parish councils that thank God for the chance of being allowed to pay t hem their fares to America.” 
So it was not just those who could pay for their fare who went to Amerika but, sometimes, it was the indigent, the paupers, the poorest of the poor, those who were paid for with a special tax that was then given to the farmer who would keep them for the least amount of money. However, they, too, would have been intensely interested in what the posters had to tell them about the coming trip to a distant wilderness.
The emigrants seldom had large dreams. The poverty in which they lived was such that they often just hoped that life would be improved. In Amerika,  a woman could get a job at five dollars a month with board and room. Five dollars, for some farm workers, was the equivalent of two year’s wages. Ameríka, where the letters said, there was lots of food and it was good. Where a man didn’t have to be worth four hundreds (the equivalent of the value of four cows) before he could legally marry. Ameríka. Where your employer didn’t have the right to beat you with a rod or a tree root. And the first giant step to having your own land was a voyage to Scotland.
Allthough many North Americans of Icelandic descent can say in what year their lang afi or amma came to Amerika, it’s important for us to understand what this voyage was like. This original poster will provide a lot of information about conditions on the voyage. 
Think of them standing before this poster and how it must have affected them.
(image from The Home of the Eddas, Charles G.
Warnford Lock, 1872. A somewhat shorter version of this article originally appeared in Logberg-Heimskringla. Consider subscribing.)