Will Paradise Be Reclaimed?

Get ready for Obama to face off with Romney. Two outsiders contesting the position of president of the most powerful nation on earth. When Jack Kennedy was going to run for president, there were many who said, he couldn’t be president because he was Catholic, that if he won, the Pope would run America. It was all nonsense and ignorance, of course. And, since in America, if you have one speck of black blood, you’re black, but if you are half white, you’re not white, then it looks like America will be voting for a black man or a white man who is a Mormon.

Romney won Florida today.  As he continues to roll up votes, he’s breaking down barriers, making it possible for a wider spectrum of people to become president, just as Obama has done, just as Jack Kennedy did.

Romney’s candidacy will be interesting to people of Icelandic descent in America, not because they would necessarily vote for him, but because of the historic connection of the Latter Day Saints to Iceland.

Mormon converts left for Utah in 1854. They arrived in September of 1855. Between 1855 and 1914, 381 Icelanders emigrated to Utah. This was a small number of the total emigrants who left for North America but the fact that they have retained some of their original culture and identity and stayed within a relatively small geographic space, they have a recognizable presence.

Although the Mormons have recorded their story in detail, what made their story come alive for Icelanders was Halldor Laxness’s novel Paradise Reclaimed. In Professor Fred E. Woods’ lecture “Icelandic Migration To and Through Utah” there is a “photo that inspired Laxness’s descriptions in Paradise Reclaimed.” Outside a house sits Margarét Gísladóttir, Halldóra Aranadóttir, and Guðrun Halldoórsdóttir with Gísli Einarsson Bjarnason standing behind them.   

On seeing the photo, I immediately recognized the moment in Paradise Reclaimed that it depicted. Steinar of Hliðar has abandoned  his family, gone to Denmark to meet the king, then continued on his way until he reaches Salt Lake City. He finds a welcome there. His preciseness that has kept his small farm in Iceland prosperous plus his skills with his hands help him sustain himself and, eventually, to bring his family to him. But, in the moment of Salt Lake City, he sees houses and people like those in the pictures or, perhaps it would be more accurate to say, that Laxness saw in the picture, the people he would place in his novel.

The novel never preaches, for what purpose would a transitory Catholic, then Communist, preach. Instead, it portrays the Mormon missionaries through Bishop Þjóðrekur. Steinar first meets him at Þingvellur. The Bishop is being assaulted by angry farmers but Steinar refuses to let them have his riding crop with which to beat him. Later, he comes across the Bishop again. This time the Bishop is tied to a rock outside a church. Steinar frees him.

In Prof. Wood´s lecture, he makes the point, more than once, that the Mormon converts who returned to Iceland to proselytize were, like Bishop Þjóðrekur, subjected to persecution. And so they were. It was hardly to be expected to be otherwise. Iceland converted to Lutheranism in 1550. It was the state church with religion and politics tightly entwined.

The story of Bishop Þjóðrekur´s persecution is archetypal. It becomes the story of every Mormon missionary, even Romney. It is said that while Romney was on a foreign mission for the church as a young man that he had to defend some female missionaries. It´s not exactly being tied to a post and shot through with arrows or even being tied to a rock while everyone else is at a Lutheran church service but it will do. Missionaries, because they are outsiders, are inclined to be rejected, sworn at, even spat upon. Sometimes, they get tossed in jail. Try being a Christian missionary in Saudi Arabia today. See where that gets you.

With Romney leading the GOP pack, reading Paradise Reclaimed is a worthwhile venture. There is something about Mormonism that attracted some of our people. Laxness, I think, captures the sense, not of devoutness, but of uncertainty and circumstance. North America and, in this case, the Latter Day Saints, offered hope to a poverty stricken and oppressed people with no hope for the future.

Today, America is caught in a financial and social crises. Unemployment is high. The future looks bleak. The lives people assumed they could have are being taken away as they lose their homes, their jobs. The world around America, it´s normal allies, are themselves in crises. When the Russians threw off Communism´s yoke and got to see America as it really was, they named it The Big Store. If that´s all that has distinguished it and, if now, the shopping is coming to a halt, people have got to redefine what it means to be America. The Church of the Latter Day Saints did that at one time for some Icelanders. The question is will Romney be the Bishop Þjóðrekur of today? Not that he would lead them to religion but to a belief in the future.  

On Lying

For the last few weeks, I’ve been following two news stories, the Shafia trial and the sinking of the Costa Concordia,  the way teenage girls follow the life of Justin Bieber. They’ve got me thinking about lying.
Now that I’m retired,  lying isn’t something I normally give much thought to. There aren’t as many days filled with a need to dissemble, to flatter, to reassure, to deceive, to manipulate.
I mean, when I was married and my wife said, “Do you think I’ve put on weight?”, I knew better than to say yes. When I was young and idealistic, fresh from Confirmation, certain that God listened to my every word, I’d have said, “Yes.” God may see the little sparrow fall but I think he’s got better things to do than listen to me prevaricate.
That was in the days when I’d been conned into believing that the Ten Commandments said “Thou shall not lie.” They don’t say any such thing. They say you shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.” It doesn’t say anything about having to tell your boss that yes, that striped jacket makes her look like a zebra. That’s not bearing false witness against a neighbour. The Bible doesn’t say anything about having to commit suicide. As a matter of fact, Christian doctrine says no committing suicide. That’s not in the Ten Commandments, either. It came about because the promise of heaven to a bunch of desperate Roman slaves caused so many of them to commit suicide that the church had to come up with the idea that even though, on the one hand it promised heaven, it was a sin to rush to get there. They made it a sin. Sort of like pushing and shoving in the checkout line at Costco.
If you’d killed three of your daughters, or three of your sisters, and an extra wife or mother, what would you say if the cops asked you if you did it? Yup, I did. I cannot tell a lie. I don’t want to cause the Canadian taxpayer a lot of money investigating and having a trial. There’s nothing worse than lying. A man can’t have any honour if he doesn’t own up to what he’s done. Give me the cuffs.
Or how about Captain Schettino? Be fair, ask yourself, if you’d taken your parent’s car out for the evening, the car that cost 459,000,000 Euros, and totaled it, what would you say when you talked to your father on the cell? It’s okay, Dad, it’s not all that bad. It’ll be fine. It’s got a few dents but I think a little body work will make it better. I think the electrical system is damaged. Yes, Dad, I was distracted. Just remember when you were my age, and if there was this hot Moldovan dancer in the sea beside you, wouldn’t you have wanted to show off a little, wouldn’t you have got distracted a little? Be reasonable. All right, all right, I won’t ask to borrow the boat, ah car, ever again.
I mean, in that first phone call would you have said to the Costa Concordia boss, I’ve just ripped a fifty foot  hole in the hull of your ship, it is sinking, passengers are panicking, we’re tipping over. I don’t know how far over! A little bit. I’m going to get in a lifeboat and move away from the ship so I can calculate the angle. I’ll call you after I get some dry socks.
I would have lied. I would have lied a lot more than the captain. I would have said, you want to talk to Schettino? I’ve never heard of him. I would have got rid of my captain’s clothes, not just my wet socks, and put on some civvies from one of the passenger’s cabins. Even if it was an evening dress.
The problem with Schettino and the Shafia’s isn’t just that their names begin with S but that they were terrible liars. Schettino, at least, had the excuse that everything happened pretty fast. He didn’t have time to prepare. It’s not like he planned to drive the ship onto the rocks and had a couple of weeks to get his story straight.
The first rule of a good liar is to lie as little as possible. Lies trapped in the jello of truth often get swallowed whole. Second, when you tell a lie, tell it in a misleading way. Yes, I’m in a life boat but I’m here because I’m calculating the angle of the tilt you wanted. The other thing to do is tell people what they want to hear. If the Shafias had gone back to Afghanistan and dumped their daughters into the river and said they must have had an accident, no one would have asked any questions. That’s what they’d have wanted to hear. The Shafias got mixed up. They thought they were still in Afghanistan.
One of the biggies is telling everybody the same story. Keep your facts straight. Neither the captain nor the Shaffias kept their facts straight. The captain was on board, then he wasn’t on board, then he was on the ship at the same time that he was on the dock searching for dry socks. The Shaffias were at the locks, then they weren’t at the locks, then they were all at the motel but the manager says they only  booked rooms for six which is four less than ten, the number of women found in the lock. You can just hear Shaffia saying, “But I just knew those rebellious girls would take the car and drown themselves. Can I help it if I’m psychic?”
Good liars are good manipulators. They’ll use anything they can to distract someone questioning them. One favorite trick is to flirt, if you’ve got something to flirt with. Schettino might still manage to escape most of the blame because of his good looks. The Shaffia’s, not so much.
What we’ve had recently are examples of bad lying, not bad as in evil but badly done. To see good lying, not good as in moral but as in successful, we need to observe people who are successful. Politicians, bank presidents, CEOs. The prisons are filled with bad liars. Good liars are rich or at least they’re not in jail.

On An Old Joke

When I was a kid, women weren’t allowed into beer parlours. These were male territory. Their purpose was not recreational. It was for drinking. There was no playing darts, no entertainment, no games of any kind. No standing up while drinking. You sat at a table and you drank.
Before my time, places like Portage Avenue in Winnipeg, according to both my grandfather and my grandmother, were not much more than a row of places to drink. A lot of men at the time were single men, often immigrants, working as laborers or tradesmen. There wasn’t anything to go home to except a rooming house. These places had one purpose, to separate as much payday money from the workingman as possible.
According to Harry Gutkin and Mildred Gutkin (The Manitoba Historical Society) “By the end of the nineteenth century, Winnipeg had mushroomed into a bulging outpost of some forty-two thousand people, with an unsavoury reputation as one of Canada’s wickedest cities. In the over-crowded North End, inadequate housing and poor sewage made disease endemic, and poverty fostered crime of every sort.”
Times had started to change by the time I was born and when I was growing up in the 40s and 50s. Also, wicked as Winnipeg might have been, Gimli, although connected to Winnipeg by road and train, was distant from the city and any evil ways that remained.
In Gimli, the local hotel was the den of iniquity, male territory, meant for drinking and fighting. When the fishermen came from north in time for the Icelandic celebration, we kids used to go downtown and sit across the street from the hotel.  There wasn’t much entertainment around so we got ours by watching the brawlers spill out the doors as the fishermen beat each other bloody. Our other entertainment was watching men stagger out the door so drunk they couldn’t walk a straight line. Sometimes, they collapsed in the centre of the street. They weren’t in any great danger because there was so little traffic. Still, someone would drag them off to the side of the road, roll them onto a sidewalk or prop them up against a wall or tree.
Fishermen lived hard lives but fishermen’s wives often lived harder lives. They usually got left behind with the kids when their husbands went north. Their husbands didn’t get paid until the fishing season was over. Some fishermen were on wages but some were on shares or contracts. They had to pay for their board and room and, by the time they were going home, there usually wasn’t a lot left on the credit side of the ledger. In the meantime, their wives had been making do with what money the fishing company had been willing to advance over the fishing season.
For those who got paid out on their return, the beer parlour was a dangerous lure. The fishermen had worked long hours, done hard work every day, seven days a week, risked their lives in terrible weather, lived in isolation. When they returned, they wanted to celebrate. The church didn’t provide coffee and rullapylsa and, even if it had, no one would have been interested. The fishermen wanted beer and bragging rights.
Faced with a desperate need to feed a family, the wives often sent word to the beer parlour for their husband to come home. Sometimes they sent a child, sometimes, they went themselves. The women and children were stopped at the front desk.  The clerk would go inside the parlour. He never came back with a husband. The answer the wife received was any one of the the following:.
$1 “Nope, not here.” Ha, ha.
$2 “Just  missed him.” Ha, ha, ha.
$3 “Just had a drink and left.” Ha, ha,  ha, ha, Isn’t that a scream?
$4 “Hasn’t been in all day.” He,  he,he,hah,hah, what a laugh.
$5 “Never heard of him.” That put her in her place. Hah, hah, ho, ho.
The only instance I’ve heard of in which a formidable woman shoved her way past the desk clerk, marched into the parlour, grabbed her husband by the scruff of his neck and propelled him out the door, ended in disaster. His humiliation was such that he shot himself. The startling thing is not that he shot himself but that people were outraged not by his spending all his money getting drunk but that his wife had the temerity to interfere.
Today, it seems unbelievable that women could have been treated the way they were but we have examples on the news every day of countries where women are still treated as chattels, where men are in control and won’t let women drive cars, where women can be murdered because some male relative feels his honour has been tarnished, where women can be stoned to death, or whipped to death, or hung because of an accusation of infidelity. Where a woman can be punished for having been raped.
We like to think of Iceland as a civilized country, we like to tell each other stories of how independent Icelandic women have been throughout history. It’s utter nonsense. The fact that half a dozen women over a thousand years managed to exert control over their lives has nothing to do with the reality of all the rest of the women. In Indriðason´s Silence of the Grave, he describes the brutal, endless physical abuse meted out to an Icelandic wife and the dismissive attitude of the police. The same was true in Manitoba. The police, faced with husbands, drunk or sober, beating up their wives, shrugged and said domestic problems weren’t their concern. A relative of mine sometimes beat up his wife so badly that she had to be rescued by relatives and spend weeks in bed recovering.
Domestic violence? It’s still all around us. Women can go into beer parlours and other drinking establishments now. They can’t be stopped at the front desk of the parlour and be the joke of both the clerk and the patrons. And there are alternatives. There used to be no jobs for women. Now there are. There is progress because some behaviours are no longer acceptable. The police have been forced to take domestic violence seriously. Not because they want to. The attitude of a lot of the police toward women is clear in the appalling attitude toward women in the RCMP. Toward the women murdered on the Picton farm. Attitudes have, however, changed enough that the abusive men in the RCMP look and sound ignorant, stupid, immoral. When something is seen as ignorant, stupid, immoral, the possibility of change exists.
In Harry Gutkin and Mildred Gutkin’s essay, they say, “The two women practitioners were frequently called to the jails, where the rowdiest of the ravaged prostitutes were confined, and where beaten and homeless women found a shelter of last resort, male and female prisoners housed together in the same wards.” Cora Hind wrote about conditions in the jails.
“The cells are totally devoid of light or ventilation, except such as may be had through the doors … No sleeping accommodation is provided, and no bedding is allowed, except that blankets are sometimes given to the women … The wards are infested with vermin, drugs, lice, and cockroaches … Some of the most abandoned are afflicted with syphilis and other loathsome diseases, and healthy prisoners are exposed to the danger of becoming similarly affected. The men and women are obliged to use the same towels, closets, etc., so that those who are healthy can scarcely escape the consequences.

There was a storm of protest against the indecency of discussing such things in public…. Both the writer and the sponsoring group were roundly denounced for this assault on the sheltered innocence of womanhood and, Cora Hind remembered, fathers forbade their wives and daughters to attend the troublesome WCTU.”
Beaten and homeless women. Needing shelter.  Men outraged that a woman should drag her husband out of an establishment so he wouldn’t drink away everything he’d worked for and so she and their children would have food and shelter. Women used as prostitutes, often by the same men who railed against articles being written about the whorehouses because it would assault the “sheltered innocence of womanhood.” Fathers forbidding their wives and daughters to attend meetings where women’s rights were discussed.
Pick a town, any town. The one I know is Gimli because I grew up there. I expect it was no better, nor worse than any other. It may even have been better than many for here the Icelandic suffragettes thrived.
It’s not so long ago that women were fighting for the right to be recognized as human. Fighting for the right to vote. Fighting for the right to have jobs. Fighting for the right to have legal protection.
Not so long ago? The Picton slaughter took place how long ago?
Two and a half years ago, four women were drowned to satisfy a man’s honour.Two and a half years ago. But, of course, we can console ourselves by saying the killers were foreign, they were immigrants, they didn’t have Canadian values. Canadian values? Like those displayed in the RCMP toward female recruits? Like the attitudes still displayed toward prostitutes? Like the attitudes displayed in many work places? Like every report of women being murdered in domestic disputes? Like murder on an Alberta highway.
Four women drowned. Sisters Zainab, Sahar and Geeti Shafia, aged 19, 17 and 13, and their stepmother, Rona Amir Mohammad. A father, mother, brother convicted of first degree murder. A society where a man´s honour is so important that his daughters´ lives are an inconsequential price to pay to redeem it. Foreign values from a foreign country. But what is the degree of separation in attitude toward women in the joke hiding-from-wife phone rates and women as objects to be disposed of to redeem some man´s twisted honour? We’ve come a ways. But how far do we still have to go?

The Rise of the App

Bruce Batchelor of Agio studios gave a talk last night to the local chapter of PWAC (Professional Writers of Canada). Agio has just completed its first app book, It’s Cool To Be Clever. The cost, 35,000.00. The price from the Apple store, 6.99. The Apple store keeps 30% of that but leaves an astounding 70% for the publisher. Still, Agio will have to sell approximately 7,000 copies (4.90 x 7,000) and, with other likely costs, probably 7,500 copies to break even.
Seven thousand five hundred copies needing to be sold about the guy who invented the internet seems implausible. A best-selling novel in Canada is anything over 5,000. The strategy, however, is that the app can be sold worldwide. Customers will be found in Botswana and Uzgorod. The idea that the entire world is a market seems a bit far-fetched. How many people in Siberia read English, care about some guy who invented the internet, can afford or have access to an iPad or can afford 6.99? As exciting as the technology is,  I have a certain amount of skepticism about likely sales.
Batchelor took us through a quick history of reading. He pointed out that people haven’t been reading for very long. Communication has mostly been oral.
 In Iceland, there were men who travelled from one isolated farm to the other telling stories. To help them remember long stories (and the longer the story, the better for the teller as it meant free room and board for a longer time) they put the stories into rhyme (rimur). A good long saga might mean a travelling story-teller had a place to stay for the winter. You can imagine how boring winter was on an isolated farm. Pouring rain, driving snow, wicked winds, didn’t tempt anyone to go outside unless it was absolutely necessary. When the sagas were written down, finally, it was on vellum (calf skin). Only the most wealthy could afford that. How many hides did it take to make enough pages for a saga? How much did it cost to have a priest/scribe write the saga letter by letter? However, writing was invented, calf skin (vellum) was used. There are still copies of these books at the Arnamagnæan institute in Reykjavik.  
Around 1439, Gutenberg created moveable type printing and with it the printing press. His invention allowed the mass production of printed books, books that printers could afford to publish and people could afford to buy.  In 1530, just about a hundred years later, Jón Arason, brought a bringing press to Iceland. Books and reading quit being the private preserve of a few people.
Improvements were made but there was no radical change. Better, more efficient presses were built. They were automated. Demand meant that paper began to be produced in commercial quantities.
But there was a cost, not in dollars but in culture. When there were no books or they were produced by hand on vellum, culture and story telling remained local. Story tellers had to walk, if they were lucky, ride a horse, but their area of influence was small. Books changed that because they could be sent over great distances.  Books with new ideas, foreign ideas.
Now, from what Bruce Batchelor said, the era of books may be coming to an end. Such a profound shift seems quite impossible but then that’s the way blacksmiths must have felt when cars first appeared. Who would have thought blacksmiths would disappear virtually without a trace. They were central to the community and then they were irrelevant. Become car mechanics or lock the door.
As Bruce told us about the rise of electronic books, of the current version through apps, I thought about the Arab Spring, about the Occupy movement, about how instant communication among many people around the world is already changing how people live their lives. About how books radically changed people´s lives and how electronic communication is changing lives today.
 
There’ll be a cost, of course, just as there was a local cost with the rise of the book. Local cultures will 
give way, become homogenized. Local cultures will be relegated to museums and history apps. They’ll
become a curiosity, something for scholars to study. What will replace these communities based on proximity
will be virtual communities and cultures. Everyone who is interested in a particular topic, no matter where 
they live will be able to join a community of people who are interested in the same subject. That is, if they 
have the price of the iPad. In Mozambique, life expectancy is 38.3 years for males. In Zambia, the average
yearly income is $1461.  
 
Some of the arguments seem self-serving salesmanship, the kind of irrational enthusiasm that comes with new products but the case for electronic publishing over paper does seem overwhelming.
Certainly, an app can provide a lot of formats and additional content compared to a book. The purchaser of an app has a choice of multiple formats, text, audio, video, music, PDFs, animation, games but the question in my head as I listened to Bruce was how would any of these increase my enjoyment of an Indriðason novel? Would I really care if the app also included statistics on crime in Iceland? Icelandic music as background while I read the book?  Links to various things that I could click on as I read? I don’t think so. I´d turn it all off. I just want to enjoy the novel.
The biggest argument for apps was simply the ease of purchase. Already around one quarter of book sales are online. According to Bruce some types of books, such as those for teenage girls, may sell 95% of their copies as ebooks.
We can mourn the loss of our culture, you didn’t think we had culture?, but yes we had, in our lifetime, a culture that has been disappearing all around us. I used to look forward to going to Mary Scorer’s books. It was an experience. The store, the books, the staff, the customers. Going there was a social experience that cannot be replicated online. I ordered a book on line just yesterday. There was no pleasure in it. The experience didn´t enhance my life. It added to its isolation and dehumanization.
Some typed emails or chats are not the same as a discussion, an interaction, coffee together, being in the same physical space. We used to have record stores. Going to them was thrilling, exciting, involving. The internet, in spite of all the hype, does not bring people closer together. It isolates. Those who can afford the technology sit in their electronic caves. The virtual community, in spite of the hype, is no community just as pen pals weren’t pals in the sense of the kids with whom we went to school. Electronic communication is enjoyable but not anywhere near as enjoyable or meaningful as attending a Thorrablot or the INL convention.

Stina Johnson

The dead hands of the Icelandic Bishops lay heavily on the lives of people for many generations after the Bishops had died. Their stern, disapproving gaze touched lives half a world and centuries away.

Bishop after bishop declared his hostility to dancing. In Scandinavia the opposition to dancing was to doing so in churches or churchyards, after funerals. In Iceland, dancing was considered evil all the time, in every place. But the Icelandic bishops’ opposition went far beyond that. In the 18th C., Christian VI sent

Ludvig Harboe, a Danish priest to Iceland to check on the status of religion and church affairs. (Shades of Christianity Under the Glacier). Harboe and Jón þorkelsson wrote a report for the king. The king responded by issuing decrees in 1741 and 1746 that prohibited Icelanders from any type of amusement unless it was religious.
Culture arises out of  leisure activities. In an agricultural society those leisure activities are often connected to the seasons and harvest. Dancing, singing, feasting, playing games, courting, rituals, all normally play a part in the changing of the seasons. Given the short growing season in Iceland and the long, harsh winters, one would normally expect a great deal of ritual and traditional behaviour, the involvement in public folk lore. Iceland was locked in poverty for long periods of time. Sometimes, epidemics swept away twenty  percent of the population. Farms were isolated. Yet, all of these qualities would be expected to help create folk art, not suppress it. One would expect a rich folk art life.
Instead, Robert Burton says of Iceland in his book, Ultima Thule or, A Summer In Iceland, published in 1875:
“Art simply does not exist in Iceland and, to judge from the little museum of Reykjavik, it was always rude as that of Central Africa: the only attempt appears to be on the part of the goldsmith. There is a single painter at Reykjavik, and his career has been cramped by inability to study in lands where the sun shines. The sculptor and architect have no business here.”
When the Icelandic settlers came to Canada, they brought books. Most of those were, as the bishops had decreed many decades before, religious. Eventually, black Bibles filled boxes at the nursing home in Gimli. What they didn’t bring was art and, because of that, although the emigration is known in words, it is not known in drawings or paintings from that time. Poverty, illness, lack of materials, all would have contributed but other groups suffered privation, yet privation did not keep other groups from creating artwork.
My great great grandfather, Valgardur Jonsson and his son, Ketill Valgardsson, came to Canada in 1878. Valgardur died two years after arriving at Icelandic River. Ketill, although he was young and without resources, made a life for himself. He worked on the railway and fishing. He moved to Winnipeg, working for the city as a laborer and then as a foreman. In 1894, he started a dairy business. Later, he moved to Gimli and started a flour and feed mill.
He had three children, Swanee (my grandfather), Valentinus and Kristin. Swanee married Blanche Bristow. Blanche’s father was English and her mother,  Icelandic.
And here, the invisible hand of the bishops reached through time and space. Not in disapproval because my paternal great grandfather was English. But because of something Kristin did in 1916.  Five young people took a sailboat to go berry picking. They were caught in a storm and all five drowned. Blanche’s two brothers,  Alfred and Herbert, were two of the dead.
The drownings were a terrible blow to the community. This was a community that already had been devastated by the deaths of the small pox epidemic, a community that had been torn by religious strife. A community that had lost many people as they had moved away to farm better land.
At the funeral for Alfred and Herbert, Stina who was around sixteen and already an accomplished photographer, took pictures of the funeral procession and sold them to The Winnipeg Free Press. The community was outraged, in part at the idea of pictures being made of a funeral and, in part, that they would be sold. And, in part, that the photographer was a young woman.
But Stina Valgardsson Johnson (she married Mindi Johnson)was one of the women who were forcing their way out of the tight little box Canadian society and the Icelandic community had created for them.
She continued her photography. Today, her photographs are in the Manitoba archives. Some are famous. They hang in the National Library in Ottawa. They appear in books and on brochures. However, she didn’t just do photography. She did all those leisure activities the bishops would have so disapproved of. She sculpted and did ceramics. She practiced virtually every craft. At Icelandic events she was often found dressed in her Icelandic costume, making lace.
But it wasn’t easy. She could have stuck to just making pönnukökur. She wouldn’t have been mocked for making Icelandic pancakes. When she came to Gimli to take photographs, to draw or paint, to show her sculpture, she was mocked by many. As Burton said, there was no tradition of art in Iceland. There was no tradition to bring with the settlers. In 1878, when Jemima Blackwood, England’s beloved illustrator of animals and country life, came to Iceland, there were no artists to meet her or for her to meet. It was unlikely that anyone knew who she was. 
Stina, with her will of iron, kept producing art. She took photographs, not snapshots, photographs, and she sculpted, and she produced ceramics and crafts of all sorts. It was the world of Manitoba and Iceland that changed to catch up with her.
In Iceland, the change happened after the emigration. In Iceland it was like the people, freed to be creative, were determined to make up for all the years their creativity had been imprisoned. Nowadays, Iceland is a nation of musicians, dancers, artists, craftspeople. The dead hand of the bishops has been pried from the Icelandic soul.
And Stina? Her art has been forgotten but she has given us a legacy of photographs and when she finally quit photography, she gave me her darkroom equipment.
 Photo by Stina Valgardsson Johnson    Ketill Valgardsson and Soffia Sveinbjarnardottir ready to go to church.

Old documents

Today, as I sorted through a box of loose pictures from my mother’s  house, I came across a rather beat up envelope. It just had my mother’s first name scrawled on the front. I opened it. Inside was a treasure. For years, I’ve searched for pictures of my grandmother’s plays. Once in awhile I’ve found a photograph. Here, at last, were a half dozen pictures of actors in costume, of Blanche in costume. 

Although she was married young and had four children, in spite of all the work that a wife and mother had to do in those days, no automatic washers, no dryers, no dishwashers, no electric stoves, she found time to write plays, act in them, direct them, produce them. My grandfather, Swanee, was a carpenter, and he built the sets for her. 

She was born in 1896, died in 1930. She didn’t have a lot of time. But she made good use of it. She wrote numerous plays. She corresponded with an Icelandic actor in Hollywood. She wrote music and had it produced in England. She also wrote poetry and short stories. 

In the envelope was her obituary. In Icelandic. I spent the entire day, it is now eleven p.m., translating what would be for a fluent reader of Icelandic, a few minutes work. Two lines I left out. The obit writer got poetic and completely defeated me. I don’t think my grandmother would have minded. She loved being on stage and, now, her grandson, eighty-two years later, is putting her back in the spotlight. 
She died before I was born. I grieve that. I wish I had known her. How much fun it would have been to have an amma who wrote plays and music and poetry, who dressed up in costumes, and acted. How exciting life would have been with her living just two blocks away on the same street. 

Her death was so painful that it was hidden away. No one talked about it. I’d never seen her obituary until today. I didn’t know until I was in my fifties that she had been a writer and that, all on my own, I’d followed the same path. Sorry we never met, amma. But here you are, centre stage once again.

That’s her far right, among the classy ladies of Gimli, 1920s style.



Mrs. Blanche Valgardsson
Born 21. March 1896
Died 2 May 1930
Mrs. Blanche Valgardsson, from Gimli, died in the General Hospital in Winnipeg. Because of her illness she had been moved there. After only a short time, she died. Before she died, she was constantly ill for a number of years.
Mrs. Valgardsson was the eldest child of Mr. and Mrs. William Herbert Bristow from Gimli. Mr. Bristow is English. He’s the son of Rev. W. J. Bristow who graduated from Balliol College, Oxford, and was the long time priest at Offenham, Worcestershire. His mother was Margaret Elizabeth Pruen Bristow.
Mr. Bristow’s wife is Gudrun Fridrikka Gottskaldsdottir. Her parents were Gottskalk Sigfusson  and Holmfridur Jonatansdottir, both of whom are long dead. Blanche married Sveinbjorn Valgardsson  . He was the son of Mr. and Mrs. Ketill Valgardsson of Gimli. Ketill came from Eyrarsveit in Snaefellsnessysla. Ketill’s father was Valgardur Jonsson, and  his mother Kristin Brynjolfsdottir Gunnlaugson of Bjarneyjar of Breidafjordur. Soffia, Ketill’s wife was from Laxardalur in Dalasysla. She was the daughter of John Sveinbjarnason.
Bjorn and Blanche were married on the 8th of Nov., 1913. Their children are Earl Sveinbjorn, Alfred Herbert, Kelly Allan Arthur, Forence Glady Gudrun.
Sveinbjorn was a carpenter but sometimes he went commercial fishing. The long illness of his wife was difficult but he did his utmost for her and dealt with her illness wonderfully well.
The struggle against death was long and the death of the young mother a great loss. Along with Bjorn, there are four children to mourn her loss.
Mrs. Valgardsson was highly artistic and talented and loved art of all kinds. She had been involved with drama for some time in Gimli. Her funeral took place from her home on 6 May. A large number of friends and relatives attended the funeral. She was laid to rest in the Gimli graveyard.
Sig. Olafsson.

Our Hockey Dreams

Photo: the Gimli PeeWees. They were champs. Their dream was to play as Bantams, then Midgets, then as a member of the Gimli Wolves. There were dreams of being like our local heroes. That’s me in the goalie pads. That’s where they put you when you can’t skate, stick handle or shoot. You just  need to get in the way of the puck. If anyone has a picture from the 50s of the Gimli Wolves in action, and  you send it to me, I’ll add it to this post.
How can you separate out growing up in an Icelandic Canadian town like Gimli and growing up in a small town in rural Manitoba?
Take, for instance, hockey.
Hockey for Icelandic Canadians, particularly for Icelandic Winnipegers, was big for a while because of the Falcons winning the first Olympic competition but then it died down. By the end of the forties and beginning of the fifties, no one talked about the Falcons. 
According to Red Magnusson–one of the best, if not the best and most dedicated of the hockey playes to come out of Gimli–the Gimli team was just called the Seniors until 1951 when they became the Gimli Wolves. 
What I heard about were the Gimli Wolves, the Teulon Tigers, the Riverton Lions. Our hot players were local boys, not the hired help and they were local heroes. We knew how many goals they scored, who was the best stick handler, whose slap shot would rip your head off.
The games were often noisy with a lot of yelling and screaming and pounding on the boards. We’d be on the North side of the rink where there was only room to stand. At the far end on this side, snow scraped off the ice reached as high as the top of the boards that edged the ice like a fence. You could stand up there for a great view but risked being hit by a wild shot on goal. 
We hungered for broken hockey sticks. When they were thrown over the boards, we scrambled for them, kept them as treasures. They were, to us, like broken gladiator swords, wielded by our heroes of the moment.
The noise of players hitting the boards, of hockey sticks clashing, of the fans yelling, of our pounding the broken sticks flat onto the boards, made a tremendous amount of noise because of the echo in the cavernous space. As we yelled and pounded, strings of frost dropped from the rafters.
The games were fast, the action moving back and forth, first around one goal and then, in seconds, around the other goal. Our triumph turned to fear in moments. The goalies guarded their creases with ferocity. 
Breakaways were often greeted with a moment’s stunned silence, then waves of yelling.
When a period was over, we streamed into the narrow, enclosed front of the rink to get warm and if we had twenty five cents, we got a hot dog plus a coke. To get an order taken, we had to cram into the crowd in front of the concession stand. There was no orderly line. We were an excited mob. The couple behind the counter were pulling wieners out of a pot of boiling water as fast as they could, slapping them on buns. We slathered mustard and green relish on them. Wolfed them down.
When the break was over, we went back to the north side of the rink. Only wimps stayed in the heated enclosed room that extended across the entire front of the rink. There was no real view there. The windows were covered with a thick wire mesh. These spectators were at the east end of the rink and couldn’t see the action at the far end. They were always craning their necks to try to see what was happening further down the ice. Somebody was always saying “What happened, what happened?” when the action was on the other side of the blue line.
On the south side of the rink there were wooden bleachers. People who sat there brought cushions to sit on and blankets to cover their laps and legs.  Grownups sat there in rows, their heads moving as if on a single string as the action moved up and down the ice. When there was a scramble in front of the net, people stood up, yelling and waving their arms.
We stood along the boards on the other side of the rink. There were no seats here. We were ready to jump back if a stick was swung high or a player was boarded in front of us. We kept warm by constantly moving up and down the alleyway made by the boards and the arched outside wall.
Here, also, we could crowd close to the team boxes and the penalty box.
Our players were lumpy heroes. Under their team stockings were leg pads, then their padded pants, their gloves, the jersey over their shoulder pads. No one wore a helmet.
When they stopped, their skates threw up waves of spray. When they dug in, their skates left holes in the ice.
Sometimes, when games were close, the RCMP had to be called to escort the visiting players to their vehicles. Sometimes it did no good and players and spectators mixed it up on the ice.
Nearly everyone worked for themselves in those days and businessmen could shut down the butcher shop or grocery store or barber shop and form a cavalcade to whatever out-of-town game was playing that night. Local farmers milked their cows early so they could get to the games.
There was no hockey in Iceland. Hockey was a Canadian game played by kids with Icelandic names but it was played all over the prairies, in towns like Winnipeg Beach and Petersfield and Clandeboye. And, yet, for me, those days and nights at the local rink are inextricably linked with Gimli and Icelandic, as much part of the mosaic created by Icelandic coffee made in a poki or by celebrating Islingdingadagurin.

Icelandic bachelors


We’re hopeless. The whole lot of us. Old Icelandic bachelors that is. By Icelandic I mean Icelandic North American as well as the real thing.
That’s why there was a report in Iceland Review some time ago that Icelandic women prefer foreign men. I don’t blame them. English men, for example are improvable. A woman can look at a callow youth and see his potential. It may be hard work and take time but eventually he can be taken out in public.
That’s not true of Icelandic men. What you see is what you get. If he wears running shoes with a business suit or flosses his teeth at the table when he’s twenty-five, he’ll be doing it when he’s seventy-five. It’s not a matter of looking at potential and saying, when I’ve whipped him into shape, he’ll be worth living with. Instead, it’s a matter of looking at him and saying do I want to live with this the rest of my life?
A lot of my friends are hopeless cases. Bundles of bad habits. At least they change their long johns more than once a year. A friend of mine knew a bachelor who bought one pair of long johns every spring. He came into the country store, the owner gave him a pair of scissors and sent him into the back. He cut them off, put on the new pair, pulled on his clothes and left. The store owner lifted the year old underwear with a pitchfork and put it in the burn barrel with a bit of gasoline and some dry wood.
It’s not just Icelandic women who think that Icelandic bachelors are a hopeless lot. Hallgrímur Helgason, in 101 Reykjavik, has Hlynur, a terrible drunkard who also takes drugs, has no ambition, doesn´t have and doesn´t want, a job, as the main character. He spends his days watching pornography but when the opportunity for sex appears, he makes love with his sunglasses on and, as soon as possible, after it is over, flees.
Arnaldur Indriðason´s detective, Erlendur, has been divorced for years. He was a lousy husband and father, and can´t manage a relationship. When he´s not detecting, he lies around feeling sorry for himself because of a past trauma. Some of the time, his wrecked daughter appears and berates him for his failings as a father and husband.  His idea of a good time is to get svið from a fast food take out and eat it by himself.
Yyrsa Sigurdardóttir´s main character is a woman lawyer, Thóra Gudmundsdóttir. She divorced a useless husband who is so involved in karaoke singing that he has no time for his kids. Icelandic men are so hopeless (see above, Hlynur and friends) that Thora hasn’t had sex for two years. When she does let lust overcome her, it’s with a German. Thora agrees with the Iceland Review. Foreign men are better.
Even Laxness agrees that Icelandic bachelors are a dreadful lot. In Independent People, he has the innocent, fourteen year old daughter of Bjartur of Summerhouses, Asta Sollilja, seduced and made pregnant by her teacher. In The Fish Can Sing, Garðar Hólm, is both a fraud as a singer and, it would appear, as a lover for he flees from the attentions of a young woman whom he has seduced. In Paradise Reclaimed, Steinar abandons his family while he goes off an exotic journey. After he leaves, his barely adolescent daughter is made pregnant by the Icelandic sociopath, Björn of Leirur.
You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. So my grandmother used to say. She was right. Habits are hard to break. The longer you have them, the more deep the ruts in which they run. Then there are genetics. Icelandic genes have been formed in isolation for over a thousand years. There’s been no need to adapt. It’s easier to make up Icelandic words for things, including television and computers and financial instruments, rather than learn English ones.
I still eat dried cod even though my one great grandmother left Iceland around 1874 and there are no cod in Lake Winnipeg. We’ve been codless for nearly one hundred and fifty years but I still eat dried cod. I still eat vinarterta with prunes even though in Iceland, they’ve shifted to rhubarb filling. I’m outraged by rhubarb filling. It’s not that it tastes bad. It just shouldn’t be done. Not that I’m any more rigid than most Icelandic men. I remember one woman saying to me, “You’re the most intractable man I´ve ever met.” I had to look it up. She just hadn’t met many Icelandic men.
 “Why don’t you get married?” I asked an Icelandic bachelor friend of mine. He’s very eligible. Good looking still, has a whacking good pension, beautiful house, nice car, sense of humour, highly educated, successful.
He sighed and didn’t say anything. He looked around. I knew what he was thinking. Being married once was enough. He’d proven he could do it. For awhile, at least. Enough to breed and get over the insatiable need for sex out of his system. If he got married again, he’d have to adapt, he’d have to do things differently than he was used to. He’d have to negotiate. Do we have scrambled eggs for breakfast or oatmeal porridge? Do we go to Florida or California this winter? His wife would want him to wear button down collars or not wear button down collars. She would want him to tell her where he was going before he disappeared for a week or two to visit friends. She’d want him to eat broccoli because it was good for him. Eating broccoli at his age might add three nano-seconds to his life.

All Icelandic men are essentially Vikings. Even if what they do for a living is deliver mail or sell shoes. They’re always dreaming of getting into a Viking longboat and heading off to pillage. They’ve been dragged to the ballet, Swan Lake, by their wives, but what they’re really thinking about is blood and guts and booty. You can tell by the faraway look in their eyes.
Men with Icelandic genes are a hopeless lot. They squeeze the toothpaste from the top. They forget to put down the toilet seat. They prefer a lawn that looks like a meadow instead of a golfing green. They forget birthdays and anniversaries. They drink wine out of juice glasses. They eat with their fork in their right hand.  None of these things would be a problem in an Englishman, Frenchman, or Italian. These habits would be imperfections that could be remedied, smoothed out. These men are no more difficult to upgrade than a kitchen. New cupboards here, a granite counter top there. With Icelandic men (and their North American counterparts) no amount of retrofitting would help.
(A somewhat different  version of this article appeared in Logberg-Heimskringla. Subscribe. Support your Icelandic heritage.)

Trollope on St. Kilda, 1878

 The Mastiff
When travellers in the 1800s went to Iceland by ship, often from ports in Scotland or England, they seldom went directly to Iceland but more often stopped in places like St. Kilda or the Faroes. Descriptions of life in these places gives us an idea of what life was like for people on  these isolated islands and give us a chance to compare their daily life with life in Iceland.
In the case of Trollope and his companions, a group made up of people who were either wealthy and/or famous, aboard the Mastiff, stopping at St. Kilda and the Faroes, both highly picturesque places, was an adventure. Life in England and Scotland had progressed. The Industrial Revolution had brought train travel, new farming techniques, factories. Visiting the various islands was like stepping back in time.
“Nothing can be more picturesque than the approach to St. Kilda.…by degrees, we came upon the little green valley opening down upon the shore in which the people of St. Kilda live. There were the few acres that are cultivated in the island, and there is the row of cottages, eighteen in number, in which the inhabitants live. There is also the chapel which has been built for their use, and there also lives their pastor, who has been now twelve years among them.
“We went ashore in the ship’s boats, and the inhabitants came out to meet us with gracious smiles. With them was their minister, and with them also was Miss MacLeod, the sister of MacLeod, the proprietor of the island…..The first care was to land certain stores, – tea, sugar, and such like, – which Mr. Burns had brought as a present to the people. It is the necessity of their position that such aid should be essential almost to their existence.
“It is about forty-five miles from the nearest of the large inhabited islands, – forty-five miles, that is, from humanity; but St. Kilda is in itself so small that there is no ready mode for traversing that distance. There is no communication by steamer, except such a chance coming as that of ours. The whole wealth of the small community cannot command more than a small rowing-boat or two. When we landed, the men were in sore distress for a few fathoms of rope, which they obtained from the liberality of Mr. Burns.
“The island is about two-and-a-half miles long, and about seven in circumference; the highest land is about 1,200 feet high…it contains about thirty acres of cultivated land, lying just in front of the cottages, on which potatoes and oats are grown….There is, too, a considerable amount of pasture-land among the rocks and hills, on which are maintained about fifty cattle and 400 sheep; but with them there is much difficulty. The winter here is very cold, and in winter the stock is necessarily left to shift for themselves….Then we walked up among the cottages, buying woollen stockings and sea-birds’ eggs, such being the commodities they had for sale. Some coarse cloth we found there also, made on the island from the wool grown there, of which some among us bought sufficient for a coat, waistcoat, or petticoat, as the case may be.
“In their want of other fuel, the inhabitants skin the turf from their pastures and burn it. Gradually, thus, the grass is going, for it is burned much quicker than it is produced. In this way the food for the sheep and cattle will quickly disappear.
“They (the cottages) are soundly built of stone, and each contains two well-sized rooms; but it may, I think, be taken for granted that this is due to private munificence and not to the personal efforts of the inhabitants. There are still to be seen the wretched hovels in which the people dwelt before the stone cottages were erected, fifteen years ago.
“The pastor, whose life here is certainly not to be envied, and who acts as schoolmaster as well as minister, receives £80 per annum from the Scotch Free Church….There is but one person in the island, but himself, a married woman, who can speak a word of English. No books can reach him; hardly a newspaper.
“There are between seventy and eighty inhabitants on the island, of whom, among the adults, the female outnumber the male by nearly two to one. This, of course, comes from the fact that the young men can leave the harshness of such a life much more easily than the young women. I was told that at the present moment there were two marriageable young men at St. Kilda, and twelve marriageable, but unmarried, females….Each man is his own shoemaker and tailor. They dye their own wool. Whatever furniture they use they make generally for themselves. They make their own candles. But perhaps the chief employment of the men is the catching of sea birds; the feathers of which they sell, and on the flesh of which they in a great part live. The bird which they eat is the fulmar…. Sometimes they have bread. Sometimes they make a stew with oatmeal and fulmar, – not delicious I should think to any but a St. Kildarite; – sometimes they luxuriate with corned mutton. Sometimes they have porridge. Occasionally they have been near to famine; and then they have been kept alive by presents.
“I have said that the St. Kildarites appeared to be healthy. From a medical report, however, published by the same traveller, Mr. MacDiarmid, it appears that they are greatly troubled with rheumatism and scrofula. But the curse of the island in regard to its sanitary condition is a disease among babies for which the cause has not yet been discovered. At about eight days old the children die. That this was so I heard from every side. It seemed to prevail to such an extent that a child at that age would be more likely to die than live.”
This same problem of babies dying shortly after birth plagued the Westman Islands and, to some extent, the Faroes. In the Westmans, the cause was eventually discovered to be tetanus.
Imagine, an island so isolated and so poor that the village is desperate for a piece of rope. A place where people live mainly on sea birds. Where the entire village is housed and kept alive through the generosity of the owner of the island.
Eventually, the British government moved the people from St Kilda. There were only 80  households to move. Moving them seems extreme but, remember, that at one time, the Danish government considered moving the entire population of Iceland to Denmark. The task would have been a logistical nightmare. If there had been fewer Icelanders, it might have been possible and Iceland would have suffered the same fate as St. Kilda.
In Iceland, there was enough arable land that there could be well-to-do farmers but the greatest number of Icelanders lived in poverty. Many had only a quilt, a horn spoon, a wooden bowl, their clothes and a few coins. A lot had no coins. But they were better off than the people of St Kilda. They could afford a piece of rope.
(Quotes from How the ‘Mastiffs” Went to Iceland. Photo of The Mastiff courtesy of Rory O’Farrell)