Yrsa’s Dark Days

The Day Is Dark is Yrsa Sigurdardóttir´s fourth novel for adults.

Once again, Thóra Gudmundsdóttir, the detective caught up in the life of being a lawyer, is the protagonist. Trapped in a four person law firm, dealing with the petty disputes of people getting divorced after making bad decisions about getting married, the reader finds her bored, wishing for something more exciting or important to deal with. The firm has added two young lawyers but Thora has no faith in them since they seem to be more interested in YouTube than Supreme Court Judgements. She´s still burdened with Bella, the secretary from hell.  

Her German boyfriend, Matthew Reich, has moved to Iceland and got a job as head of security for Kaupthing Bank. He triggers the action by calling Thóra and asking if she´d be willing to travel with him and a team to Greenland. Her role will be to protect the bank from having to pay a peformance bond for a company called Berg Technology that has signed to perform exploration work for a British mining company. If Berg doesn´t have solid legal reasons not to meet its contract, the bank will have to pay the British company.

The trip to the mine site and the investigation sound boring. However, it turns out that two mine employees are missing and six months previous another mine employee disappeared. The result is that the remaining employees have all returned to Iceland. None of them will return to complete the job.

Matthew is going, it´s a break from prenuptial and divorce agreements so Thóra rather impulsively decides to go but, Thóra being Thóra, she gets drunk with a friend before packing and takes the most improbable clothes with her for a visit to an isolated mining camp.

One of the charms of Yrsa´s novels with Thóra is Thóra´s hopelessly scattered life. Her son Gylfi, when he was sixteen, has got a girlfriend, Sigga, pregnant. The boy, Orri, that is born as a result is now two. The three of them are living with Thóra along with her daughter, Sóley.

The cleverness of Yrsa´s novels are two fold. One, a lot of seemingly unimportant, unrelated detail at the beginning, ends up critically important by the end, not just as plot points but in creating an understanding of people´s lives. The emphasis in this novel on relationships forms a web that exposes character but also provides motivation. Some relationships, it turns out, are not resolved with divorce agreements. The other, and this is seen in her previous novels, is her use of local folklore as inflection points within the novel. The folklore seems irrelevant but by the end of the novel is revealed to be critically relevant.

In the continuing cast of characters is Bella, the secretary from hell. In this novel, she goes with the team but, as a fan of Yrsa´s novels, I had hoped that she would have a greater role in the story. She´s a minor character but Thóras inabiltiy to get along with Bella while Matthew gets along with her famously sets up a dynamic filled with potential for both drama and, more likely, humour.

I enjoyed this novel. I have grown familiar with the characters. I enjoyed getting to know them better. If I had any disappointment it was Matthew living in Iceland and becoming more of a domestic character. In previous novels, his lack of Icelandic was used to humorous effect. His serious German nature played off Thóra´s constantly disintegrating personal life. Because Thóra is away from Reykjavik, her only contact with her family is by phone. That is a loss because it is the wackiness of her family life that has enlivened previous novels.

I think that some of the time in the mining camp moves slowly. The characters seem to overreact to what is a short amount of isolation and the potential for the kind of serious conflict that can arise in isolated living situations is not exploited.

The translation is good but choices of words sometimes caught me by surprise, as if I was hearingt two people, one American, and one English telling the story. It didn´t happen very often and none of the words were incorrect. They just seemed to come from a different voice. The gave me a nano-second’s pause.

However, my qualms are realy quibbles.  The revelation of the mystery at the end, not so much the solving of the crime, but the solving of the tragedy of the local village, was satisfying and made me say to myself, “Of course!”

This is a book worth buying and worth reading. I read it on a Kindle, in the ferry parking lot, on the ferry to the mainland, in a hotel room, on the returning ferry, at home. The Kindle is certainly convenient and it is nice to have a library at hand for times when I have to wait. However, I don´t find it as satisfying as reading an actual book. I like to make notes in the margins, underline, put sticky papers in places. You can now do all these things on an electronic copy but I don´t get the same satisfaction as when I do it with a book. That, of course, may have something to do with my age. Suit yourself, buy it on paper or on an electronic reader but, if you enjoy, murder mysteries, buy The Day Is Dark.

The Icelandic Wasteland

Wasteland with Words

A SOCIAL HISTORY OF ICELAND

Sigurdur Gylfi Magnússon

This is a book that every North American of Icelandic descent should own. And read. And reread.

I‘ve read Wasteland once from the beginning to the end. Now, I‘m reading it, one chapter at a time, from the last, then the one that came before it. It may seem a strange way to read a book but I want to read the chapters individually and, at the same time, to move from the present to the past.

I don‘t know why but I had to order my copy from England. This book should be on the shelves of any bookstore where there is an Icelandic North American population. Tergesen‘s should have a case and Lorna shouldn‘t let anyone out of the store without a copy.

The chapters include topics such as Icelandic Connections: The Lure of the New World, Death and Daily Life, Urban Living: Industry, Labour and Living Conditons, The Myth of the Model Woman: Gender Roles in Urban and Rural Iceland, Children in Urban Areas.  That‘s just a sample. Don‘t be scared off by the chapter titles. The writing is easy to read and the details and descriptions clear.

This is the best description in English that I‘ve come across of both historic description of Iceland and the shift to modern day life. Every chapter is worth reading and rereading. This isn‘t a novel or soap opera. The information requires close attention. I found that it made me thoughtful. This is a book the reader wants to understand.

The chapter most directly connected to North Americans of Icelandic descent is the Icelandic Connections: The Lure of the New World. In it, Magnus says , “The Icelanders were the last of the Scandidnavians to start emigrating to the New World. The main emigrations from Norway took place in the 1830s and the ‘40s, from Sweden in the 1840s and ‘50s, from Denmark in the 1850s and ‘60s, and from Finland in the 1860s and ‘70s….By and large the Icelanders stayed put througout the first decades of the second half of the nineteenth century, in spite of difficult conditions at home such as sheep scab, deteriorating climatic conditions and poor fish catches. This failure to follow in the footsteps of their Scandinavian cousins was probably, more than anything else, down to simple lack of opportunity: until around 1870 shipping to and from Iceland remained very infrequent and irregular.“

“Later, after 1874, the shipping companies that arranged passages from Scotland to America started sending special ships to Iceland to pick up passengers. As the turn of the century approached the fare dropped considerably, from around 200 kr. to a little over 100 kr.“

The author discusses, in some detail, the conflict over emigration, with excerpts from various publications. The excerpts make clear how heated the conflict was.

One of the great strengths of the book, for me, is the copious use of quotations.

In the chapter on Urban Living: Industry, Labour and Living Conditions, he tells us that “In the final decades of the nineteenth century Reykjavik developed into the main centre for manufacturing, commerce, service, transportaiton, communicatonsa nd administration. By 1890 its population had grown to almost 3,900, 5.5 per cent of the total population of the country. By 1910 this figure had risen to 11,600 (13.6%), by 1920 to 17,450 (18.5%) and by 1930 to 28,300 (25.8% ).“ The change was not easy.

“In an article in the newspaper Lögrjetta in 1906, ‘Fátæku heimilin í Reykjavik´(The Poor Homes in Rekjavík), another doctor, Steingrimur Matthiasson, gives a graphic account of the conditions in which much of the population of Rekjavik was forced to subsist. Like other family doctors, Steigrimur was well familiar with the situation at first hand from his visits to families throughout the town.

“‘To start with the basement slum on entering or leaving one generally hits one‘s head on the doorframe. Inside it is dark and gloomy as there is no sight of the sun from one end of the year to the next except as a reflectionin the windows of the house opposite. The air is damp and the walls are rotten and covered in mould. There is no proper heating, just a small stove where the food is cooked and the steam from the pot fills the room and mixes in with the foul-smelling air emanating from all the people that huddle there night and day.‘“

The author quotes from many autobiographies. Icelanders are nothing if not honest and they don‘t try to prettify their daily lives.

Toward the end of the book, Magnus takes us into Iceland‘s present. He, like the people who wrote their autobiographies about life on the farms and in early Reykjavik, minces no words.

“Iceland is in some senses a wasteland. One can, if one wishes, see some kind of reflection of the physical surroundings in the Icelanders‘ culutural obsession with literacy, an urge to impose order on the desolation of the Icelandic landscape, to build a wasteland with words. But wasteland can come in other forms. In October 2008 the population of Iceland sat helplessly as the country‘s entire financial, banking and political systems collapsed around them in the course of a few days.“

He goes on to discuss the economic disaster, the kreppa, and what he believes brought it on and what it presages for the future. I find his take interesting but, for me, it‘s the Iceland before the collapse that interests me in this book. I can read all I want about the crash and its aftermath on The Reykjavik Grapevine, Iceland Review, or in numerous other publications.

If you are interested in understanding Icelandic society, its powerful links to its past, the societal forces that moved inexorably toward creating the crash, why your Icelandic relatives behave the way they do, and many other things, buy this book, read it, ponder it. Give a copy to any of your relatives or friends that care about their Icelandic heritage.

There is a letter in this book that is worth the entire price. It is hard today for people to understand how helpless everyone was in the face of disease. Children nowadays get immunization shots as a matter of course. Before such immunization was available, there was nothing to be done when people contracted diptheria. You lived or you died.

A letter by Elin Samúelsdóttir to her brother-in-law after one of her children had died and while her other children were desperately ill with diphtheria is wrenching.

“I am sending you a few lines. I can only write briefly, I feel so wretched, there is so much pain in me. But again it has pleased God to inflict a deep wound on me. I have lost my darling, fair-haired, my little angel, my youngest flower. Oh! My dear friend, there is no way I can describe the sense of loss.”

Read this book and say a prayer for Elin and for all the others who, through no fault of their own, for they did not make the weather cold, nor keep the fish from coming, nor create the diphtheria, the typhoid, the measles, the myriad diseases the spread among the people, suffered greatly but persevered. Heroic are those who get up in the morning in the face of tragedy and milk the sheep and pound the cod, who scythe the hay, who make the best of what they’ve got.

Riðum, Riðum

SUMMER TRAVELLING IN ICELAND;

 by John M. Coles, Edward Delmar Morgan

BEING THE NARRATIVE OF

TWO JOURNEYS ACROSS THE ISLAND BY UNFREQUENTED ROUTES

1882

Two young men, John Coles and Edward Morgan left the docks at Leith in the Danish mail steamer “Valdemar” on the afternoon of July 28th, 1881. The ship first stopped at the Faröe Islands to discharge a large cargo of flour. Their first experience of Iceland is before they reach Iceland for the steward had put a large package of hákarl in their cabin.

It took thirty-eight hours to go from the Faröes to their first sight of Iceland. They arrive at Reykjavik at midnight, the weather is perfect, not a cloud in the sky and the water as smooth as glass. They make the obligatory visit to his Excellency the Governor and the Principal of the College. They hire guides and horses and start for the interior.

They visit the geysers and Gulfoss, then tackle the lava desert.

„We had now reached the highest point of the Sprengisandr, and, starting afresh, began to descend gradually towards the north….sand and lava dust varied at times by thickly-strewn blocks of lava. Soon after leaving our halting-place, a considerable breeze sprang up, and the dust raised by the pack-train was most disagreeable. In spite of this, however, our guides began to sing a song which has special reference to this journey. I had often heard them singing it since we left Hagaey, and had managed to catch the air and some of the words; they sang it slowly, and the commander-in-chief, forgetting for the time his exalted position, joined in with an energy, so catching, that in a short time we were all at it.”

The song, of course, is that which is the favorite of every gathering of Icelanders of North American descent. It is so loved that when Peter John (PJ) Buchan, an instructor from the Department of Icelandic at the University of Manitoba, performed it at an INL conference, he had to sing it not once, not twice, but thrice. The crowd joined in, just as John Coles and Edward Morgan joined the Icelandic guides in 1881.

 Riðum, riðum, rekum yfir sadinn,

Rökkr fer að siga yfir Herðubreið

Alfadrottning fer að beizla grandinn

Ekki er að vera á hennar leið.

Vænsta klárinn vildi eg gefa til

Að vera kominn o‘ni Kiðagil.

„The effect of this song when sung by several voices is by no means unpleasing. Our people certainly performed in a manner that was highly creditable to the power of their lungs; Evandr‘s whole heart seemed to be in it.“

Oh, to have been there with them, in the heart of the Sprengisandr, riding Icelandic horses, singing Riðum, Riðum at the top of our lungs. What greater moment could there be than that?

Hiking Salt Spring Island

In three days, I’ve hiked three Salt Spring Island trails.

The first, Assault on Mt. Erskine, is steep, narrow, the rock jutting out in places like steps of stairs. The forest is open with sunlight sifting through the huge firs and some of the largest strawberry trees I have ever seen. Firs grow like weeds here, sprouting everywhere a seed can find the slightest amount of soil. Only the shade cast by older, larger firs keeps the seedlings from consuming all the space.

The strawberry trees, or, if you wish, madrona, or arbutus, are the biggest I’ve ever seen with massive trunks ranging through yellow, pale green, purple, black and red. The trees reach 30 metres tall, their branches twisting and turning, the leaves a dark, glossy green, tough leathery. At this time of year, the bark is peeling away from the trunk, the new pale green bark shiny underneath. Here and there, in the open spaces are Oregon grape and bunches of salal. The climb is so steep that the path is a series of switchbacks.

As we climb through drizzle and fog, we meet a young man coming down with his dog. He’s lean, tall, wearing shorts, looks like he probably ran up. He takes one of the buds out of his ear so he can talk to us. He has about him that easy Salt Spring smile and casualness as he answers our questions about the path ahead.

In places there are massive boulders that, at some time, have come loose from the levels above.

An eagle sits in a tree, hardly more than a few feet above us because the tree grows from a level below. Normally, we have to look up at eagles. Here, we look directly across, see him in profile. In places, the ocean appears through the drifting fog. The rain, broken by the high branches of the firs, sifts down, barely wetting us. At the top, in an open space where, in summer, a picnic will be superb, we are surrounded by ravens. We can’t see them because of the mist that envelops the trees but all around they call to each other, tweeting and croaking and rattling.

The second day we hiked the paths that border Black Duck Creek. On first sight it looks unpromising. Flat pale yellow fields suitable for grazing sheep. But once we take the muddy path down to the creek itself, we enter a rain forest world of overlapping shadows with only occasional shafts of light. The rippling sound of the stream is everywhere. The stream gently curves and loops, is bridged by fallen trees. Broad leafed maple block out the sun. They create a canopy of silence. In fall, after the leaves turn yellow, they float to the ground in long spirals. Now, in February, the ground is matted with them. Many of the living tree trunks are thick with ferns and moss.

Here, everything is green, green piled on green, large ferns springing from the sides of the stream. The hiking is easy, the ground relatively flat. On the way back, we climb up from the creek into a long open meadow where we discover clusters of people and dogs. The dogs are all species, jubilant, free to run, chase each other, chase balls. The open space is filled with sunlight.

Today, we chose a trail with no name, just a wooden post that was marked with a symbol for hikers. Here, we are in forest, once again, but the trees are cedar and because the cedars are large, shading everything, the arbutus that grow below them are small, stunted. The ground is thick with salal that reaches waist high. The trail is soft, its surface dangerous with exposed cedar roots that twist and turn, making endless traps for a carelessly placed foot. There is little sunlight here and as the path descends the ground is taken over by large ferns, great fountains of sword ferns. There are short sudden drops. At some of them crude steps have been built.

The trail is narrow, in places barely wide enough for my feet. We weave in and out among trees and silence. The thick layer of cedar debris mutes all sound. It is so quiet that I can hear my heart beating, my jacket rustling.

Down, down, down, until we come to the lowest point where a small stream trickles across the path, turning it to a muddy quagmire but the low point is short, the water shallow, the mud only a couple of inches up my waterproof boots. Then we start up again, now wire fence and open meadows on our left, old cedar rail fence on our right. The path turns down again and soon we get a glimpse of the ocean. Here, the path falls steeply, the clay slippery, and we use a fixed climbing rope to steady ourselves.

It’s low tide and the beach spreads far out before us. We hike the oyster beds, beds that are thick with oysters, clams and mussels. The landside is made of high cliffs, massive rocks, caves. Ocean side, the water is flat, a grey blue, and just across the straight, Wallace Island.

We hike south to where at the high tide mark, the beach is glistening white with windrows of crushed shell.

We rest here, our backs to the warming sun. Ducks are diving in the shallows.

Today it was dark as I left for the Fulford Harbour and the ferry. In my headlight beams, two rabbits zigzagged frantically before plunging into the roadside scrub. The grass after Ganges was bleached with frost. Fog filled the fields.

There are other trails, other days to come. To be seventy-two years old takes away none of the anticipation of forest and ocean or the rising sun

Welcome to WWIII

I grew up in the shadow of the H-bomb. When I went to the movies, there was a cartoon, a trailer, and the news. The news was big, as big as the movie screen. In black and white there were images from Hiroshima, of atomic bomb testing, of mushroom clouds.
At times, I looked to the horizon watching for a mushroom cloud. I thought about shelter, about radiation, about contamination, about dying of radiation disease. WWII was still so much with me that at night if I heard an airplane and woke up, I still went to the window to see if German paratroopers were descending from the sky. I knew about paratroopers because of the newsreels but also because there was an airbase close to town and once a year they held an air force day.  We watched men parachuting out of a plane and floating to earth.
That’s how I knew what a machine gun sounded like. How the brass casings flew away from the machine, blinking and shining in the sunlight, and how the slugs made the sand spray up at the end of the shooting range.
Those were the sounds of war. In many places today, especially in Africa and the Middle East, they are still the sounds of war. But these are just sideshows, tribal conflicts over local privilege and territory. Even the long running conflict between Israel and the Iranians is a family feud.
The real war, WWIII is already well underway. Germany made two attempts at conquering Europe, of increasing its living space by invading its border states and Russia. Both attempts failed. Trench warfare failed, shock and awe Blitzkrieg failed.
The latest assault on Europe is succeeding or has been succeeding until lately. England, once again, is the isolated island nation, refusing to fall under the domination of Germany. Ireland has fallen, Spain, Portugal, a hodge podge of others, have fallen under the Euro assault. The way to dominate is no longer with guns and H-bombs, for who wants a radioactive wasteland? Who wants the cost of having to rebuild?
Assassination by financial instruments is cleaner. Debt is the slave’s yoke that fools happily put around their neck only to discover it is not so easy to take off. In the days of yore, money lenders knew that they could control a king by lending him money for his extravagances and his ambitions.
In Europe, the myth of equal states in the European Union has been exposed as a lie. Everyone dances to Germany’s tune. The French, as always, believing themselves more sophisticated than the Germans, their French wine in crystal glasses superior to German beer hall mugs, having deluded themselves, once again, that they are equal, or even superior to the Germans, have found that Germany rules.
The Irish have succumbed without a whimper. The Spanish are confused and distraught. Only the Greeks are putting up a fight. Democracy no longer exists in Greece. The governing party is at eight percent in the polls. How can they claim legitimacy? The Germans, like the Romans during the days of the Roman Empire before them, decide who runs the Greek government.  The Greeks, in their despair and fury, having turned on themselves, throw petrol bombs at their own police and the police fire tear gas at their fellow citizens. They’re fighting with the wrong people.
There is supposed to be an election in Greece in February. It is unlikely that any election will be held because the outcome is obvious. The people will vote for a government that will leave the Euro and the European Union. Compliant bureaucrats from Brussels, unelected civil servants, have become the new proconsuls.
The only hope for the Greeks to return to democracy is to leave the Eurozone, to give up the Euro, to go back to the drachma. If the Icelanders had given in to the demands of the European banks, they would have committed their people to decades of servitude. The people have no obligation to pay for the follies of the bankers who created a system that would turn everyone into a slave subject to an economic theocracy. The people have no responsibility for banks that make bad loans.
Behind Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, are the financial institutions that have created a situation where everyone is in their debt. The safety net of individual currencies was destroyed by the Euro. When a country spent too much, the interest it had to pay for borrowed currency went up and made borrowing less feasible. The system had built in limits. With the creation of the euro zone, those limits disappeared.  If Ireland borrowed more than it could pay, it didn’t matter because someone else would pay. The EU became like a wealthy family with some thrifty and some spend thrifts, some good managers, some not good managers, but all being able to borrow as much as they wanted because someone else in the family would cover the bill. Except, except, except, there’s much more to it than that.
Don’t blame the German people. They work hard. They save their money. They’re smart, industrious. They took on the burden of East Germany after it was ruined by the Russians. They don’t want the rest of Europe. They didn’t create economic warfare.
Lend enough money to the bankers of Iceland without caring whether it can be paid back or not because when the bankers have stolen as much as they can and fled, the people can be made to take on the burden of those debts. Or so it was thought. Debts that would have turned every man, woman and child in Iceland into an indentured servant. Iceland could have been conquered without a shot fired. Except the government said no.
Greece, save your people. Recognize that what you are suffering is because the world has plunged into economic warfare, with the same intent as any war, to conquer, to subjugate, to enslave. Find your freedom in the drachma. You do not even have the choice of being a well fed servant or being a poor free man. You will be a destitute servant. Your unemployment for young people is already over 40%. Your economy that could have been revived by the fall of the drachma, cannot be revived.
Outside of the euro, the drachma, like the Icelandic kronur would have fallen, Greece would have become a cheap holiday destination, Greek goods would have been exported as fast as they could be produced. Employment would have been next to zero.
The banks don’t care who suffers, just so long as it’s not them. They fear default swaps, swaps they never should have made. They loaned money they never should have loaned. They embarked on a plan to monetize everything and everyone, including generations not yet born. They made bad loans. Let it be their problem.
As for Merkel, let her intimidate someone else, the Portugese or the Spanish, or the Irish, but maybe when they see that Iceland has said no and avoided  becoming an indentured country and Greece does the same, maybe they’ll make the same decision. Will there be ruins? Yes, but they will be financial ruins, not the ruins of atomic weapons. Will there be suffering? Yes, but it cannot be avoided. Will the rules need to be changed so both politicians and financiers may not threaten democracy? Yes. Drastically.
WWIII. Will Merkel, Brussels and the bankers win it? Or will the people rise up and demand their freedom?

Paradise Lost, Jon Thorlaksson



All heroes have feet of clay. Or, in the case of a lot of male heroes, it’s not their feet that are a problem, it’s usually a problem with keeping their flies buttoned. As the latest tell-all book on John Kennedy, “Once Upon a Secret: My Affair With President John F. Kennedy and Its Aftermath,” by Mimi Beardsley Alford makes clear, as busy as a president is with deciding on whether or not to start a nuclear war, there’s always time for a little nooky with the hired help.
  That was Jón Þorláksson´s problem. He was a Lutheran minister but it didn´t keep him from getting Jórunn, daughter or Brynjólfur Bjarnason, a wealthy and influential local farmer, pregnant.  Given his poverty and his need to work night and day getting in the hay, you wouldn´t think Jón would have time to lie down in the meadow with Jórunn.  Of course, there are those long Icelandic winter evenings when one might meet in the dairy. Given living conditions in Iceland, it´s hard to imagine where a couple found the privacy for sex. According to Laxness in Paradise Reclaimed, a butter box would do for a momentary moment of passion. 
Jón Þorláksson would have made the farmer´s daughter an honest woman but her father considered Jón such a hopeless case that he wouldn´t agree to her marrying him. It must have been a hot affair because they started it up a second time.
Jón got tossed out of the ministry, then got let back in. He would have been better off to have gone to the farmer and said, give me the fare to Denmark and your daughter will never again be tempted. Life in Denmark couldn´t have been worse than Jón´s life in Iceland. He ended up with a lousy job, an unhappy marriage and dreadful pay.
Why do we care about the love life and living of some country preacher living in a hovel? Why is he a part of the Icelandic heritage of which I´m proud?
When he quit messing around with the farmer’s daughter, he got busy making hay, tending to his flock (both the sheep and the parishoners), he also got busy translating Milton into Icelandic. He did it brilliantly. So brilliantly that he was revered in England. In spite of his moral lapses, he was highly intelligent, gifted, talented, dedicated.
To England’s credit, an English literary society raised the equivalent of six year´s income and sent it to him. The fact that an English literary society knew about Jón and his work, revered both him and the work, makes it clear how interested the English educated class was in Iceland. They held Iceland and the accomplishments of Icelanders in greater esteem than the Icelanders did themselves.
In 1814-15, the Scots divine, Ebenezer Hendersen lived in Iceland. His passion was the distribution of Bibles. He travelled extensively in Iceland, selling Bibles, giving them away, always engaging the Icelanic clergy in theological discussions.
In his travels, he came he says, to “Bægisá, the dwelling of the poet, Sira Jon Thorlakson. Like most of his brethren at this season of the year, we found him in the meadow, assisting his people in haymaking. On hearing of our arrival, he made all the haste home which his age and infirmity would allow and, bidding us welcome to his humble abode, he ushered us into the apaprtment, where he translated my countryman into Icelandic. The door is not quite four feet in height, and the room may be about eight feet in length, by six in breadth. At the inner end is the poet´s bed, and close to the door, over against a small window not exceeding two feet square, is a table …. On my telling  him, that my countrymen would not have forgiven me, nor could I have forgiven myself, had I passed through this part of the island without paying him a visit, he replied, that the translation of Milton had yielded him many a pleasant hour, and often given him occasion to think of England but as his residence was so far north, and he had now lived so long without seeing any of Milton´s countrymen,he had not entertained the most distant idea that ever he was to be favoured with such gratification.“
„Of his translation of Paradise Lost, only the three first books have been printed. They are inserted in the xiii, xiv and xv. Volumes of the publications of the Icelandic Literary Society but as this society closed their labours in the year °1796, our poet was deprived of a channel through which he might communicate the remainder of his translation to the public. To print it at his own expense was altogether out of the quesiton, as the whole of his annual income from the parishes of Bæisá and Backa does not exceed thirty rix-dollars (Danish dollars), and even of this sum he must give nearly the one half to Sira Halgrimr, who officiates for him in the latter parish.“
In 1834, John Barrow visits Iceland. Jón is dead by this time but Barrow feels compelled to mention the dreadful  poverty in which Jón lived and, in spite of his poverty, the magnificent work he did in his translating.  He says, ” This venerable pastor, when nearly seventy years of age, had just completed a translation of Milton´s Paradise Lost into his native tongue, having previously translated Pope´s Essay on Man.”
Barrow then quotes from Henderesen:
“This description of the deplorable condition of so superior a genius as Thorlakson unquestionably was, being fully corroborated by inquiries made of Mr. Bourke, then Danish Minister at the Court of London, was not unheeded by our countrymen. At the instigation of one of the most active members of that liberal, humane, and highly beneficent Society known as the ‘Literary Fund,’ the case was immediately taken up, and having, as the committee state, ‘discovered the venerable bard of Iceland where he patiently reclined beneath the shed of poverty,’ they at once resolved to raise money to help Jón. The contribution was 30 pounds,  “equal to five years´ income of his miserable pittance” .
According to Hendersen, the richest living in Iceland didn’t produce 200 rix dollars, and some paid twenty or thirty a year with a few paying as low as five. This meant that the ministers, like Jón, had to  support themselves with farming and the success of that depended on the land the minister was given. How little Jón´s pay was can be seen in that a good riding horse cost five pounds sterling. That would translate into Jon´s yearly salary.
It may be that he had a difficult personality, that his sometimes scathing verse made enemies, that, more importantly, in a society where family connections were all important,  he wasn´t connected to the important people in Reykjavik, but in a country that claimed that literature was all important , that the love of poetry was supreme, it is passing strange that not a penny could be found to publish Jón´s translation. Genius is often unrewarded but that it should go so unrewarded is shocking when it is foreigners who recognized Jon´s genius and accomplishment and raised money to help him in his old age. It is true that the stranger often has a keen eye.
 So, yes, when I say, I´m proud of my Icelandic heritage, Jón Þorláksson, in spite of his faults, is part of that which I am proud. And I’m proud that, today, his accomplishments are recognized and celebrated.  

 (Quotes from Iceland, or the Journal of a Residence in that Island (2 vols, 1818) and A Visit to Iceland by Way of Tronyem in the Summer of 1834)

Going Viking Maybe?

Guy Maddin made a film called My Winnipeg. Not your Winnipeg, My Winnipeg. Winnipeg from his point of view. None of this, Our Collective Winnipeg, the kind of boring, everybody agrees on Winnipeg and offends no one. Tough on his mom maybe. Might not be great to be one of his sibs since only Guy gets to tell the story. But, it is an eccentric act of genius, because it is his Winnipeg and no one else’s, except, of course, that all of us from Winnipeg, recognize ourselves.
That’s what I was thinking about as I stared out the window today at the relentless rain. Guy Maddin and his point of view and I was thinking about it because I was pondering the question about My Iceland and My Icelandic Canada. My eccentric point of view about my Icelandic heritage. My Icelandic Heritage has a sort of fuzzy edge to it. The fuzzy edge is made up of My Icelandic United States but if I got into that, it really would be a kind of surreal because I don’t really know much about Point Roberts or Boundary Bay or the shenanigans in Chicago.
This is where, on a rainy day, statements like, “I’m a proud Icelander,” lead. Especially when they force me to think about what it is I’m proud about. Once I’ve eaten the vinarterta and the rullupylsa and the plate is empty, what’s left?
I’m not proud of Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis. I know they looked great as Vikings, although Tony Curtis looked pretty wimpy. Kirk looked more like someone who might strike terror into the hearts of helpless English or Irish villagers who had no way of protecting themselves. Curtis looked more like the kind of guy who’d be filling up a sack with the local abbot’s silver while Kirk, baby, was sticking his sword into an abbot who wouldn’t know what to do with a sword even if he had one.
That’s the problem with Vikings. Viking means pirate. If someone says, let’s go Viking, he means, let’s get a bunch of the guys together and go steal, kill and rape. It’s interesting, in the many lectures I’ve attended over the years, the archeologists, anthropologists, historians, and others, when asked by audience members who are doing heavy breathing at the word Vikings, to tell them all about the Vikings, the archeologists, anthropologists, historians, and others, describe them as a bunch of young gangsters, criminals, juvenile delinquents. If there’d been motorcycles, they’d have been characters in the movie, The Wild One. Except Marlon Brando just wouldn’t have cut it as a Viking.
There are always some people who want to reach back to when their ancestors were pirates. The conveniently forget that there are about eight hundred years of their ancestors being sheep farmers who couldn’t defend themselves when some Turkish pirates turned up in 1627 and did the killing, raping and enslaving. Tending sheep doesn’t exactly turn out hard bitten commandos.
It’s true that in places in Europe, the Vikings settled down, had kids, planted crops, raised animals, produced beautiful artifacts. There is a whole academic industry that studies and writes about it. There are massive coffee table books showing stuff made by Vikings. There’s also an entire sub culture that creates a romanticized version of Viking life. In fact, not much is really known about Viking culture. It’s mostly deduced from stuff dug out of graves and reading the sagas. That doesn’t stop people from adding in their versions of idealized Viking life. If you can be Sigurd, warrior princess on weekends, it helps make selling shoes or being a barista bearable.
Think about what it must have been like after people had been killed, their houses burned down, and you sailed into the harbour in front of your Icelandic farm (there were no villages). You pull your boat onto the shore and said, proudly, “Hey, babe, look at all the good stuff that I managed to steal.”

The problem is that settling down in these various coastal areas in Europe, having kids, ploughing fields, raising sheep doesn’t produce fierce warriors so when the Barbary pirates appeared and killed, raped and pillaged, there wasn’t much opposition. They cleared out whole villages in Holland, Ireland, England, all along the coat. It was payback time. Bad karma being acted out. Where were Kirk and Tony when they were needed?
It’s fun to put on fake fur and a helmet and wave a sword around at Islindingadagurinn. Especially after an Icelandic beer or two. The Viking village on the hill in Gimli is great. The people who set up the village and populate it go to tremendous lengths to make it authentic. They make chain mail and cook meat on a spit over an open fire. They give demonstration battles. Except they’re rather clean, have good teeth and credit cards. They’re not going to suddenly start slaughtering the spectators. Thank goodness.
I admire the sagas but those were written long after the Viking age was over. I admire the sagas as pieces of literature. They are a major part of world literature. Thank goodness not all those vellum pages were cut up to make patterns for dresses. However, I can’t say that I admire the behaviour of most of the characters in the sagas. I wouldn’t have wanted most of them for neighbours.
So, when I say I’m proud of My Icelandic Heritage, Vikings don’t rank very high. They did when I was a little kid and I and my friends ran around the yard having sword fights but that was a while ago.

Þorrablót

Left: from top to bottom, left to right): Hangikjöt, Hrútspungar, Lifrarpylsa, Blóðmör, Hákarl, Svið. Right: Rúgbrauð, Flatbrauð (courtesy Wickipedia)

Ethnic food. What is it really? Nostalgia for the past? For a past that never really existed? A romantic view that is comforting? A romantic view that leaves out the hunger, the poverty, the oppression, the drudgery, the lack of opportunity, the daily brutality of trying to get enough food on which to survive?

How desperately hungry must people have been to have eaten a shark that had washed up on the beach and was rotten? Just think of how it must have worked. A shark washed up on the beach. People were starving. The shark is fresh. They eat the flesh. They bleed to death internally. Someone finds a rotted shark and eats it and they don’t die. And, although the flesh stinks, it is something that can be eaten.

How desperately hungry were people at times? They were so hungry that they boiled and ate their sheep skin shoes. They put bones in whey to soften them enough that they could be eaten. That’s how hungry. How romantic is that?

A friend of mine showed me some photographs of waterfalls and mountains and said, “That’s the country our people left.” No. That’s the landscape our people left. You can’t eat waterfalls or mountains. You can’t eat beauty. Our ancestors left a country with one crop: hay. At a time when the short growing season was often so cold that the ground didn’t thaw, even grass didn’t grow and sheep and cattle had to be slaughtered because there was no fodder. Even collecting seaweed didn’t provide enough feed to keep animals alive through the winter. They left a country where the sheep were afflicted with scabies and lungworm. When Bjartur of Summerhouses has to kill his sheep because lungworm were hanging out their nostrils, he wasn’t the only one. When people waded into the swamps to cut a handful of grass, it was because grass was so precious that even a handful was worth wading in ice cold water.

There was no Safeway, no 7-11, no Loblaws. There were some Danish trading stores and if you had enough wool  or a few fish, you could trade them for some rye flour or biscuits, some coffee, maybe some sugar. But the Danes weren’t giving anything away. There wasn’t another store down the block. You paid their price or you got nothing. You were less a customer than a beggar, hoping they’d take what you had to offer and giving you something in return.

The entire year was spent just getting enough food stored to last until the next spring.

Maybe, though, when we say we’re proud of our Icelandic heritage and eat Þorramatur, it’s a way of paying our respects to the past, to the people who ate rotted shark and softened bones, who ate seaweed, who ate boiled sheepskin. Because they did, they lived and we’re here. Dead people don’t have kids. Our ancestors managed to stay alive.

Recipes cost nothing to transport. Recipes were in the heads of the wives and mothers and grandmothers. In North America, after the initial period, the ingredients could not only be found but found in an abundance unknown in Iceland. Grain. Lots of grain. Not just for the bishop or Danish merchants in Reykjavik but ordinary farmers ordinary working people. Rye, flax, oats, wheat. The Icelanders who went to work on the farms in Canada during haying season said the work was brutally hard but the food was good and you could eat all you wanted. That was a miracle. To be able to eat all you want.

The first winters after the Icelanders came to New Iceland, they went hungry. When they caught enough fish that they could eat fish twice a day, they felt fortunate. There were no hams and roasts. No banquet tables. No Thorrablot tables laden with more food than anyone could eat.

Today, at Thorrablot, when we eat rúbrauð, that dense, dark rye bread, we choose to eat it. We eat it in memory of the past when bread was a luxury, when it was cooked in the hot ground. No one today has to eat putrefied shark or súrsaðir hrúspungar, the pickled  testicles of lambs. The lifrarpylsa, liver sausage, and the bloómöör or slátur, a blood pudding made from lamb´s blood, suet, rye flour and oats, common during my childhood, have disappeared. We´re no longer an agricultural, rural society doing our own slaughtering, wasting nothing, not even testicles and blood. 

So maybe, when we say we’re proud of our heritage and we demonstrate it by attending a Thorrablot, it is not that we are honouring the god, Thor, or even celebrating the approach of spring, but we are acknowledging the hunger of our ancestors, their brave and desperate trip to North America, their struggle to feed their families. Maybe, as we fill our plates with rúllupylsa, hangikjöt, beef, potatoes, salads, bread, carrots, peas, white sauce, when we go back for desserts, for skyr, pönnokökur, kleiner, vinarterta, when we fill our cup with coffee, we’re saying  to those ghostly figures from our past, see, all that suffering was worth it, you came to give your children and grandchildren and great grandchildren food and opportunity and here, as we raise our fork, it’s in tribute to you, it’s proof that it was all worthwhile, the leaving Iceland, the ocean voyages, the deaths, the travel across half a continent, the scurvy, the smallpox, the grubbing out farms with a mattock, it was all worth it and the proof is on our plates and in our stomachs. Maybe that’s why we can be proud of our food because it is both a memory of the past and a confirmation that all the sacrifices were worthwhile.

I’m Proud but proud of what?

The most significant event during my tenure as editor of Logberg-Heimskringla was a letter to the editor castigating me for my bias and narrow-mindedness, surely a fault we all share, along with the statement, “I’m a proud Icelander.”

Being Lutheran, I didn’t mind a touch of the whip. It gets one’s attention. In any case, it’s part of the job of editors to receive letters from all and sundry, letters usually written in upset, anger and even fury. The world is an infuriating place. Injustice abounds. I completely agreed with the letter writer that a worthy history had been neglected, not just by me but the entire community. My only solace was that I had already begun to plan a series that would cover the neglected history. I haven’t forgotten. That will come as I have time to do the necessary research, take the photographs and write the articles.

However, what has stuck with me even more is a simple, heartfelt statement that also was in the email. It said, “I’m a proud Icelander.”

Since the writer is a fourth generation Canadian, I was flummoxed. I didn’t know how to reply. I’m a fourth generation Canadian from one Icelandic ancestor and a fifth generation from another. I cannot claim to be Icelandic by birth or citizenship.

What then could the statement mean?

It could mean, “I’m proud of my Icelandic heritage.” That made sense. Of course, “I’m a proud Icelander.” is shorthand for pride in one’s heritage.

And what a heritage it is. It’s got more drama, tragedy, triumph, melodrama, narrative, culture, history, than you can shake a stick at. But once I had sorted this out, I was left with this voice in my head asking questions, demanding answers. The biggest of all was, “Okay, you’re proud of your Icelandic heritage. What are you proud about?”

The answers were fragmented. Bits of this and pieces of that.  I’m proud of vinartera. Can you be proud of vinarterta? To make that even more difficult, vinarterta has largely disappeared from Icelandic cooking because Icelandic cooking today is very European. I definitely like vinarterta. I’ve eaten vast numbers of vinarterta slices in my lifetime. Would one say, “I’m proud of rabbit stew.”? I like rabbit stew. But am I proud of it? And rullapylsa and ponnokokur and rosettes (woops, rosettes are Swedish). Okay, okay. But I am proud of Icelandic desserts in that I enjoy sharing them with friends. I like saying, “Try this prune torte.”

I like taking non-Icelanders (see, there it is again, saying people of non-Icelandic descent is such a mouthful) to Thorrablot. I like seeing them try the Icelandic dishes. I take a certain pride in explaining what they are and a bit of the history behind them. I like watching their eyes get big when I explain about rotted shark. There’s a certain perverted satisfaction in scoffing up a plate of dried cod with butter. Mmmm mmmm! Worn asphalt shingle with motor oil. I don’t care. I enjoy it and if it wasn’t there, I’d miss it.

But is that an Icelandic heritage? I also like peroghis, hollopchi, Won Ton soup, apple pie, curries of all kind and like bragging a bit about how liking all those things is about being Canadian. I also like maple syrup, tortiere, BBQ ribs, blackberry pudding. In a bow to the little bit of English in my genetic code, I also like the occasional kipper for breakfast but no kipper ever smoked has come close to being as good as a Lake Winnipeg Goldeye but that’s not Icelandic, it’s Gimli. It’s part of my Icelandic Canadian heritage and I’m proud of the fact that it is served at events like embassy suppers. Some of us have heritages that let them say, “I’m proud of the fact that we conquered most of the known world.” Or “We defeated the Spanish Armada.”  With me, it’s “Smoked fish.”

So, what then is it that we’re proud of in our Icelandic heritage? I’m going to write some articles about things in my Icelandic heritage that I’m proud of. See if you agree. If you don’t, say so. Tell me what it is you are proud of.

This isn’t just an Icelandic NA community question. In the USA and Canada, we have immigrant cultures. Every immigrant group, in spite of their unique qualities, all go through the same process. They face the same questions. How German is German after four generations? What can they be proud of in their history. Or Italian. Or East Indian. Or Phillipino. What is worth preserving? What needs to be shed?

When someone chooses to leave home,  move to the USA or Canada, they begin a process that they cannot escape.

Something we should always remember. We can be proud not just of what our culture has done but also, maybe even more so, of what it has not done and does not do. Recently, four women were drowned to satisfy the honour of a man who was the father to three of them and the husband to one. We’re not perfect as a culture, we’ve made mistakes in the past and present. We’ll make mistakes in the future. But killing your daughters because you think your honour is lessened by their wanting to dress like other kids their age, wanting to have a boyfriend, wanting to be young, has never been part of our “tribal” culture. I’m proud of that.

Rite of Passage

Photograph provided by Ken Kristjanson

Lake Winnipeg is big. People who haven’t travelled on it don’t realize just how big. There 9,465 sq miles of water. It’s 300 miles long and, in places, 50 miles wide. It’s a lake of ferocious storms with winds from Hudson Bay combining with shallow water,  creating dangerous waves. It’s a lake made for drowning. In winter, it’s a great plain of ice, driving winds, drifting snow, booming cracks.

It’s a lake filled with fish. The native population fed themselves on the fish. In 1875, the Icelandic settlers arrived. Flummoxed by fish that weren’t cod, by water that froze six feet thick, by having nets meant for the ocean but useless in fresh water, the best they could do was catch enough fish to stay alive. However, it didn’t take long for them to learn the skills that were needed, to build boats for the open water, to make nets that would catch whitefish, pickerel, sauger, jackfish, sunfish, goldeye, fish that could be eaten fresh, wind dried or smoked. Fish that could be transported to Winnipeg to be sold or traded.

The Icelandic settlers were mostly sheep farmers but, in Iceland, once the hay harvest was in, hired men and even the farm owners walked or rode to the coast to fish during the winter. Iceland’s was a survival economy. Each year it was a struggle to get through the winter. Many did not. For the unlucky, mutton, butter, milk, skyr, dried fish, lichen, ran out. The summers were spent taking care of the dairy cows and sheep, in harvesting the hay, in cutting turf, in collecting lichen and seaweed, the winters, in fishing. The ocean fishing skills were largely irrelevant to survival on Lake Winnipeg, but the attitude was not.

What, at first, was subsistence fishing, providing enough for a full belly, soon turned into an opportunity to trade for necessary goods or even to be paid in cash. It didn’t take long for an Icelandic fishery to be established and among the Icelanders some families began to create fishing stations, build boats, set up commercial enterprises and become what was known as fishing families.

Among these were the Kristjansons. Sigurdur T. Kristjansson was born in Skagafjordur, in 1879. He came to Canada with his foster parents in 1885. He became a fisherman and lake station operator. Two of his sons, Hannes and Ted, in turn, became fishermen. Although, of Ted’s two sons, it is Robert who continues the tradition of fishing, it is Ken who has been writing reminiscences of fishing on Lake Winnipeg.

The lake was a dangerous place. It was a world mostly of men who worked hard, faced danger on a daily basis, lived in isolation for long periods of time. Those who worked on the lake created a culture, shared a life, and when a boy first entered this world, there were initiations. But, it’s Ken’s story, and I’ll let him tell it.

“In 1950 our family became the operators of the Booth Fisheries Whitefish Station on George Island, in the north basin of Lake Winnipeg. (Although the charts list it as ‘George’ Island, it was always called  “George’s Island”.) After high school was finished for the year, I was to board the M.S. Goldfield for the 200 mile trip to George’s to work as a junior shore-hand. My first time making the trip on my own.
“With a stop at Rabbit Point, it would normally take a day and a night to reach the island, so the trip was like a relaxing cruise. Captain Albertson and the crew of eight knew my family well and they weren’t above playing a little trick on me. Shortly after boarding, The Captain called me over and said very seriously that the “Key to the Keelson” was missing. As the crew was busy at their various tasks, would I help them find this important item? Being young and eager to please, I readily agreed.
“The Captain dead-panned that some member of the crew must have The Key. So off I went looking.  But the whole ship, save for me, was in on the game. They had played this stunt many times on ‘green horns’ before me and they had their acting parts down to a science.  One by one I dutifully searched out all the crew members, asking if they knew the whereabouts of this missing key. Each one shook their heads solemnly.
“Seeing my frustration and fearing I would give up after searching for so long, one of the crew said that the Engineer must have it. The problem was he was off watch and sleeping in his room. But on the ship, the Captain’s word was law and so I gingerly opened the door to the Engineer’s room. As quietly as possible, I explained my mission. Grumpily he arose from his bunk and with a stream of complaints about the frequent disappearance of the key, he searched his cabin while a 14 year old boy stood shaking at attention. Sadly no key could be found. In despair I made my way to the wheel house to report to the Captain my inability to find the elusive key. By now it was almost suppertime and the crew had gathered for the meal. The smiles on their faces should have tipped me off. As I approached, they all said in unison, “Gotcha!”
Ken  Kristjanson

Feb 2012