The Women Who Stayed in Winnipeg

The lady of the house, 1890. If your great great amma worked as a domestic she worked for this lady or her friends.
When the 285 Icelandic settlers of 1875 arrived in Winnipeg, around 50 of them who were able to find work stayed in the city. Little did they know how good a decision that would become.
 Your great great amma looked like these cooks and maids in 1890.
 Coming from Iceland where farms did not have stoves, your great great amma had to learn to use one of these. This looks like the one in our kitchen in Gimli when I was a boy. My mother made wonderful meals on it.
The settlers who went on to New Iceland were towed down the river in flat boats, were cut loose before reaching their destination at the White Mud River (Icelandic river, Riverton), arrived late in the season without enough stoves for each family to have one. Instead, they hastily built cabins of logs, something they’d never done. They were not woodsmen as there were no trees in Iceland large enough to use in building. One cabin to each stove. In Iceland, none of them had stoves. In spite of the name, Iceland, the weather is so much more moderate that people could survive with thick turf and rock walls, body heat and the fire used for cooking. In Manitoba, they would have frozen to death.
In 1875 there was a surplus of men. Employment for men, except seasonally (harvest time, for example), was hard to come by. However, there was a shortage of women both as wives and as domestic help. Although Winnipeg only had 5,000 residents, women could find jobs in the city.
 Bread. Bread. Magical bread. Wheat, rye, oats, barley. Grain. Lots of it. Affordable. None of these breads made in Iceland. Great great amma had to learn to make bread like this.
In 1876 a group of 1200 Icelanders arrived in Winnipeg. Some of these also stayed behind in Winnipeg.
These people, the ones who decided to remain in Winnipeg, formed the nuclease of the Winnipeg Icelandic community. This community, with more emigrants coming from Iceland, plus people leaving New Iceland and moving to Winnipeg, by 1890, was large enough to hold the first Icelandic Celebration at Victoria Park.
By 1890, fifteen years had passed from the arrival of the first settlers in Winnipeg. During those years women found jobs in non-Icelandic households. With some staying in the city and some going to New Iceland where the goal was to have a separate colony, the same drama was being played out as had gone on earlier with some leaders saying settlers would be better off integrating, working on the farms of Swedes, Danes and Norwegians who were established. That way they would learn how to farm. On the other side were those who wanted, at any cost, to stay separate, to keep to themselves and recreate a new Iceland.
 Life in New Iceland started hard with no cows, no milk, dreadful living conditions, and got harder when smallpox broke out.
Those in Winnipeg managed to avoid some of these hardships that we hear so much about. But what was life like for them?
First, they had to adjust to seeing non-Icelanders every day. To working with non-Icelanders every day. To being employed by non-Icelanders every day. They had to learn English. Having non-Icelandic employers demanded it. Even harder, perhaps, they had to learn new ways of doing everything. Everything. Living to a different code of cleanliness, behaviour, thinking, relationships, customs, food, clothes. Everything. Right now.
Pounding dried cod so it could be eaten, knitting endlessly or weaving, taking care of sheep, raking hay didn’t prepare anyone for being a good housemaid. If your great amma or great great amma got a job as a housemaid, these were the duties she was expected to perform. This is what she had to adjust to, had to learn.
 “A good housemaid will rise at six, and have her grates cleaned and rooms swept by seven. She will then go upstairs, wash her hands, and make herself tidy for taking to the bedroom hot water if required to do so. In the meanwhile the dust will have settled, and the rooms will be ready on her return to be finished by eight. By nine o’clock breakfast ought to be cleared away and the housemaid ready to strip the beds, empty slops, and set the bedrooms in order. By eleven o’clock the up-stairs work ought to be done, unless extra cleaning is in question. Washing up china and glass, dusting the drawing-room, and other light labour of the kind may take till twelve or one o’clock, by which time a housemaid ought to be dressed for the day, fit to answer the door, wait on the family, and do needlework. Any work required of the servant after mid-day should be of a nature not to soil her garments. At dusk, it is a housemaid’s place to close all the windows at the upper part of the house. Before going to bed she has to turn down all the beds of the family, replenish ewers and water bottles, empty slops, and put everything in its place. If she has the charge of the plate-basket she carries it to the master’s room, together with hot water. Considerate employers will dispense with a housemaid’s attendance by ten o’clock, bearing in mind her morning duties.
 “The day before a wash is intended, all the dirty linen should be looked up, sorted, and entered in a book with the same precision as is observed when things are sent out. Any articles that are in excess – owing to the state of the weather or what not – should be thoroughly dried, folded, and put away, under lock and key, till a convenient season. Saturday afternoon is the best time for the above preparation; the clothes can then remain in soak till Monday, which greatly facilitates the removal of stains, &c.
   
 “All the best white linen should be put in a separate pan, or tub, and coarse things in another. Sufficient lukewarm, or cold soda and water should then be poured over the clothes.
   
“Coloured things, flannels, and woollen materials should not be laid in soak. These require washing separately, piece by piece, when the work is in progress. Pocket-handkerchiefs should be first rinsed out, and the water thrown away before they are put in with the rest of the things.
   
“The next arrangement to make should consist in shredding fine yellow soap into a jar capable of containing sufficient liquid, according to the amount of washing to be done. About a pound of soap to a gallon of water is a good proportion; no soda should be added. Having poured boiling water on the soap, cover the jar and set it aside on the kitchen stove, or range, till Monday morning, when the soap will be found to be melted to a jelly. When lukewarm, take some of this soap-jelly, and mix it in the water in which the clothes are to be washed. By this means a fine lather is easily produced without waste. About a pint of soap jelly to an ordinary tub of water will be sufficient. The clothes will require but trifling rubbing with hard soap in the very soiled places.
   
“It is a good plan to begin a wash with the flannels. No soap is required for them beyond the jelly described, except for the cotton bands and tapes. Each article should be washed separately in moderately warm (not hot) water. Having washed them in one water, rinse them in clean warm suds, shake them Out, and hang them on the lines at once. Never rinse flannels or woollens in plain water. By doing so they become harsh and shrink.
   
“The water in which the flannels have been rinsed is excellent for the first washing of the white things. If too dirty for that purpose, it should be poured on the coarse things, having first taken them out of the cold soak.
   
“The white things will require two washings, rubbing soap on the stained places, if required. The second water should be used for the first process of rubbing less im-[51-]portant articles. By the time the white things are washed, the copper should be ready for the boiling process. The water should only be lukewarm when the clothes are put in, as boiling water fixes the stains instead of loosening them. The water in the copper should contain a fair proportion of soap jelly and about two ounces of soda. From ten minutes to a quarter of an hour after the clothes have been at boiling heat, they should be taken out and plunged into plenty of cold water for rinsing. Having been wrung out of the rinsing water, they should next be put into clean blue water, one by one, passing each piece swiftly through the water to prevent the blue from settling into those unsightly streaks which are afterwards so difficult to remove.
   
“There is no waste of time in this precaution, because each article has to be wrung out separately, even if a basketful of linen be tossed into the blue water at the outset. Directly ·the clothes are blued and wrung, they should be shaken out and put upon the lines.
   
A propos of “hanging-out.” Before putting up the lines, they should be passed through a coarse cloth, to remove any dust or soils from the gravel-paths, &c. All articles set in a band should be slightly festooned from the bottom hem-never from the band. Sheets and table-cloths should be hung with the short side towards the wind, to enable the air to blow the folds apart. Shirts should be suspended from the bottom hem. A good many pegs are necessary to hang things out well, and the laundry-maid should be careful not to place the pegs at the corners, without first doubling the corners. Stockings should each have a peg, and should be turned inside out before being put on the lines. Wooden pegs are best.”
And, if she were fortunate, your great great amma was able to negotiate for one day a month off. Plus time for church on Sundays but the time was to be limited to the time needed to attend the service.
Halldor Laxness offended people when he came to New Iceland and read a story that criticized the settlers for having their wives work as domestics. His criticism of the settlers was silly. In Iceland, unless you owned land, you worked as an indentured servant with severe restrictions on your life. Perhaps he thought that if you were a landowning farmer, your wife should be like the wife of the owner of Myri (although, in Independent People, he mocked her) and everyone that worked for you should be a bonded labourer. But farming in Canada doesn’t and can’t work that way. In the early days the struggle was to get enough money to get onto the land, to get it cleared and planted. Men took whatever work they could get, on the railway, cutting firewood, harvesting, that would bring in cash. Women took whatever work was available.
This wasn’t Iceland. It couldn’t be Iceland. To try to make it Iceland was a doomed task. Trying to keep things the way they were had kept Iceland from moving into the industrial age with resulting poverty for the largest portion of the population.
Our fate is evident often in the smallest of things. In Iceland, grain was prohibitively expensive for most people. They seldom ate bread and, if they did, it was only on special occasions. In a Blue Ribbon Cookbook from 1905, 30 years after the settlers landed on a cold, windswept beach at Willow Island, there is a section called “Chart of Oven Temperature for Cakes”. Just imagine. Oven temperatures. That means there are ovens which means there are stoves which means there must be a lot of cheap fuel. There was so little fuel in Iceland that there were no stoves and no stoves means no ovens. No one needed to know oven temperatures. Also, there were no cakes. Cakes require finally milled flour and that was only available to the wealthiest farmers. Plunked down in Winnipeg, great great amma had to learn about wood, wood stoves, ovens, baking.
There are instructions on “Essentials for Success” in baking cakes. There are instructions on different methods of baking cakes. There are nineteen pages of recipes for making cakes, cookies and puddings. They all require grain. They all require stoves. They all require abundant fuel.
Bread in Iceland was usually from rye flour coarsely ground, cooked as a flat bread. In the 1905 cookbook, there are eleven pages of recipes and advice on making bread. Overnight bread, sponge bread, soft whole wheat, graham, bran, oatmeal, date, baking powder bread, Boston brown bread, corn bread, Florida pone bread, Sally Lunn bread plus recipes for rolls, biscuits and muffins.
  White bread. Food of kings. Christian IX brought white bread from Denmark when he came in 1874. In Canada, available to all.
I expect that the women who took work in English houses learned about making bread, cakes and cookies and puddings quite quickly. Learned to eat them. Learned to make them. I doubt if any of them pounded dried fish with a stone hammer. This wasn’t Iceland.

Uno von Troil: cattle

Uno von Troil says “Next to fishing, the principal support of the Icelanders is the breeding of cattle.
“Their beeves are not large, but very fat and good. It has been reported by some, though without foundation, that there are none among them with horns: it is however true that they seldom have nay.”
“The large cattle are kept at home in their yards the greater part of the year, though some have places appropriated for them in the mountains which they call fatr, where they send their cattle during the summer, till the hay harvest is over. They have a herdsman to attend them, and two women to milk them and make butter and cheese. It is common to meet with oxen running wild about the mountains, which are however drove home in autumn, as everyone knows his own by a particular mark put upon them.
“The principal food of the cattle is hay, and they reckon that a stack of  hay for a cow’s winter provision; a stack consists of thirty cocks (kapal) of hay, grown on manured land, and forty cocks kapal grown on un-manured land. When there is a scarcity of fodder, they feed them in some pars with steenbitr, a kind of fish, which, together with the heads and bones of cod, is beat small, and mixed with one quarter of chopped hay. The cattle are fond of it and yield a good deal of milk after it; but yet it is said to have a bad taste, and they only make use of this food in time of need.
“Their cows yield four kanne of  milk a day, though they have some that give from eight to fourteen in four-and-twenty hours. A cow that yields six quarts is reckoned a good one, and must not stand dry above there weeks before she calves.
“A young calf is fed with milk for ten days or a fortnight, afterwards the milk is mixed with water and chopped hay, and at last they give it whey instead of milk
“The usual price of a cow, as well as of a horse, is one hundred and twenty ells, thirty of which make a dollar. However, sometimes the better sort of horses are sold for eight or ten rix-dollars. They have less trouble with their horses than their cows; for though some saddle-horses are kept in stables during winter, the greater number of them are obliged to provide for their own subsistence, and when they cannot find this on land, they go in search of sea-weeds on the coasts; but when a great quantity of snow has fallen, the natives are obliged to clear it away for them.”
To get this stack of hay needed for each cow to survive the winter, every farm worker (and the small farm owner), has to scythe an area 180 ft. by 180 ft. every day. That’s on the tún where the soil is manured and where the grass grows more thickly. To get that stack of hay for each cow from unfertilized meadows, a man has to scythe a square 240 ft to a side every day. The women working in the fields have to rake as much hay as three men can mow. Every day. The hours were long, The work hard. In Paradise Reclaimed, after the farm at Steinahliðar has been destroyed and Steina has been sent by the parish council to work on a farm, the narrator says, “She was worn out after a summer of drudgery, long days of toiling in the rain with her rake far into the night.” 
Uno von Troil writes about life in Iceland in 1772. Laxness sets Paradise Reclaimed around the year 1874. We know this because the Danish king comes to visit. Little, if anything, has changed.
In 1874, there has been no mechanization. The cattle depend on harvested grass for the winter. The grass was still cut with a scythe and, although there are many tales of witches who can command a host of scythes to cut her grass, the reality is that one man can only wield one scythe. The grass has to be raked. It has to be dried. It has to be stacked. An experienced farmer can look at his stacks of hay and his herd and calculate how long the hay will last and whether or not, before the year is over, he‘ll be feeding his cattle hay mixed with hammered fish bones and sea weed. In a good year, the milk will taste sweet and in a bad year, it will taste of fish. In a very bad year, there‘ll be no milk to taste.
Cows, in a way, were regarded as a luxury because they required more grass than sheep for an equal amount of milk. In Independent People, Bjartur of Summerhouses resents it when he is given a cow unasked. With the milk from the cow, the health of his family improves but only at the cost of less feed for his sheep.

When their cow is starving for lack of hay, Bjartur’s wife, Finna asks him to visit some of the other farms to borrow some hay. He refuses and says,
“No power between heaven and earth shall make me betray my sheep for the sake of a cow. It took me eighteen years work to get my stock together. I worked twelve more years to pay off the land. My sheep have made me an independent man, and I will never bow to anyone. To have people say of me that I took the beggar’s road for hay in the spring is a disgrace I will never tolerate. And as for the cow, which was foisted on me by the Bailiff and the Women’s Institute to deprive the youngsters of their appetite and filch the best of the hay from the sheep, for her I will do only one thing.” That one thing is to kill the cow which he does quite happily.
Not all farmers, however, were like Bjartur. The original settlers had brought over dairy cattle before 1000 AD. The cattle though perhaps not as efficient users of grass as the cows, were still efficient. That was good because no grain ripened in Iceland after the Little Ice Age began. Importing grain was prohibitively expensive even for human consumption. There was no tradition of growing vegetables to feed animals. The climate made it increasingly difficult to grow vegetables and those who did or tried to were mostly Danes.
In spite of the preference for sheep, the settlers in New Iceland followed the tradition of raising dairy cows. In the New Iceland area, just outside of Gimli, the tradition is still carried on by the Narfason family. In 1915, Magnus Narfason was selling fluid milk to the City dairy in Winnipeg from a farm he established in 1897. His sons Elli and Mundi took over the farm after Magnus died in 1931. Oli Narfason, who is Elli‘s son, became involved in the farm in the late 1940s. His son Clifford took over the farm when Oli retired. Today, in 2012, that‘s 115 years of commitment to those cows that Bjartur saw as competing with his precious sheep.
My great grandfather, Ketill, after working as a labourer on the railway and in Winnipeg, saved enough money to start a large dairy business in Winnipeg in 1894. He bought a parcel of land on the N. W. Corner of Simcoe St. And Ellice Ave. What is now in the heart of the city was grazing land. He carried on business there until 1903.
Cows. Hay. Milk. Survival. A way of life. Transferred to North America. First just to provide the milk that was a staple in the diet of the Icelandic settlers but, gradually, as many settlers took other opportunities, there came the possibility of producing milk for the community.
Today, there is little evidence of the critical role dairy cattle played in the survival of both the Icelanders and the North American Icelandic settlers but no history of either group is complete without an understanding of how the cattle Uno von Troil describes were critical to our ancestor‘s survival. Gimli has a large viking statue. We all like it. We take relatives and friends to stand in front of it for pictures. Perhaps, what there should be is a statue of an Icelandic dairy cow, our own Bukolla. The Viking raids left nothing for following generations   to eat. Their plunder disappeared. The cows were more faithful. They have fed us for over a thousand years. Maybe a statue of an Icelandic cow standing beside the Viking, as large as he is, would recognize what we owe to whom.
Perhaps, when we reach for the skyr, we should pause for a moment and think of people scything grass long into the night, raking hay in the rain, pounding fish bones and collecting seaweed to mix with hay, so that the milk, cream, butter and skyr would last longer than the winter.
     
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   
  

Laxness: Björn of Leirur

There were no psychiatrists in Shakespear’s day but he didn’t need one to create Iago. He didn’t need one to create Hamlet. Or King Lear. He simply needed to observe the people around him. He understood motive and desire and how it drove people to act in evil or self-destructive or foolish ways.
That’s what sets out a great writer from a mediocre writer. The ability to observe, to notice the tiniest details of how someone acts and to understand the meaning of those actions. It might be no more than the crooking of a finger, a glance, a turn of the head but it will tell the reader or the audience the inner mind of the character. Browning, in an act of genius, wrote “My Last Duchess” and within the confines of a poem created a portrait, not only of an innocent victim, but a portrait of evil in the person of the Duke. In no place does he say the Duke is evil. All is indirection.
In Paradise Reclaimed, Laxness creates a picture of the sociopath, Björn of Leirur. Laxness needs no course in psychiatry. He observes and records and gives us a devastating picture of both an innocent victim and a portrait of evil.
We begin with his foil and, perhaps, with his fool, Steinar of Steinahliðar. The farmer, Steinar, is so scrupulous about his property that he would never see damage or deterioration of any kind, indoors or out, without making haste to repair it.“ He is held up as an example of how a farmer should be. Through generations, the family has built up a farm worth twelve hundreds. Given the hardships of cold summers, hard winters, the regular fall of rock onto the fields, the diseases of both the people and the cattle, this is a major accomplishment.
Steinar is not rich. With the income from  his sheep  he is able to buy rye-meal and barley and other necessary items from the trading store at Eyrarbakki. Some old ewes are slaughtered for meat. The family does not wear Danish shoes. Shoes are made at home. In years when times are hard, Steinar spends the winters working on a fish boat. This was no little thing for the drownings of the fishermen are many, the work brutal. The fishermen live lives of extreme hardship.   
When Björn of Leirur, the repository of evil, appears, he comes with sheriff Benediktsson who is both his patron-collaborater and competitor. Björn has courted the sheriff from his arrival, even currying his favour by giving him horses, cattle and land. It is obvious from the description that they represent how society works in Iceland. The wealthy, ambitious farmers forming corrupt bonds with government officials.
Björn has gone to the major trading station at Eyrarbakki for training, then to Copenhagen to work for the Danish merchants. The Danes still control Iceland. When he returns to Iceland, he is appointed as the clerk to the sheriff at Hof. He receives some derelict crofts, joins them together, marries a woman because she is wealthy. With his land and her money, he has advanced in life and when the book begins, he is travelling the country as an agent for the Scots. Iceland is so poor that actual currency is seldom seen. Payment is often made in wadmal or butter. The Scots traders have gold and can afford to pay cash for ponies and sheep. As their agent, Björn is able to pay gold, silver and copper coins for shipment to Scotland. Björn also buys up wrecked ships. Any time someone runs into financial difficulty, he is there to take over the distressed property.There are many distressed properties because most small farmers have no savings. Their lives and their families lives depend on the weather, on the growth of the grass, on how much grass they can harvest to feed their cattle. No grains grow in Iceland. It is a country with one crop.
When Björn and the sheriff arrive at Steinahliðar, Björn gives Steinar´s children each a silver coin. His innocent gift presages the later coins that he will give to Steinar´s daughter.
There is here, right at the beginning, a foreshadowing of what is to come as the Sherrif says that Björn has had sex with , “all the better-class housewives and farmer´s daughters over in the west
Time passes and Steinar‘s daughter, little Steina, is confirmed. Religious confirmation in Iceland was and still is a major event. It is regarded as a significant passage. In both Independent People and in Paradise Reclaimed, confirmation signals to the men in the story that a girl is sexually ready.
The King of Denmark comes to Iceland to give the people a constitution. Steinar is too unimportant to be asked to the festivities but, inexplicably, decided not only to go to the outdoor reception for the king but to take him a gift of a white horse. This is no ordinary white  horse. He is the kind of horse that a farmer might have in his herd once in ten or twenty years. Both Björn and the sheriff have tried to buy the horse but Steinar has turned them down. Steinar loves his daughter and son and they love this horse with all their hearts. Steinar knows this but takes the white to Thingvalla and gives the horse to the king. The king, in return, invites Steinar to visit him in Denmark. Steinar returns home and, master craftsman that he is, he conceives of another gift for the king. He is going to build an intricate cabinet full of secret compartments. However, wood is a precious commodity and nothing he has will allow him to create the cabinet.
He goes to Björn of Leirur who is genial, kisses him (kissing as a way of greeting between Icelandic men was normal) and asks him what he wants. Steinar says he needs mahogany. Björn has recently salvaged a ship with a lot of mahogany. Steinar accepts a gift of some mahogany and, as if in an afterthought, Björn says to Steinar, “Listen, my dear chap, since you happen to live on the main track, would you not let me graze my colts on your pastures for a night or two if I should  happen to be driving them down this summer for shipment to the English?”
And Steinar, in all innocence, judging Björn as he would himself, says ‚You will always be welcome at Hliðar with your colts, night or day, bless you, my old friend.“ And Björn, liar and manipulator that he is, says, “It may well be that I´ll have a few drovers with me.“
And Steinar, foil or fool, replies, “You are all welcome at Hliðar for as long as you can find houseroom there. Good friends make the best guests.‘
Steinar, in all innocence or naivete, has made a bargain with the devil. He expects Björn, in spite of his reputation for both greed and womanizing, to behave within the bounds of good friendship. If he has heard that when you sup with the devil, you should use a long spoon, Steinar does not practice it. It may be that he, master builder, master craftsman, model farmer, since there is no evil in him, is not capable of recognizing the potential for evil in others.
He builds  his magic cabinet from mahogany. He goes to Denmark to give the king the cabinet and leaves his wife, daughter and son with the care of the farm. Under normal circumstances, they should be able to manage.
He is not gone long when Björn turns up one night in a rainstorm with two drovers. He tells Steinar´s wife about Steinar´s offer of grass and a place to stay. He has asked if he can bring a couple of colts to eat grass. Steinar has said that would be fine. To understand the betrayal that will take place, it is necessary to understand how precious is grass. Life depends on it. Every farm has a tún. That is an enclosed field that is manured. No animal is allowed into this tún. It is here that the best grass is grown, where hope for survival in the coming winter is placed.
Björn has said that he might have one or two drovers with him. Again, to Steinar´s wife, he says the same thing but instead of two drovers, ten fill up the living room. Having been given an inch, Björn takes a mile.
In Iceland, it was a common practice to have a room for guests. There were no inns. When people travelled, they often did so in dreadful weather. They sometimes stayed in tents but, more often, they stayed in churches or at farms. There were no roads and all travel and transport was by horse. Times when travellers would arrive, could not be predicted and farmers and their families, wakened in the middle of the night by people needing shelter would get up and provide food and a place to stay.
For a long time, it was common for the eldest daughter to help a traveller off with his clothes. Travellers were often cold, soaking wet and exhausted. Björn’s drovers don´t get the guest room. Björn does. Björn, following the old custom, asks that Steina help him get undressed. However, he immediately breaches the rules of both friendship and hospitality. This a girl who is around fourteen. She has never left the farm. She has no experience with any men, except a very shy, brief flirtation with a boy from a neighbouring farm. Björn pats Steina´s head and cheeks like he would that of a child but then runs  his hands over her breasts, stomach and buttocks. He then asks her to sleep at the foot of the bed.
In the morning, the family is startled “for Steinar’s hayfield and meadows were swarming with a greater horde of ponies than had ever been seen in these parts.” Where Björn had asked for pasturage for a couple of horses and Steinar had agreed, there were now 300 or 400 horses.
The home field in Iceland was the most precious piece of ground on a farm. It was fenced with a rock or turf fence, no animal was allowed on it, it was fertilized and, from it, the precious grass that would keep the stock through the winter was harvested. In Iceland there was only one crop. Grass. During the three months of the growing season, enough hay had to be harvested to keep the stock for nine months. If there was no hay or not enough hay, the animals died. When the animals died, the people died. That is what happens in a one crop agricultural economy.
Already during that first night the home-field had been trampled beyond repair.“ The family is doomed. The generations of carefully husbanding the ground, keeping the stone walls in repair, building up the flock of sheep and the herd of cows is destroyed. The act is not just irresponsible but wanton. Björn of Leirur knows full well the consequences of what he has done and he has done it without any conscience whatsoever.
He will compound that by getting Steina pregnant. Although she does not understand its significance, he gives her a gold coin for taking her virginity, then silver coins and, finally, copper coins. He is an older man. She is only about fourteen. She has lived nowhere but the farm and does not even understand how it is that she has become pregnant.
By this time, Steina has had a son and there is an investigation. Björn arranges for a young man in the district to say that he got her pregnant. In return for marrying her, Björn will give the couple a croft and stock and even some money. The sheriff says that “It’s no fun for any woman to get landed with one of Björn´s illegitimate children.” And we know that Steina is just one of many young girls whom Björn has made pregnant and, using his money and his influence, has arranged for them to be married to someone else.
During the investigation into who made her pregnant, Steina refuses to name or, doesn´t really understand, who the father is.
The destruction of the home field by Björn leaves the family destitute. They become welfare cases.  In Iceland, there is no worse fate. The family is separated. The grandmother and grandchild are sent by the parish council to one farm, the daughter to another, and the son to a third. This is not welfare as we know it. The family members go to the farmer who will take the smallest amount of money from the sysla (municipality) to keep them. They are auctioned off not to the highest bidder but the lowest.
The destruction that Björn has wrought is captured when the Mormon bishop, Þjóðrekur, returns to Iceland and goes to deliver a message and a packet of needles to Steinar´s wife. Steinar has travelled from Copenhagen to Utah, joined the Mormon´s and sent the message and needles but  they have taken years to arrive.
When Þjóðrekur sees the farm, “The high walls of stone, most of them in a sorry state. The famous dikes that once had enclosed the home-field were also dilapidated, and in some places it was obvious that gaps had been deliberately torn in them to make access easier. The grass had been so cropped to the quick that nothing remained except a clump of marsh marigolds, and where the earth had been stripped clean of turf there was chickweed growing….The farm itself was derelict. The roof had been torn off and all the timber carted away. The tumbledown walls had been engulfed by dock-plants….An air of desolation breathed over the ruins.”
The family is in no better shape. Steinar’s wife is “now broken in health and unfit for outdoor work”. Steina works on a farm on one side of a river. On the other side all “now belonged to Leirur. Björn the agent bought up the crofts.” Steina is “worn out after a summer of drudgery, long days toiling in the rain with her rake far into the night.” At night, she can see the light on in the window of Björn´s house.
One night in the dark, she risks crossing the river to see Björn. When he realizes who she is, he cajoles her, tries to flatter her, promises to go away with her, but then leaves the room and, in awhile, an old woman comes and tells Steina to leave. Once again, Björn has proven to be a flatterer, a liar and a coward.
In the meantime, Bishop Þjóðrekur finds Steina´s brother. He gathers up the mother, daughter, son and grandson and says that he will lead them to Utah.
Björn, in an act that could have some redemption in it, doesn´t want his child to be taken away. He says that  he will raise him, educate him, make him a sheriff and a national poet. He says “Don’t think that I will let you fall into the clutches of the parish council again.” His promises are, as usual, empty and dishonest. He has had no compunction about the family falling into the parish council’s clutches before. He knows that the farmers usually made sure these paupers earned their keep. That they were often ill fed and ill treated. When someone became a pauper, they lost all their legal rights. They didn´t get them back until they repaid the municipality the amount of money spent on their keep. They seldom could earn enough money to pay back such debts and spent their lives living in wretched conditions.
Björn´s true values are made clear in a conversation with the sheriff. The sheriff says that parish councils not only are happy to see the paupers leave Iceland but are happy to have the chance to pay their fares to America to be rid of them. He knows that Björns wanting to keep his child in Iceland is a momentary whim so he turns the conversation to what he knows really matters to Björn, money.
He says, “And getting down to something that is worth spending words on–we have had an offer of a trawler in England, a big ship, my lad….After a year we would be ladling the gold from the sea.“
The sheriff wants Björn to put up the money for the purchase of a trawler and Björn replies that the Scots buyers of cattle, “are the kind of  people with whom I can do business, not the big boys in Reykjavik, and least of all with foreign bankers.“
However, in spite of his protestations, greed overcomes Björn. We find this out because Steinar, after his family has arrived in Utah (his wife has died on the journey), is sent back to Iceland. The trip from North America to Iceland was in two stages. From an East coast seaport to Scotland, from there on a second ship to Iceland. While he is in Scotland, he bumps into the sheriff who is “wearing an expensive fur coat and a tall tile hat of the same kind of fur; his moustache had been waxed and the ends turned upwards so that they stood erect like knitting needles.”
The sheriff tells Steinar that “I cleaned the old devil out of everything he had, in order to buy a trawler.” So Björn has been outsmarted, betrayed, by someone who better understands the somewhat wider world. The sheriff has come into possession of the ruined property at Hliðar and, on a whim, he gives it back to Steinar. When Steinar returns to Iceland and goes to his former farm, it is a ruin. However, instinctively, he starts to rebuild the walls.
In Björn of Leirur, Laxness gives us a portrayal of careless evil, of a man without a conscience, but he does much more than that. He provides us with a picture of a society in which men like Björn prosper and families like Steinar´s are ruined. It is obvious that Björn is not unique. The comments of the sheriff make that clear. It is equally clear that they ruin many of their fellow Icelanders.
Björn destroys Steinar´s home field casually, for nothing more than his own convenience. He does not care what the cost to Steinar´s family. He seduces and impregnates a young girl, one of many, according to the sheriff, simply to satisfy his lust. He´s married for money, not love and, so, fidelity has no claim on him.
If there is any justice meted out, it is Björn´s impoverishment by the sheriff who swindles him and moves to Scotland.
How prescient is Laxness. Paradise Reclaimed could be written today about the financial crash in Iceland. Those who caused it, some say no more than thirty or forty from the ruling family elite, cared not for the damage they did to their countrymen and women. Their reckless greed destroyed what others had built up over many years. They left the economy in the same ruins as Björn left Steinhliðar. They used the argument of the promise of the new age, the new technology, no longer of steam trawlers but of banking and the internet. 
Icelanders should have reread Paradise Reclaimed during the run up to the crash and listened to what Laxness had to tell them.
The bankers, like the sheriff, fled to the UK. Like the sheriff, they wear expensive clothes, stay in expensive places, eat expensive food while others do without their pensions, their savings, their investments.
Like Steinar starting to rebuild the walls of his farm, ordinary Icelanders have had to start rebuilding their lives.
Steinar´s family, his son, daughter, grandchild, find respite and solace among the Mormons in North America but it is the sociopathic personality of Björn of Leirur that has driven them there. Today, reports say that two families a week are emigrating from Iceland since the crash. Surely, they are akin to Steinar of Steinarhliðar and his family.

Saving or heritage: clothes

 Sunna Pam Furstenau. Photo taken by her cousin, Hjálmar Stefán Brynjólfsson. The upphlutur is modern and was sewn by Oddný Kristjaánsdóttir.
One of the most noticeable things in photos taken during and shortly after immigrants arrived in Canada are their clothes. You see crowds on train platforms and you know right away from where these people have come. Icelandic clothes, German clothes, Ukrainian clothes, Mennonite clothes. 
Today, the same is true in the West End of Winnipeg. You see people in clothes from the Middle East and from Africa. You know they’re definitely not Icelandic and that they’re probably recent arrivals.
The most obvious sign of integration and assimilation into Canadian society is the changing of ethnic clothes for whatever the local people wear. Part of that is because people want to fit in. However, the need to wear clothes appropriate to both work and the climate are paramount. 

 Peysufot

Photo from upphlutur.is

Icelanders wore clothes in Iceland that were suitable for unheated houses that were constantly damp. The people also were constantly damp. In Independent People, Bjartur of Summerhouses says that he has been wet all his life and it has never done him any harm. Visitors to Iceland in the 1800s frequently mention being soaked through and how difficult it was to get their clothes dried out before they had to put them on the next day.

C. W. Shephard in 1867 and his companions, trapped for days by a May storm, decide to go out to try to bag some wild fowl. He says, “returning at night, draggled and drenched, to cook our supper in the dark recesses of the kitchen, while we hung up our soaking garments in the vain hope that the smoke from the smouldering fire might dry them.”
There were no roaring log fires, no fireplaces, no chimneys, only holes in the floor where the precious fuel of dwarf willow, peat and dried sheep dung were burned to cook porridge or bake flat bread. Skyr didn’t require cooking. Neither did dried fish. It was pounded with a stone hammer until it could be chewed.
Visitors to Iceland in the 1800s and even before always comment on the clothing that Icelandic women wear. There are often long sections describing women’s clothes. These are frequently accompanied by sketches or paintings. There are fewer descriptions of men’s clothes.
John Coles, in 1882, describes Jón of Vidrkær this way: He wore a dark suit of homespun cloth of homely cut, trousers much patched about  the knees regardless of colour and material, a black felt wideawake, and a knitted comforter round the neck…Though in outward looks he may have passed for a gentleman in reduced circumstances rather out at elbows, he was prompt in action, civil, and obliging. A bargain was soon struck for the hire of his services as guide”
 upphlutur
Photo from upphlutur.is
Jon’s wife, Johanna Katrin, is described as “a fair woman, about 30 years of age, with a pleasing expression of face and bright, healthy complexion. She wore the usual Icelandic cap with silken tassel falling down on one side of her head, and a thick woollen dress, such as is worn by any Scotch wife.”
S. E. Waller arrives in Reykjavik on a Sunday in 1874 and says this, “Just about this time the beauty and fashion of Reykjavik came pouring out of church, and we had ample opportunity for inspecting any peculiarities of dress and appearance. Many of the Iceland ladies wore bonnets and carried parasols of Danish or English manufacture, but the generality had nothing on their heads but the little black woolen cap with the silver ornament and long silk tassel used alike by rich and poor,  in-doors and out. The fashionable colour was black…The men were all dressed in dark clothes, and almost all had round felt hats.”
The appearance of the parasols and bonnets indicate that even in Iceland clothing is changing, being influenced by European fashion in Reykjavik.

Sketch by Jemima Blackburn, from How The ‘Mastiffs’ Went to Iceland, 1878

However, when Trollope comes to Iceland in 1878, he writes with great enthusiasm about “Our other Iceland beauties, Sigridur and Gudrun, were there in the full picturesqueness of their native costume. It was all very unlike the dresses of our own girls, but most unlike no doubt in the head-dress. This consisted of a white hat, with, I think, yellow bands to it, made something in the shape of Minerva’s helmet, with the crest turned forwards. From this depended a light veil covering the shoulders, and hanging down the back, but leaving the face free. Then there was a jaunty jacket, partly open in the centre, with large bright buttons down the front and on the sleeves. The skirt beneath was of some bright colour, projecting forward like an extinguisher, coming even quite down to the ground so as to hide the feet, but with no inclination towards a train. In fact it seemed to be of exactly the same length before and behind. The head-dress, as may be seen in the excellent portrait furnished by our artist, for which Sigridur had that morning sat, is very pretty. The costume as a whole is picturesque and the jacket is becoming.”
As hard as life in Iceland could be, account after account describes the shock of the Icelandic immigrants in Canada when winter set in. Icelanders had never experienced anything like it. Their houses in Iceland were made of layers of rock and turf with walls two to six feet thick. Heat was provided by body heat. Twenty people might sleep in one room. Often, heat came from the sheep and cows that were stabled next to the living quarters. Clothes were made of wool. Wool holds body heat even when wet. However, body heat and wool couldn’t keep anyone warm in forty degrees below zero in a Canadian winter.
Survival required that the Icelanders adapt in every way possible, including their clothes, as quickly as possible. The picturesque quality of the women’s clothes didn’t keep them warm.
Also, many women stayed in the cities, particularly Winnipeg, and took work as domestics. There, they learned English ways of being clean, of dressing in an English way, of how they needed to dress to fit into city society. They had risked hardship and death for opportunity and were determined to make the best of their traveling to a new country.
Living conditions outside of the city were extremely difficult. For the first few years, just as in Iceland, the struggle was to get enough food to survive. But building homes that would hold out the cold and hold in the heat from stoves was also a challenge. Cutting down trees, grubbing out tree roots, tilling the earth, were completely new. There was no farming in Iceland beyond pounding sheep manure to dust and then spreading it on the home field. The frost heaves made scything difficult and everyone worked at the haying but this wasn’t harvesting as it was known in Canada.
Icelandic clothing had to give way to clothing suitable for daily life in a country where the summers were hot, the winters, cold. Icelandic clothes had to be regulated to the closet where they would remain except for special occasions.
Today, women still wear the traditional Icelandic dresses on special occasions such as weddings or formal occasions. They are most seen at Islindingadagurinn , the INL convention or August the Deuce. They are a way of reminding people of the time of immigration, of our heritage. They’re a way of saying, “Remember your mother or amma or lang amma or lang lang amma. Remember our Icelandic heritage.”
Today, we can encourage the wearing of historic Icelandic women’s clothes as a way of reminding ourselves of our identity. It helps arouse curiosity. It gives us a chance to answer questions, to impart a bit of history. It helps set us apart as our ethnic clothes are different from that of others. 
Wearing clothes from the time of immigration pays respect to our ancestors. It says, I remember you. I haven’t forgotten. However, it would be good if at various functions there were displays naming and explaining the different costumes so that along with a sense of the exotic there is an element of education for both ourselves and strangers.
I’m quite sure that Sunna Pam Furstenau has a lot more impact on her audiences because she’s wearing her traditional Icelandic costume.             

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.  

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.)

The Dinner Party, Trollope, Reykjavik, 1878

 Sketch by Jemima Wedderburn Blackburn (1823–1909)
It’s 1878. John Burns has come to Iceland from Castle Wemyss on the yacht, Mastiff. He’s brought his wife and fourteen guests. Their purpose is neither academic nor literary. They’re in Iceland to see the famous geysers. In this, they join many other visitors who have come to observe, marvel at and try to understand the geysers.
Iceland is in crises. The weather, volcanic eruption, Danish rule and the stranglehold on the political and economic process by the ultra-conservative landowners has created poverty and hopelessness for many. Iceland is locked into its past by its elite. In the meantime, England has traded canals and coaches for railways. In 1806 the first fare-paying passenger train has gone into service. In 1863, fifteen years before the Mastiff anchors in the harbour at Reykjavik, England has its first subway. By 1800, London has a population of 950,000 and is growing toward what will become a population of 6 million in 1900. Reykjavik, the capital city of Iceland, may have a population of 2,500. That is what Trollope has been told but from his observations, he doubts the population is that large.
In Iceland, the country suffers from a history of Icelandic bishops determined to ban all frivolity, all entertainment unless it is religious. As well, there are not the resources to purchase the supplies necessary or provide support for the fine arts. The state of Icelandic culture is captured by Halldór Laxness, in his novel, The Fish Can Sing. It presents a tragic picture of an Icelandic singer who is supposed to be a great success in Europe. The local merchants believe that he must be a great singer because he can sing louder than the noise made by eleven hundred pigs a day being butchered in a slaughterhouse in Denmark. In England, that frivolity and leisure activity has turned into a sophisticated culture. The big news of the day is that an Australian cricket team has arrived. Oxford defeats Cambridge in their first golf match. Gilbert/Sullivan’s opera “HMS Pinafore,” premieres in London. What seems most amazing is that “the first rugby match under floodlights takes place in Salford, between Broughton and Swinton.”(Wickipedia) What would the Icelandic bishops thought of all that?
As different as chalk and cheese, the Mastiffs and the Icelanders. At dinner there will be sixteen English, fourteen Icelanders.
The guest list provided by Trollope includes the following:
  
Governor HILMAR FINSEN, and his wife, Lady OLUFA FINSEN.
Mr. THORBERG (Governor Praefect or Amtman) and his wife.
Mr. A THORSTEINSON (Treasurer)
Bishop P. PJETURSSON, and his wife.
Miss THORA PJETURSSON, his daughter (our particular friend).
Mr. J. PJETURSSON, (Head of the Superior Court.)
Mr. J. THORKELSON (Rector of the Latin College).
Mr. J. ARNASEN (Inspector of the Latin College).
SIGRIDUR JONSDOTTER and GUDRUN KNUTSEN (two beautiful
young ladies in full Icelandic costume).
Mr. JON JONSSON (Sheriff of Reykjavik).
(To an Icelander, the one puzzling thing about the guest list is why Thora, so often described for  her beauty, so obviously a woman, and definitely, the daughter of the bishop, would be described as  his son? However, it is an understandable error and, more to the point, it is an indication of what will happen to the Icelandic naming system in North America.)
To celebrate the supper, the Mastiff is decked out with flags and her guns are fired. The Mastiff’s boats collect the Icelandic party and bring the visitors to the ship.
Trollope is seated between the beautiful Thora and the Governor’s wife, Mrs. Finsen. Thora he leaves to entertain other guests and devotes himself to Mrs. Finsen. It is this same Mrs. Finsen who received Christian IX when he came to Reykjavik and did it so well that Bayard Taylor says about her, “The door of the Governor’s house opened and Madame Finsen appeared, dressed in a simple black silk, without any ornaments. She descended the steps of the first garden terrace, curtsied at the right moment to the royal guest, a little less deeply to the Prince, and accompanied them to the door. This sounds like a very simple matter ; but not many ladies would have accomplished it with such admirable grace, tact, and self-possession.”
Mrs. Finsen speaks English and Trollope says that during the course of the dinner that Mrs. Finsen tells him so much of her life that he might know an Englishwoman for thirty years and not learn as much about her. He describes Mrs. Finsen as “comely, brown, pleasant, smiling lady, with a large face, bright eyes, and a look of homely good humour that I have never seen excelled”. It might be a compliment but it has an edge to it and it is impossible not to think of some of the descriptions in Pride and Prejudice of the country behaviours that embarrass Elizabeth.
They have dinner but, alas, there is no menu to show what the visitors brought for this grand meal. What might there have been on the table that would have amazed the Icelanders? When the king banqueted, it was fresh grapes. After dinner there are toasts, then they all go on deck to dance.
Sketch by  Jemima Wedderburn Blackburn (1823–1909)
Trollope is quite interested in the fact that “Thora was dressed as she might have been dressed in Paris or in London….Our other Iceland beauties, Sigridur and Gudrun, were there in the full picturesqueness of their native costume. It was all very unlike the dresses of our own girls, but most unlike no doubt in the head-dress. This consisted of a white hat, with, I think, yellow bands to it, made something in the shape of Minerva’s helmet, with the crest turned forwards. From this depended a light veil covering the shoulders, and hanging down the back, but leaving the face free. Then there was a jaunty jacket, partly open in the centre, with large bright buttons down the front and on the sleeves. The skirt beneath was of some bright colour, projecting forward like an extinguisher, coming even quite down to the ground so as to hide the feet, but with no inclination towards a train. In fact it seemed to be of exactly the same length before and behind. The head-dress, as may be seen in the excellent portrait furnished by our artist, for which Sigridur had that morning sat, is very pretty. The costume as a whole is picturesque and the jacket is becoming.”
After dining and dancing away the night, on Sunday morning, the English have a church service on board the ship, then go to a service at the Reykjavik church. There, Trollope notices that the ladies are all in their Icelandic costumes. He is told that the congregation has been ordered to show off their finery for the visitors.
There may be hunger abroad in the land and people trudging over mountain passes to reach harbours and ships that will take them, they hope, to a better life. There may be people who own little or nothing, who are considered such a burden on Icelandic society that their fares are being paid to North America because it is cheaper to get rid of them than for the sýsla to keep them. But, as always, there are those who are well connected, well paid, well fed, well dressed, well educated, well entertained. No one on the guest list will go hungry the day after the banquet, or a month or year after the banquet; none will dress in rags, will sleep with the cattle, will walk for days over mountain passes and heaths in a desperate hope of a new life in a New Iceland where they can have their own land.
The English guests, having proven excellent hosts and, having met their social obligations, are ready to turn to the true purpose of their trip. To the geysers. The marvelous, legendary geysers. The geysers that, today, still draw busloads of tourists from around the world. Except this trip in 1878 will be made on horseback.
(Quotes from How The ‘Mastiffs’ Went to Iceland, Anthony Trollope)

The Economics of Halldor Laxness

In The Fish Can Sing, Halldor Laxness presents through the narrator Álfgrímur, the economics of Björn of Brekkukot and, thus, his own economic philosophy.
Björn is a lumpfisherman. He lives on a small piece of land and, with his fishing, supports himself, the woman who shares the house with him and the child, Álfgrímur. He does not go far from shore seeking cod, nor does he fish the rivers for salmon. He doesn’t seek to maximize his catch nor as the modern term goes, monetize it. He does not dream of having a larger boat, of having many hired men instead of one or two, or increasing his profits. He does not have the ambitions of a modern day banker or businessman.
Björn is interesting precisely because, while he is created as a fully realized character in the novel, he also represents a set of ethical principles, particularly with regard to money and how it is earned.

On the first page, as one of those simple details that might be dismissed as only being about back story or setting, Álfgrímur tells us that “on the exact spot where Gudmundur Gudmunsen (the son of old Jon Gudmundsson, the owner of Gudmunsen’s Store) eventually built himself a fine mansion house—on this patch of ground there once stood a little turf-and-stone cottage”.  With no ado, no sign posts but in a quiet contrast, the conflict between values the reader will see throughout the novel is set. The values are represented by the cottage versus Gudmunsen’s store. There is a little fillip added with Gudmunsen’s Store being spelled the Danish way so that we are gently nudged to understand that these values will be Danish values, learned in Denmark as opposed to the values of the authentic Icelandic farmer.

It is also significant that it is the simple Icelandic peasant cottage that has been replaced by the mansion built from profits made by the Gudmunsen’s store. In another of Laxness’s novels, Christianity Under Glacier, the house of Godman Singman has been built on church property, overshadowing the neglected church building. In both cases, the amassing of money has overtaken Icelandic values, both secular and Christian.
It is, of course, not just Laxness that makes this distinction. Charles Lock, in The Home of the Eddas (1879), makes a similar point.  He went to Iceland in 1875 and spent twelve months there. He says, “Circumstances compelled me for the most part to shun the principal cheapsteads, such as Reykjavik and Aukeryri, where the life of the people are half Danish, half Icelandic, and threw me among the pure-blooded bondar and peasant classes.”
Álfgrímur, the narrator in The Fish Can Sing, tells the reader that “The rest of the town’s inhabitants were cottagers who went out to the fishing and sometimes owned a small share in a cow or had a few sheep.” This is the large amount of the population who live in opposition to and are exploited by the well-to-do farmers who are aligned with the Danish overlords.
In the spring when Björn went lumpfishing, he sold his fish from a wheelbarrow. He boils fish liver for the oil, makes do with what produce the family can manage to produce. We’ve been told that the cot has peat pits as a preliminary to Álfgrímur recounting an anecdote about a man comimg to Brekkukot with a sack over his shoulder. The sack contains peat that he has stolen from Brekkukot. Fuel in Iceland is always in short supply. It is carefully husbanded. The thief’s crime, in a place where there is so little fuel that it is often hard to find enough to cook food, is serious. Björn has already given this neighbour peat. Now, Björn asks the thief in to discuss what it is that he has done. He tells him his actions are wicked, but after coffee, he gives the neighbour the peat.
One is reminded of the scene in Les Miserables when the police bring Jean Valjean’s back to the home of the bishop who befriended him. Jean has returned this kindness by stealing  of some silver candle sticks. The bishop says Jean didn’t steal them, that he had been given them. 

For a period of time, Laxness became a Catholic, then a Communist. Both outraged both his countrymen and people of Icelandic descent in North America. The question is when Björn forgives the peat thief and gives him the sack of peat is Laxness, through Björn, acting as Catholic or Communist? Álfgrímur would doubt both for he says that his grandfather was “a man of orthodox beliefs” but not one to cite scripture or to ask God to do anything. Any forgiveness that was given came from Björn. He also did not forgive in the name of the state, particularly a state that adhered to a philosophy that denied individualism and Björn forgives as an individual.

Early in the book when the principles upon which it will be based are being created, Álfgrímur describes the standards by which life was lived at Brekkukot.  He says, “I think that our own standard had its origins in my grandfather’s conviction that the money which people consider theirs by right was unlawfully accumulated, or counterfeit, if it exceeded the average income of a working man and therefore that all great wealth was inconsistent with common sense.”
Shortly thereafter, Álfgrímur says that his grandfather believed “that the right price for a lumpfish, for instance, was the price that prevented a fisherman from piling up more money than he needed for the necessities of life.”
These are simple beliefs and are obviously not believed in a society where someone can say out loud “Greed is good.” and not become an automatic laughing stock. Björn of Brekkukot, today would see that it is the Danish traders’ belief that the price of lumpfish should rise and fall with supply and demand that has triumphed, that economic values dominate all other values, including the values of democracy. This belief in the right to make money prevailing over all other values carried Iceland not just to the brink of collapse but to collapse itself. It is only by open revolt against such avaricious, materialistic principles by the banging of pots and pans outside of Parliament, the repeated public demonstrations, the actual physical rebellion of Icelandic society that has driven out the bankers. It is those people who had values more in line with Björn of Brekkukot who finally rebelled against the values of Gudmunsen’s store, against the values of another Björn, this one, Björn of Leirur,  in Paradise Reclaimed.
It is, of course, precisely these values of Björn of Brekkukot that made Laxness the object of investigation by the FBI and the enemy of many in the Icelandic North American community for what is the opportunity of North America but the opportunity to make money? And what is the person who would question that right but the enemy?
Who in North America today defends those who are the equivalent of people who sometimes own a small share in a cow, or have a few sheep or own a small rowing boat? The political struggle in the Congress and the Senate, in the Canadian Parliament, is among the privileged as to who gets the greater percentage of the spoils, not between the defenders of ordinary people and the privileged one percent.
In spite of the growing disparity in wealth in North America between the privileged few and the larger society, there still exist those who believe as does Björn of Brekkukot. Just the other day a relative of mine, offered a sum for some old books said no, the price was too much and she named a lower price and said this is what they are worth. The books, like lumpfish, had a price unrelated to what the market might pay at any given moment. And I, in one of my short stories, many years ago, wrote of a fictional character based on my father who when offered fishing equipment by a friend who was a terrible drunk, always bought it but, when fishing season came around again, always sold it back at the price he had paid and of the disaster created when the equipment was bought by a lawyer from the city who saw only an opportunity to make a quick profit. The values of Halldor Laxness, of Björn of Brekkukot  is what creates a decent society. This is the fabric of a society where human failure is recognized as inevitable and not exploited. This is a society where forgiveness is more important than punishment.
Laxness would in his own way preach that society is not governed by tooth and claw, that it is not a collection of predator and bloody meal, of exploiter and exploited. Or, at least, that it does not have to be. How subversive is that?
During the time Denmark ruled Iceland, the Icelandic employees of the Danish merchants treated their fellow Icelanders abominably; they passed on Danish contempt. It was a lesson rubbed into the very grain of Icelandic society and was still in the grain in 2008. It is what allowed the bankers to disregard the welfare of everyone in the country except their own welfare. You can only enrich yourself while destroying your family, neighbours and society if you hold them in utter contempt. You can only get away with doing it in a society that has been brain-washed to believe that the values of Gudmundsen’s store and Björn of Leirur are the only values that matter.
 It is time, even past time, that Icelanders began to read Laxness again and listen to what he had to tell them. Then they might answer the question, who is right, Björn of Brekkukot or Björm of Leirur along with his disciples, the bankers of America and the EU?

One True Note, Laxness

 The Fish Can Sing (Vintage, 2008)

A genius of a book. A brilliant book. A book that grabbed my heart. 
How could I, coming from Gimli, with some Icelandic genes and a lot of Icelandic history and culture, not have read this book before now? It makes one wonder about the waving of flags and toasts to Iceland and speeches and Viking helmets and all that and just how meaningful it is when someone like me hasn’t read The Fish Can Sing by Halldor Laxness.
How many North Americans of Icelandic descent have read The Fish Can Sing? Raise your hands. I think I’m going to ask this question at next year’s Islindingadagurinn. That way I won’t feel quite so guilty. Guilt likes company.
I have excuses. I lived in Iowa, Missouri, British Columbia. None are hotbeds of Icelandic culture. But I’ve never missed an Icelandic Festival and never turned down a piece of vinarterta. Surely, part of that experience should have included reading stories by Laxness. He’s the only Nobel prize writer we’ve got. It’s not like Laxness’s books aren’t available. Tergesen’s always has them on sale and you now can buy them on Amazon. They’re not expensive.
This is an easy book to read. For one thing, it is a happy book. It’s about a little boy without a father and whose mother, when she leaves for America, hands him to an elderly couple. The couple at Brekkukot treat him in every way as a beloved son.
The narrator is that boy grown-up. He explains that since he has no father, his last name is Hansson which means ”His-son.” There is no man’s name, Arni or Baldur or Ragnar so that he could be called Arnis-son, Baldurs-son, or Ragnars-son.
The couple who take on the role of both parents and grandparents but are neither, they’re not even married to each other do not just feed and clothe him but provide him with a set of moral values, with security, with an education and, finally, with an opportunity to rise in the world.
Brekkukot is just a fisherman’s cot but it also is a place of refuge. People who need a place to stay come there, sometimes staying for years on end. These visitors help to provide the boy, Alfgrimur, with an education. People come to get well, others to die. The property lies beside a graveyard and it is here that Alfgrimur hears singing and eventually sings over the graves of those who cannot afford to pay someone to sing for them.
Nearby lives an elderly woman, younger than the woman he calls grandmother, but nearly blind and deaf. She has a son who has become famous as a singer in Europe and who has the stage name Gardar Holm. Many people assume that Alfgrimur and Gardur Holm are related but the relationship is never defined. Gardur Holm takes an interest in Alfgrimur, buys him cakes, gives him money, counsels him.
The book is about fishing for lumpfish, about eating cream cakes, but it is mostly about poor Icelanders who are presented in a way that is dignified, that makes them human, that allows them to be proud in spite of their poverty. These are people who are honorable and, who, in spite of a lack of formal education, ask profound questions.
Alfgrimur gives us a picture of his grandfather, Bjorn of Brekkukot, that brings him to life. Here was a man who was never heard referring to anything contained in the sermons but wouldn’t accept even a Bible without paying for it. When a neighbour steals precious peat from him then, with a guilty conscience, brings it back, Bjorn invites him in for coffee, discusses what has been done and ends up giving the peat to the thief.
Bjorn would not have been out of place in New Iceland. I recognize him. As a child I knew rough fishermen, usually stolid and silent, strong, even hard but they, too, seeing someone with less than them would have given the thief wood from their woodpile.
This book is a delight because of the sympathetic descriptions of the people with all their oddities and foibles. However, it also raises serious questions about the purpose of life and the way it is lived. Bjorn ignores the marketplace. He does not lower his price when there are fish in abundance, nor does he raise his price when there is a scarcity of fish. To him, fish have a value whether they are abundant or scarce.
 Gardur Home is presented as a world famous operatic singer. He appears and disappears, always with rumours of his success swirling around his visits. Gradually, though, the façade that he presents is shattered. 
At a dinner in his honour that ironically is really about the success of the merchant who has provided the money for Gardur Holm to go to Europe and to have a singing career, the merchant says that “it isn’t enough that Icelandic fish should have Danish ribbons and bows, it has to have the ribbon of international fame. In a word, we have to prove to the rest of the world that ‘the fish can sing like a bird’. And that is why we who sell the fish have made great efforts to improve the cultural life of the nation”.
But Gardur Holm in talking to Alfagrimur tells him a story that reveals what his life has really been like. The grant of money is seldom much and it often doesn’t arrive. It is the story of artists yesterday, today and tomorrow. It is the story of artists in a society that values fish and profits or aluminum smelting and profits or banking schemes and profits over all else. 
The artist, as Gardur Holm describes him, is a poor wretch desperately clinging to the small gifts given by the merchants of fish. (or, if you wish, the Canada Council)
At the beginning of the book, the narrator says, “I think that our own standard had its origins in my grandfather’s conviction that the money which people consider theirs by right was unlawfully accumulated, or counterfeit, if it exceeded the average income of a working man; and therefore that all great wealth was inconsistent with common sense. I can remember him saying often that he would never accept more money than he had earned.
“But what does a man earn, people will ask? How much does a man deserve to get? “
This book was first published in 1957. How more relevant could it be to a society that has been told that greed is good? A society where bankers steal a good deal of people’s money and lose the rest through incompetence, where bonuses are obscene and retirement packages beyond all reason? Where a small percentage of the population takes more and more of society’s wealth?
The questions and objections being raised by the Occupy movement and others, even the President of the United States and the Prime Minister of England, are all here. For those who are prepared to fight for social justice, a picture of Halldor Laxness on their flag would not be amiss. 
This is a book to enjoy but it is also a book to ponder.
Put it under your Christmas tree. Time is running short but you can still get a copy for someone who wants to be proud of his Icelandic background.

Intergalactic Resurrection



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