Steamship poster

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

The one percent

Near the end of Independent People, Olafur of Yztadale says, “I’ve come to the conclusion that a fellow has no more chance of becoming an independent man these days than he had in the old days, if he goes and builds  himself a house. Never in the whole history of the country…has an ordinary working man managed to build himself a  house worthy of the name.” 
The main character, Bjartur, encouraged by the money to be made selling wool and mutton to Europe during WWI has made good money, builds a house, the market falls with the end of WWI and Bjartur and many others  lose everything for which they’ve spent a lifetime working.
The one percent are fine. They’ve used their connections and their capital to make large profits, to insure themselves against any downturn, even to profit from it. The person who holds the mortgage on Bjartur’s land takes it back for what is owed.
Bjartur and his family end up being dispossessed. Sound familiar? Just like today, just like the ordinary people who thought they would be able to own a house in Florida or Ariizona, or in any of the other states. The people who are now dispossessed, living in tent cities or, if they’re lucky, in a trailer of one sort or other, on a parking lot.
No one came and said, we’ll help you pay your mortgage. However, the government did come and help the banks. It’s good to have friends in important places.
There’s an old saying about borrowing money. If you borrow a little and can’t pay it, it’s your problem. If you borrow a lot and you can’t pay it, it’s the bank’s problem. The 99%, that’s us, aren’t in a position to borrow lots so when we can’t pay our mortgage, it’s our problem.
Of course, if you are Lee Raymond, Exxon chairman, and are given a retirement package that is nearly $400,000,000 (yes, that’s the right number of zeros), you don’t have to worry about having your mortgage foreclosed.  He’s part of the 1%.
Then there’s Edward Whitacre, AT&T CEO. He got 158.5 million.
Jack Welch seems like a shrinking violet. He was at General Electric. He only took a retirement package of 9 million. It turned out, he was taking 9 million a year.
None of these people are going to end up living in their car, or in a trailer on a Walmart parking lot, or in a tent somewhere while they search for a job. They’re not going to line up for food at a food bank or at a soup kitchen.
Judith Lavoie, in today’s Times Colonist, said “Seniors, children and the working poor are turning up in increasing numbers at Greater Victoria food banks.”
Food Banks Canada says that 700,000 Canadians, that’s two percent of the population, depend on food banks.
Seniors are on a fixed income but there is nothing fixed about the price of groceries. I went to the grocery store the other day and one bag of groceries came to $52.00. When I go shopping, I see people standing in front of the meat section, picking up a package of meat, looking closely at the price, then putting down the package. The government figures on inflation are an outright lie. It doesn’t matter what televisions cost, or cars, or the many things that the government uses to determine the rate of inflation. What matters are food, shelter, clothes and medications. The price of meat, the cost of rent, or clothes or medications won’t matter to Robert Nardelli. When he retired from Home Depot, he took $210 million in cash and stocks.
One of the social disgraces of Canada is that we have a whole class of people called “the working poor”. They work full time, they maybe have to hold two part time jobs to do it, but there isn’t a lazy bone in their body.  They work full time but the job doesn’t pay enough to cover their living expenses. They aren’t going to have any savings and there won’t be any pension except OAS and CPP.  Their lives are going to get worse. 
CIBC reveals that jobs being lost are being replaced by lower paying ones. How about losing a good job, the kind of job that will let you feed your family, pay the motgage, pay for the things that kids need as they’re growing up, save some money for rainy day and replacing it with working at a gasoline station, the front desk at a hotel, or as a cleaner at a hospital?
Where did those jobs go? Well, if you’ve got the price of a ticket, take a trip to China and check out the factories.  Or, if you can’t afford an airline ticket, go to IKEA  or just about any other major store in Canada. Check the lables. They probably say “Made in China.”  Have you bought one of those products lately?
China’s trade surplus in June was $26.9 billion dollars. That’s twice as much as it was last year. That’s because you and I and a lot of other people bought goods made in China. They were cheaper, after all.
The Chinese have so much of our money , and Europe’s money, and the USA’s money, that Europe is going cap in hand to beg the Chinese government to buy European bonds.
It’s all very strange isn’t it? There was a time when the USA and its allies went to war in Korea and Vietnam to keep China from expanding. Now, China owns more American bonds than any country in the world. China could drive the USA (and us) into a major economic depression bigger than the Great Depression simply by no longer buying American government bonds. China has so much money that the EU is prepared to grovel to get whatever the Chinese will give them.
Some fool of an economist thought you could give away good jobs for poor ones, could maximize profits for the one percent,  could beggar the working class and then the middle class, the ninety-nine percent, and still have a functioning society.  You can’t.  You get that outcome that terrifies the one percent. Social unrest. You get the Occupy Movement. You get riots in Greece. There’ll be more occupations. There’ll be more riots. There will be social revolution.
Do your part. Look for products that say “Made in Canada or made in the USA.” If enough of us do that, it’ll create a job. If more of us do it, it’ll create more jobs. We might have to pay a bit more for the product but if you’ve got a good job, it doesn’t hurt to pay a bit more. Having no job means not being able to pay anything.
If Laxness were still alive, he’d say, I told you so. You just had to read and understand my novels. Why didn’t you listen? It’s all there.

Paradise Reclaimed

We should all read Laxness because his books answer many questions.
For example, I knew that a man needed to be worth the equivalent of four hundreds to marry but what are four hundreds? I would have asked Haraldur Bessason but he isn’t with us anymore. So I asked Laxness. He isn’t with us anymore either but his books are still with us and we can get answers to our questions by reading them.
In Paradise Reclaimed Laxness says that Steinar’s farm was worth twelve hundreds “whereby one hundred was the equivalent to the price of a cow.”
If you know about hundreds, then when Laxness says in Independent People that when the Bailiff of Myri’s wife married the Bailiff, “She had added a hundred hundreds of land to the estate as her dowry and had stocked this land afterwards on obtaining her inheritance.” She was the daughter of “a boat-owner in Vik”. Her family was so rich that when she married she brought with her as a dowry the equivalent of a hundred cows. When she got her inheritance, it was so large that she was able to stock all this land with cattle. The rich and politically connected families married each other. The Bailiff wasn’t going to marry some hired girl and the daughter of the boat builder wasn’t going to marry some crofter.
Bjartur, the protagonist of Independent People,  had to work eighteen years to save the down payment on a terrible piece of land, a piece of land on which no one  had been able to prosper . However, with making a down payment on this land, he is able to marry and so the novel begins not just with his purchase of the land from Myri but his marriage to Rosa, one of the female servants of Myri.
He is suspicious of the arranged marriage, the enthusiasm of the Bailiff’s wife for the marriage and he asks his new bride, Rosa, in a roundabout way if she is not already pregnant. It turns out that she is. The Bailiff’s son has made her pregnant and the Bailiff’s wife is using Bjartur to cover up what her son  has done.
There is not much described of what went on at Myri, no flashbacks of Rosa in the hay with the Bailiff’s son, but in Paradise Reclaimed, we see the seduction of Steina. She’s a young, just confirmed, girl, naïve, living on her father’s farm. She has no experience outside the farm. Bjorn of Leirur, is worldly, older man with powerful political connections.
Steinar, the protagonist of Paradise Reclaimed, has inherited his farm from his father. He is not rich. However, he is very careful, treats his land and animals well. He is described as meticulous. He asks Bjorn of Leirur for some mahogany from a shipwreck. In return he says that Bjorn may use his homefield to feed his horses. In Iceland, where grass is the most precious commodity, this is a generous offer. Steinar then leaves for Denmark. In his absence, Bjorn abuses the offer and brings not one or two horses to feed on Steinar’s  homefield but  hundreds. A homefield and its cultivated grass is precious, necessary for survival. Bjorn’s horses destroy it. Bjorn also impregnates Steinar’s innocent daughter.
After Steina has had a son and visits Bjorn one late night to ask him what he knows about her father’ s fate, Bjorn discovers that she intends to leave for Utah to join the Mormons. Bjorn, who has denied that he was the father of her child, decides he wants to keep him in Iceland. That men like him get many young women pregnant and then declare that they are not responsible is clear from the sheriff’s reply. He says, “Yes, I’m branded as an idiot,” said the sheriff, “for not sending you all to jail where you belong.” He doesn’t just say “you” but “you all”.
The gulf between the peasants and the wealthy, well-connected farm families is made absolutely clear in that a few lines after the conversation about his illegitimate son, Bjorn and the sheriff begin to discuss “something that is worth spending words on”. That is a chance to buy a trawler from England, a steam ship that can catch as much fish “as all the seamen in fifty fishing stations in Iceland put together.”

Read Laxness.  Really read Laxness. Don’t just skim his words. Ask yourself how what Bjorn of Leirur did to the trusting Steinar and his daughter, Steina, any different than what the bankers recently did to Iceland? They were trusted. They held important positions. They had strong political connections. They betrayed the trust of the people just as Bjorn of Leirur did. They destroyed people’s home fields.
The Bailiff’s wife in Independent People says, “Whenever a poor man married and set-up as a crofter in the dales, she , too, would marry in the spirit and kiss his footsteps. She therefore lent a large tent for Bjartur’s wedding, so that coffee could be drunk in the shelter and a speech made.” But she didn’t say that she was using him to cover up the indecency of her son who got Rosa pregnant.
And just a paragraph or so later, the narrator says, “Meanwhile the women folks, sitting inside were holding a whispered discussion about Steinka of Gilteig….She had had a baby the week before, you see, and several of the women had been running to volunteer their services in the croft…for all are eager to help when somebody has an illegitimate baby, or at least during the first week, while nobody knows who the father is.”
Laxness tells us what a hundred is. He describes Steina spreading butter with her thumb. He tells us   many details of life at the time the books are about. He helps us envisage the past. That is part of his genius. His eye for detail. His understanding of his society. But he also describes Icelandic society in a way that helps make today in Iceland understandable. When we hear and read about people demonstrating, beating on drums, demanding justice, we only have to remind ourselves of the agent Bjorn of Leirur with his gold and silver coins, and we know why many people in Iceland are so angry.
                                                  

Independent People for Christmas

Halldor Laxness was a problem for Iceland. First, he was a genius and geniuses are always a problem. They don’t see the world the way we see it. If they did, they wouldn’t be geniuses. They would just be telling us things we already knew because they would be seeing everything just like us. Most of us like to be told what we already believe. It makes us feel smart. It also makes us feel comfortable. There is no person more intelligent than the person who agrees with our opinions. Laxness had his own opinions.
Second, Laxness was a problem because he became a Catholic. Lots of people have never forgiven him for that. After all, making Iceland Lutheran took some doing. It required chopping off the head of the last Catholic bishop of Iceland. And here Laxness was, all these years later, going off to the Abbey St. Maurice in Luxembourg. He even got baptized and confirmed in the Catholic Church. Third, having offended a vast number of people in Iceland by living in an abbey and praying to God to change Icelanders back to being Catholics, he became a Socialist. A Socialist! A Communist. An enemy of capitalism. If he were alive today, he’d be writing a novel satirizing the New Viking capitalists. I expect there are a number of Icelanders who think to themselves, good thing he’s safely dead.
Of course, a lot of people still haven’t forgiven him for winning the Nobel Prize. He satirized the farmers both big and small. He described their conversations about tapeworms and the various home cures. He pointed out the foolishness of the wife of the Bailiff at Myri with her comments about loving the joys of country life. Laxness says about her “She loved the peasants more than anything else in life, and never missed any opportunity of convincing them of the value of the country idyll or of the delight implicit in living and dying on a farm.” Being rich, she said “Rich people are never happy…but poor people are happy practically without exception.” Laxness later gives us a scene of Rosa’s death (Rosa is the first wife of Bjartur, the main character of Independent People), alone, in childbirth and scene after scene putting the lie to everything the Bailiff’s wife has to say about the wonderful life of the peasants. This woman must rank, surely, with Mrs. Bennet of Pride and Prejudice, for stupidity and self-delusion. Like Mrs. Bennet, she’s hilariously ridiculous and since she represents a self-important segment of Icelandic society, there are people who don’t appreciate the portrait.
A lot of people were offended by Independent People. They recognized themselves and their relatives in the portraits. They would much rather that the book had been a failure. The winning of the Nobel Prize put the ruling class in a difficult position. On the one hand they couldn’t help but be impressed and proud, on the other, their criticism was gagged. It’s pretty hard to say, “I despise his book. The author is a traitor to the nation by showing us in this light but I’m proud of his winning the Nobel prize. However, I wish someone who made us look wonderful had won.”  There are still people today who take umbrage over Laxness’s portrayal of Icelanders and, in particular, of people they recognize as being based on members of their families.
The truth is, however, that Iceland was the poorest country in Europe. It was backward. It was beset with a political and agricultural system that kept the country from moving ahead with the rest of Europe. Bjartur’s fierce battle for independence at all costs, his pig-headed stubbornness, does present a clear view of Iceland at the time it is set. It also helps a reader understand why it was possible for the country to end up today in its current financial mess and why there are now such fierce demonstrations against what has happened. The same small group of family elites still rule Iceland. They might no longer refer to themselves as the goði , but the same attitude of their superiority, their right to make decisions for the peasants, the same belief that they are entitled to take what they want, still prevails.
I was once told that some of the fishermen in Gimli, Manitoba, my hometown, complained about one of the fish buyers, not because he stole from them by cheating them on weights, by saying fish was rotten when it wasn’t, that he’d got a smaller price for their fish than he actually had, but that he stole too  much. That he was stealing was taken for granted.  Of course he was stealing. In Iceland, the Danes had stolen and the Icelanders who worked for them had stolen. It was a way of life. That’s how the system worked. Why wouldn’t a fish buyer with a bit of money and a bit of social position in Canada steal from people he considered inferior to himself? He believed itt was his right.
I don’t want to make this book sound too serious. It does deal with serious issues but it is also a satire, it is hilariously funny at times, it’s insightful. For example, when Bjartur takes his daughter, Asta Sollilja to town for the first time and goes to buy her a book of poems for her education, the book has been out of print for thirty years. When he creates verses of his own, they are so convoluted by the need for complicated form that they make no sense. Stuck in the past, unable to adapt, he brings disaster on himself and his family, yet, in his own way, Bjartur is both admirable and unforgettable.
For those of us with an Icelandic background, Independent People is essential reading because it makes clear what our ancestors were leaving when they chose to come to Ameríka. It also helps us to understand Iceland today. It’s a highly entertaining book with brilliant writing well served by the translation of J. A. Thompson and with an introduction by Brad Leithauser.
Giving a book at Christmas is a fine Icelandic custom. A book doesn’t have to be just released to be worth giving. Be proud of your Icelandic heritage. Think of Bjartur as a much loved but incredibly frustrating grandfather. Independent People is worth putting under the tree.