Laxness nearly remembered

laxness3

Chapter 4

Valdi had sung with the area choir as long as his knees held out but when it became too painful to stand, he left the choir to join the audience. The choir master would have arranged a chair for him so that he only had to stand when he was singing but Valdi said no, there’s a time when you have to let an old bull go to pasture. At the nursing home, he was willing to join the motley crew that turned up on Saturday nights to entertain. He’d stand with one hand on the arm of his wheel chair. There was a thrill among the residents when one of their own stood up to perform.

His interests were unashamedly local. He might occasionally watch an NHL game but he took no great pleasure in it. Instead, he preferred to attend local hockey games where he knew the grandfathers and fathers of the players. He would much rather have talked about the local players, discussing their skating and stick handling, than some over paid person he knew nothing about. A player on the Midget hockey team was of more interest to him than the star forward of the Winnipeg Jets. He only followed the NHL closely during the years when Reggie Leach, the Riverton Rifle, was playing in the big leagues.

I visited Gimli in the winter but not as often as in the summer. The highways were often blurred with drifting snow, there was ice, cars frequently stuck in the roadside snowbanks, temperatures that with wind chill were minus forty.

He had my phone number and, from time to time, he’d phone me. “Are you coming to Gimli?” he’d demand.

“The roads are bad,” I’d say.

“You’ve got snow tires. What’s the use of paying to have snow tires if you don’t use them?”

“The RCMP have issued a weather warning.”

“It’s a good day for chess. Besides, that cute nurse that flirted with you last time is going to be on duty. You know, the one who plaits her hair.”

“She did not flirt with me.”

“She did. She did everything but pat your bum. She’s separated, she’s hot. A real man would invite her over to the hotel for a drink. It’s just across the street. There are lots of empty rooms. They don’t cost much. Don’t be cheap.”

I waited to hear why he was trying to tempt me to risk my life driving sixty miles when the RCMP were saying stay off the highways.

“The Wolves are playing tonight. I haven’t been out of this bloody prison for three weeks. You need to get out. There’s more to life than lesson plans and correcting papers.”

“The game will be canceled. The other team won’t come.”

“They’re here,” he replied. “They’re not wimps.”

“If they go into the ditch, they can pick up the car and carry it back onto the road.”

“I remembered some things about Laxness.”

“It can wait.”

“I’ll forget. My memory is getting very bad.”

Sometimes, I went in spite of the weather. I knew when he called like that he was pretty desperate. He and I would go to the hockey game and he’d watch from behind the glass and wire windows but I knew that something had happened, he’d got bad news from his doctor or his daughter had phoned.  Or both. Other times when he called, he’d want me to drive him out to the farm. His longing for the farm was like an ache that couldn’t be cured.

He’d sold off his animals but he refused to sell the farm. In spite of everything he held onto the buildings and the land. His daughter had tried to persuade him, even threatened to take over as Power of Attorney and sell it in spite of him but he’d fought back, enlisted his lawyer, insisted on taking a mental competency test. As he said, failing knees and failing kidneys didn’t mean a failing mind.  Although it made no sense, he still hoped for a miracle. His daughter went back to her library in a huff.

The house sat empty. He paid for the grass to be cut, allowed a neighbour to use the garden, rented out his fields. The barn and toolshed still housed his equipment.  At first when we’d go to the farm, he’d asked for my help getting onto the tractor, the combine, the grain truck but in the last few visits, he hadn’t attempted  climbing up. When we visited, I usually stayed near the door as he moved around the shed using a cane, talking to the machines as if they were animals, patted them,  ran his hand lovingly along them. When we visited his shop, he touched the welder, the lathe, the saw, stood beside them lost in thought. We never went in the house. That had been his wife’s domain.

I drove a ten year old Ford van. It worked out just fine.  He could get into the passenger seat. I could put his wheelchair in the back.

When I was in Gimli and stayed overnight, I usually stayed with friends who had a single bed in one corner of the basement.  Most of the time it was covered in boxes and clothes. I just moved them onto the floor and went to sleep. In spite of Valdi’s saying the hotel wasn’t expensive, it was, at least on my salary. It was meant for holidaying tourists with open wallets, not a high school teacher collecting early immigrant stories for what he hoped would become a book.

I didn’t go the day he called so he had to play checkers with a resident who wasn’t suffering from dementia. Shortly after he’d got to Betel, he’d said, “It’s no fun playing against someone whose brain has gone off the tracks.” Most of the residents had brains that had gone off the tracks and some of them had brains that were complete train wrecks. Their heads leaned to one side and their mouths  hung open. What was painful for him was that he’d known many of these people all his life.

I did go a week later. It was cold but there was no wind, the highways had been ploughed, the sky was a bright blue. It was 35 below but inside the van, with the heater ramped up, it was too warm for wearing mukluks and thermal  long underwear so I turned the heat down and drifted down the dark channel created by the ploughed drifts on either side of the highway.  The poplar forests behind the barbed wire fences that were buried in snow had snow piled so high that their tops might have been a forest of bushes. The shadows were shades of blue. It was deceptive, this artificial warmth inside the van where my feet sweated and I’d had to shrug off my parka. If the van stalled or slid off the road, I’d have to wrap mysel f in my down parka, pull on my deer hide gauntlets that came nearly to my elbows, pull the flaps of my sheep’s hide helmet down and tie them under my chin, and wrap a scarf around my face.  In this weather you could die within a quarter of a mile and if you were stupid enough to try to cross an area of unploughed snow, you’d become exhausted and die standing up, your legs frozen into the snow up to your crotch.

I thought we’d play checkers or chess or discuss the latest idiocies of the Canadian government or the Icelandic government. He had on his wall two metal  scales. I don’t know their original purpose but he used them to express his disgust with both governments. He called them his stupidity scales. He moved the marker up or down as news of government actions warrented. The markers slid up and down in a vertical slot and could be put into short horizontal slots marked from zero to twenty. He bemoaned that the scales didn’t go to a hundred, particularly during the years of the kreppa, the financial crash in Iceland. “There are stupider politicians than in Canada and Iceland,” I said. “I don’t care what they do in in North Korea or Malaya,” he snapped.

I tried to talk him out of going to the farm but it was hopeless. He hadn’t been there since November. It was now Christmas holidays. “You might as well take me to the farm,” he said. “You’re living off my tax money for doing nothing. You lollygag about your place, sleep in, watch TV, eat spaghetti out of tins and fart.”

I did nothing of the sort. I graded papers, made up lesson plans, did research at the archives and the Icelandic library at the University of Manitoba. I seldom watched TV and I hadn’t eaten spaghetti out of a tin since I was twelve. As for farting, I avoided garbanzo beans even though I liked eating them curried. Besides, one of the freedoms of living alone is that one can fart as often and loud as one wants and no one complains.

An attendant helped Valdi get dressed for winter, clucked her tongue at our going out,  blamed me for the idea. Valdi had told her that I wanted to take some pictures of the farm in winter. The attendant had taken it as gospel. The staff had all seen that I carried a camera around most of the time.

The town had nearly disappeared under the snow. Snow banks were as high as the eaves where the north wind got to sweep in unobstructed from the lake. The road west was clear, the road north was clear, but when we turned west again onto a country road, there were small drifts that ran from shoulder to shoulder. We could see where vehicles had come through. By the time we got to Valdi’s farm the snow had narrowed the road to one lane. The farmer who rented Valdi’s land also checked periodically on the house. However, he didn’t bother to plough the driveway. We could see snowmobile tracks that went to the side door and circled the house. He’d shoveled the snow away from the side door but the front steps were buried. The drifts spread away over the fields so it was like looking at a white ocean. What had been thick, unrelenting forest when Valdi had bought the land had been reduced to the occasional tree that stood black against the snow.

We sat there, looking at the house and the barn and work shed. There was a large three sided structure that had been used to store hay. The three metal silos reflected the sun. A jack rabbit appeared. White on white, we wouldn’t have seen it except for its movement. It must have been forty pounds. It paused to study us.

“I used to hunt those buggers,” Valdi said. “Hardly ever got one. Bush bunnies are easy. Whistle, they stop, you shoot them in the head.” Valdi reached out and hit the horn. It blared and the jack rabbit bounded away in a frantic zig zag path meant to throw off eagles or wolves.

A snow devil appeared on a drift beside us. It looked like a small tornado.  It appeared and disappeared. It was a first warning of wind starting up. If we got drifted in, as close as the house was, there was no way of getting Valdi from the truck to the house. I wondered if I could make my way there.

“We’d better be going,” I said. I put the van into gear and wished the farmer who rented the land had cleared part of the driveway so it would be easy to turn around.

“Go straight,” Valdi said, “turn at the next cross road. It’s just half a mile from here.”

I looked ahead and didn’t like the narrow trail that had been pushed open by vehicles traveling over the road. Unless I shoveled out a spot on the driveway to the house there was no place to turn around. I had a shovel in the back of the van but the drifts were over three feet high and the constant wind and cold had made the surface hard. I decided to back up. I figured with the wheels in the ruts, I’d follow them with no problem. I lowered the window and eased the van backward.

“Don’t you think you should go forward?” Valdi asked.

“The cross road may not be open, then we’ll be a mile in and if we get stuck, I’ll have a mile to walk to the highway. “ Two more snow devils whirled and disappeared.

I got back about a hundred feet when the van slipped sideways off the hard packed snow and the left back wheel  dropped. “Shit, shit, shit,” I said. It wasn’t a creative response but it was appropriate. I got out, took out my shovel and began to dig around the back wheel. I chipped away at the hard packed snow.  I got back into the van, tried to pull forward, the tires spun, I backed slightly, rocked the van a number of times, and when the tires caught, I was running the motor too fast and we shot across the road and both front wheels went into the snow bank.

“Better call the tow truck,” Valdi said.

I didn’t know the local number for a tow truck so I decided to call the nursing home. I’d explain our predicament and ask them to send a tow truck. I had a service plan. It cost 118.00 a year. I took out my cell phone, went to punch in the number and realized the battery was dead. I hadn’t used the phone for some time.

I looked back toward the highway. At this time of day, at this time of year, there might not be a vehicle going by for hours.

“There’s a toboggan in the work shed. You could pull me on that,” Valdi said. “Here’s the key. Don’t drop it. I’ve a key for the house and the house is heated, the electricity works and the phone is working.”

I looked at the gas gage and decided that we couldn’t spend the night in the van. It would be dark soon and nobody, if they actually noticed a vehicle on the side road, was going to come to see if everything was all right. A toboggan! Down the road, over the snowbanks. At least the side door had been shoveled free.

I wrapped myself in my parka, helmet, scarf, pulled on my deerskin gauntlets, pulled up my mukluks and tightened the drawstring at the top. The wind was becoming more persistent. I could see loose snow lifting over the fields. If it persisted, there could be a white out. People got lost and froze to death going from a house to a barn, never mind trying to find a house set back an eighth of a mile.

The road was treacherous. The surface was slippery and uneven.  I walked with my arms spread. When I got to the beginning of the driveway, I had to kick into the snow to make a step, then heave myself onto the surface of the drifts. The first few steps were easy. The snow was hard and held my weight. I didn’t lift my feet but skidded forward. That is, I skidded forward until I broke through and my left leg sank up to my knee.  I had to lie forward and pull so the force of getting the one leg free didn’t make the other one break through the surface. It went like that the whole way. Hard, hard, soft, hard, hard, hard, hard, soft.  Fortunately, the shed door opened inward.  I climbed over the drift that was piled up against it.

The toboggan was hanging on the wall. I stopped to rest, then took it down. I shut the door behind me and retraced my steps or, I should say, tried not to retrace them , avoiding soft spots.

When Valdi lay down on his back on the toboggan, his feet hung over the end, I gave him the shovel to hold. He grasped it to his chest. I pulled him along the road. The wind was steadier and even though only my eyes were uncovered, it was cold. I pulled Valdi to the beginning of the driveway. There was no way I could get him up onto the snowbank.

I took the shovel and cut a narrow inclined path for about nine feet. I then packed down the snow. At the top, I turned around, got on my knees and pulled the toboggan hand over hand as I backed up, all the time hoping my weight wouldn’t break through the glazed surface.

Valdi was now face down, holding onto the curved front of the toboggan. The surface of the snow was as difficult as the first time I crossed it. I didn’t dare go off the driveway because there was a ditch that fronted the property and if I sank into that I might never get out. In places, I crawled.

Darkness comes early in December in Manitoba and it obliterates everything unless there is a moon. Thank God a moon rose up, enough of a moon, so that light reflected off the snow. The world turned purple.

Valdi gave me the key to the house. I got the storm door open, then the inside door. I helped him sit up, then he put his arms around my shoulders and we did a kind of crazy, drunken dance up the steps, me hanging onto the railing, backing into the house, him struggling to get his feet up the steps and over the lintel. The door opened into the kitchen and I was able to walk him to a rocking chair beside the kitchen table.  He fell into it and I caught his knees so he didn’t go over backwards.

I was breathing too hard to say anything. I shut the two doors, then turned up the heat and thought, thank God, when I heard the furnace start. The house was too cold for us to take off our parkas so he rocked in his rocking chair and I paced back and forth thinking of everything that could go wrong, like the furnace running out of oil.

“Give me the phone,” he said. There was an old fashioned phone on the counter. It had a long cord. I gave it to him. He rang a number.  There was no answer.  He tried two more times. “They must be out,” he said. “Probably curling. They curl.”

“We can call the tow truck,” I said. I was annoyed. We were marooned in a vast ocean of snow and ice.

“No point,” he answered. “He can get the car out but he’s not going to get us out of here. You want to make that trip back to the road? Just wait. They’ll get home soon enough.”

He put down the phone and said, “There’s bowls in the cupboard, a can opener over there, lots of canned soup in that cupboard, there’s bread in the freezer and a toaster to toast it.” He was struggling with his parka. I helped him take it off. “Good thing I’m prepared for the worst. Be prepared, that’s what the Boy Scouts say.”

“You need to get back to the nursing home to take your medication,” I said. He might think it was a great adventure but I didn’t.

He fished in his parka pocket and pulled out three pill bottles. “I never go anywhere without these.”

I heated up tomato soup in the microwave, made a pile of toast, made coffee and discovered some whitener and sugar for the coffee.

“Isn’t this great?” he said. It was obvious that he saw it as a great adventure. After being confined to his poky room in the nursing home, I expect it was. However, I wasn’t in a mood to be generous. I had planned on spending the night at my friend’s place. They were going to have a few people over, eat BBQ ribs, drink a few beer, have a few laughs. It had been a heavy term and I needed a few laughs.

“I loved it in weather like this. Nothing to do in the winter except read and relax. Take a look at the living room. There’s a fireplace. There might even be some wood. Catherine and I used to have a fire on days like this. It’s a great feeling. Get a fire going and we can sit in there. No TV but lots to read.”

He put his arm over my shoulders and we struggled to the living room. He sat in his leather armchair like he was king of the world. There was, as he’d said, kindling and birch slabs. I found some paper and matches and started a fire. Three walls of the room had bookshelves from the floor to the ceiling. Shelves were taken up with books about Iceland, many of them in Icelandic, quite a few in English. There were books of poetry in Icelandic. I flipped one open. It had been printed in Winnipeg in 1898. I took out another one. It had been printed in Gimli in 1901. I ran a finger over the spines. He had an early Madame Pfeiffer, A Journey to Iceland and Travels in Sweden and Norway  and a reprint of Olafsson and Palsson’s 1752-1757 Travels in Iceland.  I worked my way along one shelf and then started on another.

“What are you going to do with these?” I asked. I’d taken down a copy of the Almanak from 1875. Someone had bound it with tape to the Almanak for 1876.

“I don’t know,” he said. “Hard to say. Maybe the person who buys the house will want them.”

“They should go to the Icelandic library at the university.”

“Now you sound like my daughter. That’s all she can think of. Books should be in libraries. They sit there gathering dust and after they’re copied digitally, they’re tossed out.”

“Why don’t you call Joe again?”

“Yes,” he sighed. “Bring me the phone.”

He called and this time Joe answered. “Joe,” he said, “Valdi here. I’m at the farm. We slipped off the road. Yeah, we got in fine. Could you come and get us? After you’re finished with the cows? That’s fine. We’ve got all we need here.”

We played cribbage until we heard the sound of a skidoo, two skidoos, actually. Joe and his wife, Alice, each had a skidoo. They raced over the snow and stopped at the kitchen door. They came in, took off their helmets, shook hands, and Valdi insisted on their having coffee.

“It’s like old times,” he said and I imagined that they’d had dozens or hundreds of evenings around the kitchen table.

We got dressed for the outdoors. I got on behind Alice and Valdi got behind Joe and off went, racing through the night, up and down drifts, around trees and stopped at their back door. We had to go inside, take off our winter gear, have more coffee, then Joe said, “We’d better be getting you back. We got into his Ford Ram with the big tires, he took us down a mile, across a mile, out onto the highway, then pulled the van onto the road and waited to be sure I got the motor started, then that I got the van onto the highway. He helped me get Valdi into the van and flashed his lights and beeped his horn when we drove away.

“We could have stayed the night,” Valdi said. “There’s three bedrooms. It was built for a family.”

The wind was blowing steadily now, the highway was blurred by drifting snow, fingers of snow were starting to reach across the pavement.

“You were going to tell me something about Laxness,” I said.

“I forgot,” he replied, “in all the excitement caused by your not being able to stay on the road.” I glared at him. He had a way of shifting blame that was very annoying. “I figured we’d just stop for a look at the farm in the snow, then go further down the highway to a place I know. It’s got a Laxness connection.”

“Tell me about it,” I said.

“No point, unless you can see it. What do you think of the house?”

“House?” I said, I was torn between being annoyed at having tomato soup and toast instead of BBQ ribs and not hearing something new about Laxness. Besides, if his librarian daughter heard about this adventure, I’d be hearing from her. She reminded me of some teachers I’d had in public school. I did not remember them fondly.

 

 

 

Laxness: hypothermia in the Interlake

laxnessberet

Chapter 3

After Valdi told me about the desperate night on the road after Laxness’s reading, I wasn’t able to come back to the nursing home for two weeks. I’d had time to make notes and think over what he’d revealed. I asked him but he wouldn’t tell me the name of the farmer’s wife.

“She was,” he said, “blonde and slightly plump in a good way, a healthy way, the kind of way that makes a man want to hold onto a woman.”

“But were they, you know, are you sure…”

“Maybe, maybe not. Laxness was far gone. He wasn’t a robust man. The wet and cold had made him hypothermic. She spooned potato soup broth into him. He was shaking with cold. It was not unknown in Iceland in those circumstances, for a woman, even two of them, one on each side to get into bed with a man in hope of saving his life. In Iceland, they didn’t have electric blankets or even stoves. They survived the winter on body heat, theirs and their animals. You use what you’ve got. You know that in Iceland, if a traveler came to your house, your eldest daughter undressed him, got his soaking wet clothes off, helped dry him. It was just the way things were done. Who knows what they did in Germany? She was Catholic German. When she heard him chanting  a Latin prayer she thought an angel had fallen from heaven. She may just have been rubbing his hands and feet, trying to get circulation into them.”

“And this driver?” I said. “How reliable was he?”

“When he wasn’t drinking, he was very reliable. If you don’t believe my sources, then don’t ask. There’s no point in my telling you anything.”

“The story is incredible.”

“So is the story of Hjalmar getting lost on Lake Winnipeg in a storm and his legs freezing solid and his walking on them all night. I guess you don’t want to believe that either because teachers have cushy jobs and if someone does something they can’t, they refuse to believe it.”

“I know about Hjalmar,” I protested. “I’ve heard how he had his legs amputated and then cleared his land on his knees.”

“People like you,” he always said people like you when he was annoyed, “would have been whining and applying for disability benefits and expecting someone else to come and clear your land.”

He’d said this before but I still got huffy. “Just because I teach school doesn’t mean I’m a whiner. Everybody can’t be a farmer.”

“The Chinese had it right when they ordered all the teachers to work on pig farms during the summer.”

I looked at my watch even though there was a large clock on the wall of his room. “I guess I’d better be going,” I said.

“There’s no need to be like that,” he replied. “I could use a cigarette.”

“Your daughter says you are not to smoke,” I said.

His daughter was a librarian who lived in Brandon, Manitoba. She had married, divorced, remarried, divorced and went to Hawaii when she had the opportunity. Hawaii was a lot more attractive than Gimli, she said, especially in winter. It was about a five hour drive from Brandon to Gimli. “That’s quite a distance,” I once said to Valdi. “Not distant enough,” he replied. “I keep hoping she’ll retire to the Okanagan.”

When she appeared at the nursing home, the staff found jobs to do in distant parts of the building. You would have thought Valdi would have looked forward to her visits but they inevitable turned into shouting matches.

He was lonely. There was no doubt about that. I think that’s why he put up with me. That, and the fact that I brought him cigarettes and, sometimes, a bottle of brandy.

“Don’t be a prick,” he answered. “I can see the package in your pocket.”

I pushed him down to the dock. There was no point in trying to have a conversation while we were moving. For one thing, he was too busy checking out the tourist babes going in and out of Tergesen’s store. “There must be a terrible shortage of cloth,” he said as he admired a couple of women in shorts.

He wanted an ice cream cone so we stopped at the restaurant on the corner and I bought him a strawberry cone. “Babelicious,” he said between licks. “Oh, to have two good kidneys and two good legs. Life isn’t fair.” He was studying some of the women going by. “By the time you learn the moves, there’s no point in making them.”

“There’s no volleyball today,” I said. I could see where his mind was going.

“Too bad,” he said, “we’ll have to make do with what’s available.”

We got settled beside the fountain at the foot of the dock.

“Laxness was the greatest writer Iceland has ever had,” I said.

“Snorri Sturlusson was better,” he replied. “No contest.”

“We know Laxness wrote his books. We’re just guessing at who wrote Egil’s Saga.” Egil’s Saga, at least a fragment of it, goes back to 1240. The saga is about the life of Egil Skallagrimmson, an Icelandic farmer who is also a poet. The family is known to be shape shifters, crafty and violent. Egil kills his first person when he is seven years old. It’s that kind of a story. Valdi thought it was much better than Pride and Prejudice or even Romeo and Juliet, both of which I taught. Literature for wimps, he called them. Chick lit. No wonder boys don’t want to read, he often said when we discussed education. Give them Vikings and raiding and pillaging and they’ll eat it up.”

He licked the ice cream drips off his fingers. “I need a smoke,” he said. “I can’t concentrate when my brain is craving a smoke.”

I reluctantly took out the cigarette package. There were people with children gathered around the fountain. The mothers narrowed their eyes at me. I could hear what they were thinking. Giving that poor old man in the wheel chair cigarettes to hasten his death. I kept waiting for someone to come over and give me a lecture.

I refused to put the cigarette into my mouth and light it. I’d quit years before and I wasn’t going to start again. Instead, I put it in his mouth and lit it with his purple plastic lighter that I was afraid was going to one day burst into flames in my pants’ pocket.

Valdi Vigfusson knew he had me by the short hairs. He knew that the writing I most admired was that of Halldor Laxness. Laxness was Iceland’s most famous writer. Laxness had received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1955 for his novel, Independent People. However, I thought he should have received the Nobel Prize a number of times, for books like Christianity Under Glacier and Iceland’s Bell. The novels are brilliant and brave. Living in a country with a tiny population, around 100,000, related to a large number of people, he risked satirizing Christians, farmers, and Vikings. Iceland’s official religion is Lutheranism, its major occupation was farming and its most treasured memory were the glory days of the Vikings.

As Iceland’s only Nobel prize winner, Laxness has had his life written about many times. Every detail is known. Except for his visit to New Iceland, Manitoba. Here, there was the possibility of writing something new, of filling in part of his life.

Iceland has had a peculiar history. There were no native people living there when disgruntled Norwegians and Danes left Europe and settled. There were some Irish priests; however, they fled before the onslaught of pagans. The Little Ice Age hadn’t started yet and it was possible to grow grain crops. Enough grain that some was exported to Europe. Some of the early settlers said there was butter dripping from the grass. Misleading advertising isn’t new.

There was no paper around so when the oral tales of Viking derring do and feuding were written down in Iceland in the 1300s, vellum, treated cow hide, was used. Those tales, the sagas, became one of the foundations of Western Literature. Then nothing. It’s not that people quit telling stories but most of the stories, if not folk tales about the huldufolk or trolls, were a retelling of Viking tales from the Golden Age.

Icelanders gave up their independence voluntarily. They couldn’t stop fighting among themselves and so asked the Norwegian king to be in charge. Big mistake. The chieftans kept swearing their loyalty to the Norwegian kings in return for appointments and gold until the independence for which they’d sailed to Iceland was gone. And then Denmark conquered Norway and got Iceland as a bonus. Iceland didn’t shrug off Danish control until 1918 and didn’t become a republic until 1944. Centuries had passed. In the meantime, except for a few wealthy and powerful families well connected to Denmark everyone lived in abject poverty. They were indentured servants, cheap labour.

And then, for no particular reason, Halldor Laxness appeared. He started writing at the age of seven.  Later, when he published his novels, a lot of Icelanders didn’t like his writing because it affronted their dignity. He made fun of their state church, of their precious, romanticized Vikings that the Nazis had also latched onto to promote their racial superiority. He mocked the Icelanders who had gone abroad to Utah to become Mormons. When he won the Nobel Prize, a lot of Icelanders, particularly those in power, were torn. They didn’t like this Lutheran turned Catholic turned Communist turned God knows what. At the same time, they couldn’t help but be proud. They’d have preferred it if one of their social and economic elite had been recognized. They were so used to their entitled positions and their belief that they were superior to everyone else that they were dismayed that someone from the lower class could receive more recognition than them.

When Laxness came to New Iceland, he hadn’t won the Nobel prize. His life and career were largely ahead of him. His writing, because it did not romanticize Icelandic history offended many. And then, to make matters worse, he chose to read the short story, New Iceland, to the assembled multitude.

A cone of silence, a conspiracy of muteness, descended over Laxness’s visit to New Iceland. Although he came to Gimli, Manitoba, and stayed for a time, I never heard his name mentioned. Not once. His books weren’t in the school library.

So, Valdi Vigfusson from Vidir was important, not just important, but critical, because he had knowledge, not first hand, but directly second hand from his mother and father, about the reading and the visit.

If you want a warm reception, you need to tell people what they want to hear and, what they want to hear, is how wonderful they and their ancestors are. They want to be reassured. Instead, Laxness told people that their  Lutheranism was a fraud, their Vikings were a bunch of brainless galoots, and the local elite were charlatans.

I liked Valdi from Vidir. He was grouchy at times, sarcastic, difficult, but not without reason. His parents came from Iceland because they were no better than serfs. Iceland never went through the Industrial Revolution. There were no roads and no wheeled vehicles in Iceland until the early 1900s. People lived on isolated farms. Many never saw a foreigner in their entire lives. On their immigration papers, they called themselves farmers. There were no farmers in Iceland. They planted nothing. Grain wouldn’t ripen and vegetable crops were limited to some root vegetables that were planted at the insistence of the Danes. The only crop was hay. There were no trees. They came to Manitoba and found themselves isolated in heavy bush. Valdi’s father, Gudmundur, did not know how to use an axe. He’d built a house in Iceland from lava blocks and turf. There were no lava blocks and turf in Manitoba. There were trees. Lots of trees. They lived in a hole in the ground with a roof over it through a hellish winter while he learned to chop down trees. The land wasn’t much good for growing grain but he didn’t know that.

They had a quarter section of land and eventually got a cow, a couple of sheep, then another cow, and learned to eat rabbits and squirrels. They figured out where they could grow oats, rye, barley, wheat, flax. They raised pigs.

And Laxness was right when he said that the wives of the Icelanders had to work as domestics. They weren’t independent. There were times when Gudmundur and Gudni went out to work for wages. He worked on the railway and she worked as a domestic in Winnipeg. Those were hard times. But they persevered and had something they would never have had in Iceland, their own land. In Iceland, in times when the weather was good, they  might have had a piece of marginal land on the edge of the lava desert, they’d have paid a killing interest rate on the mortgage and with no money to pay the mortgage would have been share croppers, giving the landlord and the church part of everything they produced. They would have paid a ridiculous amount to rent cows and sheep, and would have lived in a turf and rock cave without any heat. There’d be no heat because there were no stoves, there were no stoves because there was hardly any fuel except poor quality turf and, in some locations, brown coal that also burned poorly, gave lots of smoke and not much heat.

Valdi had numerous jobs as he was growing up, learned farming from his parents and, eventually, bought a farm with better land than his parents. He raised beef cattle and grain and hay the rest of  his life. He farmed until he was eighty-five. Until then he’d only been in a hospital once in his life and that was because his arm was broken when hay bales fell on him. He resented his failing kidneys, spoke harshly about them and to them and, if his kidneys were in reasonable shape, would have had knee replacements. He did not want to die in a bed in a nursing home. He wanted to die on his farm in the cab of his combine.

His daughter threatened to have him tested for Alzheimer’s but it wouldn’t have done any good. He hadn’t made her Power of Attorney or Executor. He’d had the same lawyer all his life until the lawyer died and now the lawyer’s son was his POA and Executor. They had a good relationship. The lawyer’s son called him Uncle Valdi and sent him Christmas and birthday cards.

“She wants the money,” he said. “She wants me to retire so she can retire. She wants to go on cruises. If she wants the farm, she can come and work the farm.”

She thought he was crazy to be living alone on a place five miles from town. “Sell the farm, sell the farm,” she’d yelled. “People ten years younger than you are retired.” That was when he was seventy-five. She was still yelling the same thing when he was eighty-five. He moved into the nursing home when he was eighty-eight. He refused to sell the farm.

He’d never got to go beyond grade eight except for some short term agricultural courses in winter. However, he read both Icelandic and English and spoke some Ukrainian. Although, by any measure, the people in Iceland were poor, many of them poverty stricken, living on isolated farms, they were literate. Children were schooled at home, learning to read from both the divine and profane, the Bible and the sagas, plus anything else that managed to find its way from farm to farm. The tradition had followed the settlers to Canada. People read and discussed what they read in the evening while everyone worked at necessary tasks. The rooms at Betel, the nursing home,  aren’t very big but he’d sacrificed the clothes dresser for a book case that reached the ceiling, filled it with some of his books from the farm, and bought himself a come-to-me, a device with which he could reach up, grasp a book and pull it down. From time to time, a book would fall onto him. He kept the larger, weightier books on the bottom shelves. Which was good because some local histories weighed more than five pounds.In good weather, he also visited the local library which was just over a block away.

He had a good voice. He’d always sung with a couple of local choirs and on Saturday evenings, he’d joined a local group to sing at the nursing home. He’d driven in from the farm except when the harvest was on. He sang English songs with the choir but solos in Icelandic. Now that he’d had to leave the farm for the nursing home, he rolled down the hallway to the entertainment room where the choir performed.

He’d married later than many, probably around thirty-five. It had taken him that long to save up a down payment, buy a farm, get it running properly but even so he’d taken work with the municipality while it was available. His wife drove a school bus. She played the piano and they often had people over for supper and a sing-along.

His parents’ owned the section immediately east of him. It worked out well. They could help each other when the cattle were calving and at harvest time. If they wanted to go for a holiday during the winter, it was easy to pop over in the truck or on a snowmobile and do the necessary chores for a couple of weeks. When they died, he took over their property.

I’d known him to see him but not well enough to do more than say hello or nod as we passed on the street in or in the hardware store. He’d been friends with my grandparents and my parents. I sometimes saw him at church, although that was years before when I still lived in town. His wife was still alive then. I vaguely remember her as an attractive,  somewhat overweight woman who wore large hats. My parents had told me the courtship and marriage had taken the community by surprise. Valdi had already been designated a determined bachelor and his wife, Gudny, a spinster. Before they had married, she had worked for years as a clerk at the local drugstore.

I first went to see him in the nursing home because I was working on an article on farming in the area. I explained who I was and he’d eyed me rather suspiciously. He’d been a reluctant and grumpy source. He’d only recently moved into the nursing home and he hadn’t totally adjusted to the idea. “Pasta,” he complained to me, “Pasta, pasta. What do they think,  this is an Italian nursing home? Icelanders eat fish and potatoes. Meat and potatoes.” They’d had macaroni and cheese for supper that evening.

“There’s a restaurant just down the hall at the other end of the building,” I said. It was not a good way to start our relationship.

“Do you know what I’m paying to stay here for a month? It’s more than I earned in a year when I started working. Pasta is for peewees and Filipinos.”

“Filipinos don’t eat pasta,” I replied. “They eat rice.”

Silence descended. He glowered from under his bushy eyebrows. He had eyebrows like shelves and deep set eyes.

“Icelanders eat rullupylsa, brown bread, hakarl, dried cod, mutton soup. Rice!” he ended contemptuously.

“I was raised on rice pudding with raisins in it,” I said.

“Your mother was Irish,” he replied. “I knew her. She boiled her beef.”

My mother was Irish. She did not boil her beef. She was an excellent cook. One of the best cooks I’ve ever had the good fortune to know. She made beef stew with dumplings that was to die for. Valdi was lying through his teeth about the rice pudding. One of the biggest imports into Iceland in the 1800s was rice. They boiled it with milk. People in Gimli ate it regularly, cooked with raisins and with cinnamon sprinkled on top.

I wasn’t going to argue with him about my mother’s cooking. I said, “I heard that your father cut his first crops with a scythe. I want to know what that was like.”

“He bought the first swather in the district.”

“I want to know about the scythes.”

“Icelandic or Ukrainian? Straight or crooked?”

“Both,” I answered. “And if you happen to have some pictures of people scything, I’d appreciate it if I could have copies. You’ll get credit for them. It will say Photographs permission of Valdi Vigfusson.”

“From Vidir,” he said. “There are half a dozen Valdi Vigfussons around.”

 

Laxness in the Interlake (chapter 2)

laxnesssock

My conversations with Valdimar Vigfusson from Vidir took place over a long period of time. I was often away, he was often not feeling well, sometimes he was just feeling stubborn and unappreciated. I couldn’t help being away and I couldn’t blame him for feeling out of sorts. He’d been a large, strong man, a successful farmer, missed his wife who had died some years before, and hated being in the nursing home in Gimli, Manitoba.

He didn’t yell or swear, at least not a lot. He mostly sulked and if I turned up and he was feeling resentful or unhappy over the food, he hated pasta and the nursing home served it quite often, he just jerked his thumb at the door. I might manage to mollify him by asking him if he wanted a cigarette.

His daughter had said that he was not to have any cigarettes so he was always trying cadge one. He had smoked all his life and the fingers of his right hand were stained dark yellow. If the staff chastised him for smoking, he replied by saying that when he died he hoped he’d go to hell because there’d always be a light available for his fag.

After he’d told me about the reading where Laxness had been chased down the road out of town, I was puzzled at his saying that they’d made it back to Gimli that night. Gimli was a good thirty miles from where the reading was held. I knew what those country roads were like when they were wet, not just wet but saturated, their surface sticky Manitoba clay.

There was no use pussy footing about it. If I was subtle, he’d brush me off so I said, “You couldn’t have made it back to Gimli that night. It was impossible. Where did you spend the night?”

He half-smiled, tipped his head back and looked at a painting on his wall of a farm yard with some granaries in it. The staff sometimes described him as a devil. Not an evil devil but a mischievous devil, more like an imp.

“Of course we made it to Gimli, didn’t I say so?”

“Give me a break. I’ve been thinking about it. You’d have had a hard time making it even if you’d been in a buggy with two good horses, never mind a car.”

“Maybe I’ll have a cigarette,” he said so I unlocked the brake on his wheelchair and rolled him out the front door. There was nothing wrong with his mind except a little forgetfulness now and again and he knew the combination. He could let himself in and out whenever he wanted. He had no bracelet on his wrist or ankle that would lock the door anytime he came close. Sometimes when he wanted to go out, there’d be other residents gathered close to the door and some of them had bracelets so the door was locked. He’d start shouting, “Out, out, get out of here.” and they’d scatter like a flock of crippled chickens with their walkers and canes.

He was the envy of many because even though he was in a wheelchair, he was able to go and come as he pleased. There were no farms nearby but the harbour was a block and a half away and he’d wheel himself down there to sit on the dock and watch the boats and the tourists. He always took a tea cup with him and found someone, often one of the kids who hung around the harbour, to get him a cup of cold artesian water from the fountain. “No damned chlorine in it,” he’d declare.

He had an eye for the ladies and along with studying the boats, he watched the women in their shorts and bikinis. Sometimes, he’d say to me, “Let’s go ogle the babes.” I’d push him down to the dock, then along the boardwalk that fronted the beach for a quarter of a mile. He particularly liked to watch the beach volleyball and was quite vocal about how much better life would have been if they’d have had beach volleyball when he was a boy.

“”You’re an old bugger,”” I’d say to him sometimes. He never denied it. “Yeah,” he’d say with some satisfaction. “I am.'”

He had two cigarettes before he was willing to talk. We were on the artificial hill beside the nursing home. It gave a clear view of the south part of the bay. Flat, pale blue water, warm sun, the small dock where the commercial fishermen tied up their boats.

“Laxness,” I said.

“I’m the only person alive who knows this stuff,” he said. “The guy won the Nobel prize. The inside dope should be worth more than two cigarettes.”

I took the package of Export out of my pocket. They didn’t just cost me serious money but looks of disapproval from the grocery clerks and customers in the lineup at the cashiers. The process of buying the cigarettes had become quite furtive, the cigarettes locked up as if they were some evil talisman, the cashier at SuperA scurrying to unlock the cabinet and then holding them so as few people as possible could see what I was buying, slipping them across the counter and my jamming them into my pant’s pocket. Even so I’d had women, always women, standing behind me say things like cancer in a shocked, disapproving voice. I got lectures.

When this happened, I wanted to turn around and say, I don’t smoke. This is in pursuit of precious knowledge that could be lost at any moment. I’ve never been good at handling criticism.

I put a cigarette in his mouth and lit it with a bright purple lighter.

“My memory slips sometimes,” he said. He took a big drag and blew three circles of smoke. He was proud of his smoke circles. The most he’d ever managed was five and if he’d had his way everyone in the nursing home would have been smoking and practicing blowing circles. When anyone protested at his idea, he said, “They’re all going to die shortly anyway. They might as well accomplish something in the meantime.”

“You’re right, now that I think of it, we’d didn’t make it home that night. I dunno. Maybe I shouldn’t say anything. In respect for his wife.”

“Laxness’s wife?”

“No,” Valdi said. “The farmer’s wife.”

I waited. I’d learned that there was no point in trying to push him. He told his stories at his own pace and in his own time. If I tried to hurry him, he’d jerk his thumb and it would be off to the nursing home and I wouldn’t see him again for a week, maybe two. We watched one of the fishermen coming in with his catch. He throttled down when he got close to the dock, swung the skiff around, then slipped expertly into his berth.

“They didn’t make it back to Gimli that night. You’re right. They were axel deep in mud at times. The stuff was slippery. They slipped and slid. It was still pouring rain. Pouring rain,” he repeated to emphasize the point. “Coming down in sheets. You know that road. You could end up in the river or a ditch. Part of the time, they drove with the doors open so they could jump out.”

“The lightening was still coming down like something from hell, here, there, all around them. Everything would be pitch black, then everything would be lit up so they could see every detail. A wind was blowing so that the rain went across the windshield in waves.”

“Normally, the driver would have stopped at a farmhouse but the farmhouses were all Icelandic and that meant the people probably were at the reading. There’d be the story which had insulted them, the tar and feathers that had spread over all sorts of suits and dresses, the drenching of people who’d come in wagons, the terrible road they’d traveled. None of these promised a happy reception.”

“They traveled, if you can call it traveling when you are moving at less speed than a good walk. The driver did well, pulling the car out of skids, getting it through holes and ruts filled with water. I should say it wasn’t warm out. The rain was cold and they were both soaked to the skin.”

“They had turned south when the car started to spin. There was nothing the driver could do about it. There was a bit of a slope to the road and the car did a pirouette.” Valdi made a circle with the cigarette to demonstrate a pirouette. “It ended nose down in a ditch. It wasn’t a deep ditch but it was deep enough. Laxness got out and staggered through the mud and water, waded into the water filled ditch, his good lace up shoes were beyond redemption now, plunged his hands into the water and while the driver tried to back up, he pushed. They made a number of attempts but it was obviously hopeless.”

“If it hadn’t been getting cold, they’d have stayed with the car but they had no dry clothes and no blankets, there was no way to make a fire. They started to walk on a section of road where there were  few houses. Saying they walked really isn’t accurate. They staggered, they dragged their feet, they wrenched their way from one footstep to another. The driver, as I said, was a big man, strong, and when Laxness fell down for the last time and couldn’t get to his feet, the driver picked him up, put him over his shoulder and staggered forward. He’d seen a light and that kept him going.”

“When he got close to the light, lightening flashed and he could see there was a house and a barn. He made it across the bridge over the ditch, through a gate, slid Laxness off his shoulder and leaned him up against the door. The door had a peephole built into it so the farmer could look out to see who had come . The peephole took Laxness back to his years in in the Abbey of St. Maurice. Fear and anxiety had taken him to the Abbey and now, in the blinding rain and cold, fear and anxiety took him back there again. He had abandoned Lutheranism and was baptized a Catholic. You know, he disowned being Lutheran and joined a group that prayed for Iceland to go back to being Catholic.”

“The driver knocked, then banged and finally kicked on the door and, at last, mercifully, the peep hole opened and an eye looked out at them. The driver asked, then begged that they be let in but to no avail. The woman on the other side of the door was young, German, the wife of a German farmer who was away and she wasn’t going to let two strange men on a stormy night into her home. She didn’t understand Icelandic and she had only a rudimentary grasp of English.”

‘The peep hole and Laxness’s memory, loosened from reality by his ordeal, taking him back to the monastery door, prompted him to begin singing a Catholic hymn in Latin. The woman on the other side of the door, believing that some figure from God had arrived, pulled back the bolt that held the door shut and Laxness fell onto her floor. He lay there singing in Latin. The driver grabbed him by the shoulders and dragged him into the house so the woman could shut the door against the wind and rain.

“Where have you come from?” she cried.

“From God,” Laxness said and she clapped her hands to her face. “Help me, help me,” she said and began to pull off his muddy, soaking wet clothes. Between the two of them, they undressed Laxness and she washed him with warm water from the container on the side of the wood stove and dried him with a large cloth, then wrapped him in a blanket. The driver put him in a chair in front of the wood stove and the housewife, a sturdy, handsome woman, heated some potato soup, left the driver to serve himself, but fed Laxness. Once he’d eaten the soup, she put her hands under one of his arms and helped him into the other room (there only were two) and put him to bed. She didn’t want the driver picking him up because the driver was still covered in mud. “He has to warm up,” she said. “He’s shivering.”

“The driver, like many Icelanders, had a rudimentary grasp of German. “Gone,” she shouted at the driver and he thought she meant that he should go but he when he got up, she shook her head, pointed at herself, then at a man’s jacket hanging on a peg on the wall, then at the window. “My husband,” she said. “Away.” The driver nodded to her back and helped himself to another bowl of soup.”

“She shut the door to the bedroom and the driver was left to himself. There was a military type rifle on the wall, some metal traps, some religious icons but there was just the small table at which he was sitting, two chairs and some cupboards.”

“The house was quite small so he couldn’t help but hear her get into bed and in a little while there was some rhythmic noise.”

“What kind of rhythmic noise?” I asked Valdi.

“Rhythmic, you know. I’m not saying they were doing anything they shouldn’t. She was worried that he might have hypothermia and was helping him warm up.”

“After a while, he heard them whispering in German. Laxness spoke German very well.”

“At some point in the night, she came out to look through the window. The driver had fallen asleep sitting up. He woke and she said, “He comes from God. He prays in Latin. He speaks German. You watch here. You call me if anyone is coming.”

“She went back into the bedroom and she helped him to get warm again. The driver fell asleep and when he woke up the rain had stopped. He went to the door and looked down the road. He saw someone coming on a horse. He ran back inside, barged into the bedroom and said he’s coming.”

“The wife panicked. She jumped out of bed. It was too late for them to go out the front door. There was no back door but there was a window in the bedroom. Laxness got out of bed and climbed out the window. She threw his clothes after him and said hide there and pointed to a pig barn that was about four feet high. “Not the cow barn.”

“She shut the window, grabbed the driver who was too big to go through the window, dragged him to the chair at the table. “You sit here.” She ran back into the bedroom, got dressed, pulled the comforter into place and opened the door for her husband who was as large as the driver and in a foul mood after having traveled through terrible weather and over horrible roads.”

“He came looking for help,” she said. “His car is somewhere there,” she pointed further along the road. “It is a good chance to make a few dollars off these Icelanders.”

“It was obvious that there’d been no fooling around with the driver. He was in his mud soaked clothes. The only thing he’d taken off were his mud caked boots. The husband looked around the room, went to the door of the bedroom, then came back.”

“Hitch up your horse,” she said. “We can use a few dollars.”

“The pigs are squealing,” he said. “Has a weasel got in with them?”

“I’ll look,” she replied. “You take care of him.”

“She went out to the pig barn and opened the door. Laxness was bent over inside. He’d managed to get his clothes on. “My sock,” he said. “I left one of my socks.” She threw some feed to the pigs to calm them down. “You go down that way,” she said and hide in the bush. Your friend will pick you up. Don’t go until I tell you.”

“Her husband and the driver left and she looked for Laxness’s sock but couldn’t find it. She rushed back out and told him to leave. He fled around the back of the barn where he wouldn’t leave footprints in the bush and thrashed his way along edge of the road. The housewife pulled the comforter off the bed and then the sheets but couldn’t find the missing sock. It would have been a disaster if her husband had seen it. It was an Icelandic sock, not a German sock. There would be no explaining its presence.”

“The farmer and the driver went down the road with the horse and managed to drag the car out of the ditch. The driver forked over two dollars and started off down the road. He wasn’t sure what had happened to Laxness but he kept his eyes open and couldn’t drive quickly anyway. Laxness suddenly appeared from out of a stand of poplars, opened the door and threw himself onto the front passenger seat. He smelled of pigs.“

Valdi stopped with that and pointed toward the cigarette package in my pocket. I reluctantly took out a cigarette for him but I didn’t light it.

“What happened to the sock?” I asked.

“It was stuck inside Laxness’s trousers,” he said. “He felt a lump there and reached in and pulled it out. There was no way to tell the farm wife. There was no reasonable excuse for the driver to return to the farm. The farm wife searched the bedroom many times, searched the main room, searched outside, thought maybe one of the pigs had eaten it and worried that when a pig was killed and gutted that the sock might appear in its stomach. It would be impossible to explain.”

“The driver was in town a year or so later. He saw the housewife at Gunnar Johnson’s livery stable. There was no sign of her husband. She told the driver what had happened to her. She said, ‘The sock?” and he said, “In his pants.” And she nearly collapsed with relief. They both looked over their shoulders and he went out one end of the livery stable and she went out the other.”

 

 

 

Laxness in the Interlake

Laxnessinterlake

I was visiting Valdi Vigfusson in the nursing home in Gimli, Manitoba, and mentioned that I was reading one of Laxness’s novels. “I saw him once,” he said.  “He came to give a reading.”

Valdi came from a farm in the Interlake of Manitoba. The area was settled by Icelandic immigrants around the turn of the century. His parent’s farm was on marginal land so life was hard scrabble for them and since he’d been an only child and had inherited their farm, life was hardscrabble for him, too. In other areas, the land was good and many of the farmers had prospered, at least much more than those who had stayed in the swamps around Lake Winnipeg or among the gravel ridges.

Although the settlers were all related by blood or marriage, there was quite a bit of rivalry and not a little resentment toward those who were doing better than others.  When Valdi told me stories about the communities, I always had to take that into account. Many of his stories seemed impossible. Men walking all night on legs frozen solid. Men, after having their legs amputated, clearing their land on their knees. Sturgeon so big their heads were at the bow of a skiff and the tail at the stern.  However,  time and again, my research confirmed what he said.

Valdi’s hand shook as he took the cup of coffee I’d brought him. He used his left hand to steady his right wrist. He’d sold his parent’s farm and bought one on land along the Icelandic River. The Icelandic River, originally called the White Mud river,  ran all the way from west  through the municipality of Bifrost to Lake Winnipeg.  At one time, Valdi had been a big, strapping man, broad shouldered from a life-time of heavy work, his skin darkened by sun and wind. Now, he sat hunched in his wheelchair. His hair had turned grey and his skin was yellow. “Kidney’s are going,” he said.

“Laxness, in the Interlake?” I said skeptically. From time to time, I’d heard rumours of Laxness coming to the Interlake, but when I’d tried to find out any details of his visit, I me with silence. The closest I got to something specific was that Laxness had stayed for a time in my home town of Gimli. But who he stayed with, how long he stayed, what he did was unknown or, at least, not to be shared.

Valdi sipped  his coffee, then put the cup down. The ripples on the top of the cup went over the rim. I pulled a Kleenex out of a box and mopped up the coffee. “Lousy way to die,” he said. “I shoulda had a heart attack while I was threshing.”

“Laxness?” I prompted him.

“I dunno if I should say anything.”  He took hold of his right wrist and lifted up the cup. I wanted to suggest that he use a straw but knowing him that would be the end of the visit. He’d jerk his thumb at the door. I’d be persona non grata for a week. He managed to get the cup down without spilling any coffee on himself or the table. “There was a sort of understanding. Nothing formal.  No taking of oaths or anything. You just knew you weren’t to talk about it.”

“It was a long time ago,” I said.

He sighed. We both knew that there were a lot of secrets  that went to the grave unspoken. I have my own but those are personal failures, mistakes, misunderstandings. This was a public event that included  a writer who would win the Nobel Prize in literature. Besides, Valdi loved to talk. He was happiest when he had an audience.

I thought about the town where I’d been told the event that no one talked about was supposed to have happened. It was a prosperous farming community. A main street lined with stores, a hotel, nicer houses than a lot of the surrounding communities had. It had prospered while other communities had faded away. I remembered being there for an athletic day.  Most of the school had gone there to participate. However, a visit by Laxness would  have to have been a couple of decades earlier, when the town was less formed, more isolated, more Icelandic.  I was particularly interested in this possible story about Laxness coming to the wilderness of Manitoba because I’d been to Iceland, visited  his home after his death, spent an afternoon with his widow, sat at  his desk, looked out his window at the landscape that spread out before him as he wrote his amazing books. I’d asked her for details about his visit and while she talked freely about his time Hollywood, she claimed to know nothing about his trip north.

Sometimes, silence is the best response to uncertainty. It allows the owner of a secret to unlock the door from inside, to peek out, to see if there is anything threatening. I sat and drank my coffee and studied the half-dozen Icelandic books on Valdi’s bedside table.

“I need a smoke,” he said.

I looked at him and didn’t say anything. He knew I didn’t approve of his smoking.

“My lungs will still be working when my kidneys quit,” he said.

I pushed his wheelchair to the door, punched in the numbers on the lock, then wheeled him through the door and parked him beside a bench where the smokers sat even in the coldest weather. There was a rusted coffee can for discarded butts.

Valdi fumbled a package of cigarettes and a matchbook folder out of his pocket. By pressing the cigarette package onto his lap with his left  hand, he managed to get a cigarette out. His hand vibrated as he got the cigarette to his lips. He moved it over to one side with his tongue. He kept his lips nearly closed when he said, “I can’t light a match.”

I picked up the matches, pulled one loose and held the flame to his cigarette. He sucked in the smoke, then breathed it out.

“Laxness,” I said.

He looked away, past the right side of my head. I thought he was dismissing my question but, instead, he was remembering. It was too  hard for him to take the cigarette out of his mouth so he kept it firmly in the corner of the left side. It waved up and down as he talked.

I was surprised that Laxness would go to the trouble of making the trip to Manitoba. In Iceland the emigrants had been called traitors, weaklings, cowards who ran away because times were hard. They even taught that in the schools.

“All right but you can’t mention the name of the town and you can’t tell anyone until I’ve been dead for ten years,” Valdi said. He butted out his cigarette. “The hall was full. People had to stand. I was just a kid. I went there with my parents.”

I imagined that country hall with its wooden benches, men and women dressed in their best, packed together, the overflow standing along the walls. Farmers in their good dark jackets and pants, their wives in long dresses.

Laxness was fifteen minutes late. The road was Manitoba clay with a sprinkling of gravel. It had been raining off and on for days and the roads were deeply rutted. To get from one town to another, you put your car wheels into the ruts and followed them just like they were a set of railway tracks.

Laxness followed his driver into the room. He was rather nattily dressed, with a vest and bow tie. The audience had been talking about the rain and flooding and whether the cattle were going to suffer from hoof rot. Hoof rot was on everyone’s mind. The hall fell silent as Laxness came in. He went straight to the stage. There was the sound of shuffling as people took their seats.

There was a brief introduction by the driver, then Laxness started to read from his story, “New Iceland”. It wasn’t a good choice. There were still bitter feelings over the emigration, times had been hard, a lot of people had died on the trip over and in New Iceland. Laxness’s short  story was about how the emigrants had failed, how they were going to keep failing and how they should have stayed in Iceland, how the men had disgraced themselves by allowing their wives go out to work as domestics. The audience already had heard rumours about the story. Laxness never got to the end of it. The local farmers had overcome huge obstacles, made tremendous sacrifices and many of them already had successful farms. In Iceland, as indentured servants working for some wealthy farmer or as tenant farmers, they’d have had nothing and would have been living in hovels made with rock and turf. The injustice of the accusations in the story were infuriating.  Even Valdi’s parent’s hardscrabble farm was better than anything they would have had in Iceland.

Three quarters of the way through, a farmer jumped up and yelled, “Get the tar and feathers.” Pandemonium broke out. People rushed for the door. People climbing over the benches knocked them over. On one of the wagons there was a metal tub full of tar and some bags of chicken feathers. People were jammed in the door. A few men, unable to get outside, after milling about for a few moments, turned and charged the stage.

Before he’d started reading, Laxness had checked the back door to be sure it was unlocked. He’d had unappreciative audiences before. When the farmer jumped up and yelled, “Get the tar and feathers,” Laxness bolted for the door, his driver behind him. Because of the rain, the door had swollen and it jammed.  However, they both got out and his driver held the door shut. Their car was parked at the front of the hall. It was a strategic mistake. It would have been better to have parked at the back with the car pointed to the road but Laxness had wanted to make a grand entrance. Laxness sloshed his way across the yard to the road that led out of town. It was pitch black, rain was pouring down. Lightning lit up the sky.

The farmers at the back door, frustrated at being unable to get it open, turned and ran to the front door just as the tub of tar and the sacks of feathers were being brought in. They collided with the group coming in. The tub went flying, the tar rose up in a black wave, drenching everyone in its path. Trying to avoid the tar, people tripped over the benches. Others slipped in the tar. Chicken feathers filled the air. Some women who were knocked over started screaming as they lay on the floor. Those inside were yelling stop, stop but it did no good. The crowd coming in the front door kept forcing its way in, pushing people backwards so more tripped over the benches and fell onto the tar.

“He’s outside,” one of the men who had been on the stage shouted and the crowd turned back toward the front door and, slipping and sliding in the tar, staggered and tripped down the front steps. A bolt of lightning revealed Laxness slogging down the mud road. “He’s there,” someone shouted but the next moment all was darkness.

A group of men waded through the water and mud and started along the road. Another bolt of lightning showed them Laxness struggling through the wet clay. Running was impossible. Manitoba clay clung to everything. Feet came up with a sucking sound. Men tripped in the ruts and fell and had a devil of a time to get up.  Some farmers had brought torches. They lit them and joined the others on the road. A few had taken pitchforks from their wagons.

“Put those down,” Gisur from Geyser yelled. “You’ll kill somebody.”

It was true. The men with the pitchforks were waving them wildly as they tried to keep their balance

There’d been enough time for the farmers to gather. With the aid of the torches that burned for a while in spite of the rain, they started out as a group. Lightening revealed Laxness well ahead of them but not so far that they couldn’t catch him. However, with the tar spread over the floor of the hall and over a good many of the audience and the women who’d rolled in the tar then been covered with the feathers, what good catching him would do was unclear. Still, the blood lust of the hunt was up.

The race was in slow motion. The clay clung to farmer’s feet until the pursuers were lifting large, heavy clumps of mud. They sank up to their ankles and when they pulled their feet up, their shoes stayed behind. Boots remained in place so that the owners walked out of them, then sank into the mud in their sock feet. Instead of making progress, more and more of the pursuers were demanding that those with torches come and help them find their shoes. Still, the pursuit continued. There were lightning bolts and thunder overhead. With each bolt of lightning, they could see Laxness and the fact that he wasn’t moving any faster than they were.  Sometimes, he had to put both hands under a leg to pull his foot out of the mud. Then the lightning stopped for a bit. When another bolt struck, Laxness was nowhere to be seen. The crowd surged forward, first shoeless, then sockless as the mud first took shoes, then socks. The clay didn’t stick as much to bare feet so those with one shoe and sock lost took the others off. Those with torches still lit, led the way.

Laxness, for his part, had reached the bridge at the edge of town. His shoes had been tightly laced so he still had them but they would never be the same. He was exhausted from lifting feet three times their normal size. When he came to the bridge, he slid down the embankment of the Icelandic River, then crawled along until he was well under the bridge. Overhead, he heard the farmers yelling and cursing. There had been the danger that someone might look under the bridge but, by then, all the torches had been doused by the rain.

Laxness lay there, his heart pounding, his breath rasping in his chest, waiting until he was certain that all his pursuers had left. He could hear their departing vehicles crossing the bridge.  Then he crawled back onto the bank and up to the road.  In an attempt to get the mud off, he first stood under a small waterfall where a ditch emptied into the river.

When he got back to the car, his driver was waiting for him. Laxness opened the back door and threw himself inside.

“Would you like some coffee?” the driver asked.

There was supposed to have been a reception. The ladies had brought food. In the confusion, in despair over tar on their dresses, on their faces, in their hair, they left their food behind.  The driver, who was a big man with a good appetite, all through the pursuit, had been in the hall, working his way through the sandwiches, the vinarterta, the klienar, the rullupylsa on brown bread, the butter tarts. He’d been washing it down with excellent coffee from a large urn.

He went into the hall, piled two plates with sandwiches and desserts. He then went back for the urn and two cups. He and Laxness sat there in the car, eating the sandwiches and desserts and drinking the coffee. Laxness tried not to drip on his sandwiches.

“The local ladies are known to be good cooks,” the driver said as he finished off his sixth piece of vinarterta. Then he started the car and drove them back the way they had come. In spite of all that had happened, Laxness still had his bow tie.

For three days, Laxness recuperated in Gimli. “It was a good story,” he said to his host over breakfast the first morning, “but a hard audience.”

 

The Last of the Pioneers

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Once, they were myriad. You found them everywhere. Icelanders having kaffi and kleinar, passionately discussing politics or religion, reciting poetry, the state of the crops, the weather. All of it, of course, in Icelandic. That sing song language was heard in stores, on streets, in homes.

At first, of course, it was the original settlers who began to disappear into places like Brookside cemetery. Go to the cemetery and you will find gravestones with Icelandic names. My father’s great grandparents, for example. Lutheran ministers, business people, housewives with names like Ingimundson, Johnson, Thidriksson, Albertson.

Over the decades, their children grew up, then joined them, carried away from Lutheran and Unitarian churches to small plots of ground. Tears and prayers marked their passing. And kaffi and ponokokkur . We have given up Viking funerals and burning boats floating from the shore, replaced it with quiet conversations, the clanking of coffee cups, the eating of sandwiches and sweets. The Icelandic service is now in English. The conversation in the reception room is nearly all in English. Here and there a small group talks Icelandic.

However, as amazing as it seems, some of that second generation have lived, are still live, among us. A few days ago, one of them, born GUDLAUG ADALHEIDUR OLAFSSON but affectionately called Lauga, died in the nursing home at Selkirk. She was just about 99. Born in 1914, the year WWI started, she was born on a grain and cattle farm in the small Icelandic settlers community near Sinclair, Manitoba, the daughter of Thorgrimur Olafsson from Borganes, Iceland and Gudrun Rosa Thorsteinsdottir from Leira, Iceland. The farm actually straddled the Manitoba/Saskatchewan border.

Lauga had a phenomenal memory. She was the Wicki of West End Winnipeg. Mention an Icelandic name and she could tell you their genealogy plus their life stories.

She also remembered her childhood clearly. She described going to town, collecting the cheque for the cream, threshing, the rituals of funerals, much of it nine decades gone. Every afternoon at four o’clock, she had coffee and chocolate and it was during this time, at the kitchen table that I heard her stories.

It was she who, having worked as a mother’s helper after her father could no longer afford to send her to the Jon Bjarnason Academy in Winnipeg, explained to me that there was an error in my children’s picture book, Sarah and the People of Sand River. In the book Sarah had her own bedroom. Lauga said that wouldn’t have happened. Every bedroom would have been in use. As a servant girl, Sarah would have slept on a cot in the kitchen.

Times were hard when she was growing up. There were times of prosperity but those were followed by recessions and even depressions. She lived through the Great Depression. She proudly told of how the local Icelandic community held bridge evenings to raise money for people who could not afford to buy coal. In Winnipeg, in winter, fuel is necessary for survival. She also liked to tell about how individuals who were better off took clothes and food to those who were having a difficult time.

Lauga was a repository of Icelandic literature and lore. She and I quickly discovered we shared a belief in fylgjas. Fylgjas are spirits that are part of a person and often precede them on their journeys. Her husband, Agnar, had one. My father had one. My father, I told her at coffee one day, would be up at the fish camp. No cell phones in those days. No phones. My mother and I and my brother would be at home by ourselves for long stretches of time. Then my mother would start baking as if for a guest. When I’d inquire who was coming, she’d say, “Your father will be here shortly.” His fylgja had arrived. And he followed. After a while, I got so that I recognized his fylgja and would say to my mother, “I think Dad is going to turn up.”

Lauga was, without doubt, one of the most interesting people I’ve ever met. I liked her enormously. The greatest compliment I can give her is that I wish I’d met her earlier, known her longer. I’d have heard more stories, learned more of the details of what it was like being part of a pioneering Icelandic family in rural Manitoba. When she told her story of her shoes being burned fighting a prairie fire and having to wrap her feet in rags until there was enough money to pay for a new pair (money from a bounty on gopher tails), you knew you were listening to reality.

In the writing of fiction, we call those clincher details. Lauga was a fount of clincher details. Listening to her over coffee, I would think to myself, I couldn’t have made that up.

As a community, we are proud of the fact that some of our members still speak Icelandic. Lauga and her husband, Agnar, both spoke Icelandic. Agnar taught at the fabled Jon Bjarnason Academy, a private academy in Winnipeg that taught Icelandic among its other subjects. Agnar died in 1996. He was a gold medalist in Mathematics and Latin. He was a chess champion. He had lots of choices for a wife. He chose Lauga.

Because of illness and because of the Depression, she wasn’t able to complete her formal education but she had learned to read Icelandic at the age of three. She read widely and well in both Icelandic and English. She loved literature. It was her copy of Independent People that I first started reading. She was a good match for a gold medalist and chess champion.

She, like many who lived through the 30s and 40s, knew hard times. They didn’t stop her from having dreams. She reminded me in many ways of my Irish grandmother who lived in Winnipeg. She, too, had gone through the Great Depression with all its privations. These two women both discovered how to dress well with limited budgets. Sales at Holt Renfew meant the best of clothes without the highest of prices. Bargain hunting was a survival skill.

Luaga loved shoes. Her collection of shoes meant nothing until I heard about the prairie fire and her having no shoes. Then I understood the importance of that closet full of shoes.

She loved the West End of Winnipeg. At one time it was an Icelandic enclave. Over the decades she lived there, it gradually lost its Icelandic character as people moved away. However, she stuck with Garfield Street, with her memories of all the people in all the houses where Icelanders had lived.

I’ll fly to Winnipeg so I can be at her funeral. During the service, I won’t think lofty thoughts. I’ll think about how a girl from a dirt poor farm in the southwest of Manitoba made a life for herself, raised a family of four daughters, was an intellectual match for a chess champion and was a strong bridge partner, went from sleeping in someone else’s kitchen to her own five bedroom home filled with Icelandic artifacts. I’ll think of fylgjas and white horses that come galloping out of the north presaging blizzards.

Icelandic population, 1861-1870

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Our lang lang and lang lang lang ammas and afis lived through these times. 1871 and 1872 were yet to come. Take a look at the relationship between births and deaths. In 1862 in Iceland there are more deaths than births and the population falls slightly. 1864 and 1865 must have been good years because there is a major increase in the population.However,in 1866 the population falls again but it is still well above 1861. More people are surviving. In 1867 there is a large increase, nearly a thousand more births than deaths. And by 1870 the population has climbed to 70,084.

Year Births Deaths Computed pop Percentage
1861 2525 2391 66,973 +0.20
1862 2693 2874 66,797 +0.27
1863 2648 2115 67,325 +0.80
1864 2760 2001 68,084 +1.13
1865 2757 2100 68,741 +0.96
1866 2662 3122 68,281 +0.67
1867 2743 1770 69,254 +1.42
1868 2449 1970 69,733 +O.69
1869 2177 2404 69,506 +O.33
1870 2276 1698 70,084 +0.83

There was the belief–I’ve run across it in a number of places– that Iceland could not sustain more than 60,000 people. If the population rose over that number, then starvation or disease would cut the number back.

When Icelanders were locked into a medieval system of land owner and serf or indentured servant with a severely limited supply of land and that land useful for nothing but grazing, the relationship between population and productivity was pretty predictable. You can only graze so many sheep or cows per acre.

There were no grain crops because there were not enough frost free nights for grain to ripen. The highly variable factor was the weather. Get three or four good years in a row and marginal land could be farmed. That led to families being established and families meant children being born. The population increased. But bad weather was inevitable and when that happened, snow and frozen ground in summer, harbours filled with ice, bitter cold winds, and the hay crop failed, sheep and cows died. People farming on the margins soon followed. In really bad years, it wasn’t just people on the margins.

However, even though it took a long time to break the hold of the land owning farmers over the right to fish, fishing was gradually increasing. Farmers wanted to keep the system going because it provided lots of cheap labour. Indentured servants don’t get much, if any, say in their pay or working conditions. The problem was that what existed was a system with predictable and limited means of production. Only fishing could increase wealth so that a temporary increase in population could be sustained.

From our historic hindsight we know what is coming after 1870. There will be volcanic eruptions and with them the destruction of grazing land, the destruction of livestock and the relationship of people to land, hay, and cattle, will be thrown out of whack.

Iceland wasn’t like Canada. There were no great frontier areas to farm. The pressure on what could be produced was huge. It was compounded by the fact that from 1861 to 1870 the population had gone from 66,973 to 70,084.

The people who left for Amerika because there was land, lots of it, vast amounts of it, did what was necessary for their own survival given these two factors: the increase in the size of the population and the destruction of grazing land. They also did everyone who stayed in Iceland a tremendous favour because their leaving brought the relationship of land to population back into balance.

Iceland missed the Industrial Revolution. The new technology wasn’t going to save it. When the emigrants left, there were still no roads. A Medieval system of land ownership and crofts and indentured servants still existed. There were no factories. No banks. If there was a wheeled vehicle, it was a wheelbarrow.

Iceland had not embraced the change sweeping through Europe. It’s salvation would be when the large land owners removed the restrictions on fishing. Icelanders had been fishing with one hook to a line while just offshore the Portuguese were laying fishing lines that were miles long and had thousands of hooks.

In Gimli, in my childhood, I heard of men crying because they felt they’d betrayed Iceland by leaving. Poetry books from that time and earlier, written in Icelandic, are filled with poems praising Iceland’s beauty. They are poems filled with regret and guilt. There is no reason for either. The emigrants betrayed no one. Their leaving left more food for those left behind and, indirectly, improved the lot of the indentured and wage workers, by removing some cheap labour and forcing up wages.

My great grandfather, Ketill, who, in Iceland, would have had nothing because he would have been paid so little, came to Canada in 1878 with nothing. He worked as a labourer, then he had a dairy, then a general store. He had a fine home. He owed no one anything. He kept his coffin in the basement because like many who started out with nothing, he didn’t want to be buried a pauper. He died with money in the bank.

As this table shows, the population had grown to what was considered unsustainable. Then there was volcanic disaster. The choice was stark. To die of hunger on a mountain path or leave for the unknown.

In Independent People, Laxness makes fun of the romantic movement created and populated by the well-to-do, the privileged in Iceland. They come to Bjartur’s farm, Summer Houses, to extoll the virtues of the peasant farmer. They are ridiculous, self-indulgent, dishonest for they know nothing of the real hardships of being a small holder.The emigrants knew reality.

Many in Iceland had a strong belief in the need to stay in Iceland to fight for its Independence. They saw Iceland rising toward its golden, glorious past. Others saw enough opportunity to satisfy them. Others would have left but didn’t have the means.

Eventually, it sorted itself out. One can write nostalgic poetry or make nostalgic speeches but, eventually, our lives are consumed by earning a living, raising a family, being part of our local community. Enough to eat, clothes, a place to live, necessities, some luxuries, for a few, wealth. But when I stand in the graveyard in Gimli and the wind is blowing in from the lake and I look at the graves of my great grandparents, my grandparents and my parents, I think, you did fine. Over three generations,you made a life.

INL 2013

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Getting to the INL conference in Seattle this year was easy. Participants could drive from Vancouver or White Rock. For those of us in Victoria, harbour to harbour on the Clipper was two hours and forty-five minutes and no having to deal with airports.

It rained. Let’s get that out of the way first. We’d had weeks of glorious sunshine but on Thursday when we stood waiting for the bus tour to begin, it started raining, it kept raining, and it was still raining when I was waiting outside the hotel for a cab on Sunday morning. As I write this, Monday morning, with the conference over, the sky is blue, the sun is shining, the apple trees have crowns of white blooms.

None of this mattered, except that as hosts, we’d like the weather to be glorious. However, the Icelanders who came are used to not just rain but horizontal rain and those arriving from the prairies are coming from unseasonal snow and cold and are returning to nineteen below. That assuages our guilt.

The heritage bus tour was sold out. We headed north toward Blaine, passing vineyards, snow-capped mountains, blooming trees, a welcoming countryside but as the miles passed, many thought about their ancestors in the early days, with no paved highways, no buses, continuing their trek that had started in Iceland, to Scotland or England, to Montreal, across half a continent to Winnipeg or Selkirk, from their across the prairies to the coast and, finally, south to Bellingham, Blaine, Seattle.

Jonas Thor lectured us on this migration, the names and places and dates as we sped along the highway.
We visited the Free Unitarian Church where many of our group were thrilled to read the names of the original founders, to see the pictures of people who were from the earlier settlements such as Gimli. The special moment was when Heather Ireland found Guttormur Guttormsson’s poems rendered as a hymn in the church hymnal. She played a bit of it on the piano.

The Blaine Icelandic Club welcomed us with open arms, sandwiches and cake and coffee (and fed my celiac body with cheese and grapes and coffee), entertained us with the Damekor chor and educated us with a slide show (Rob Olason) and a talk about Point Roberts by Joan Thorstonson.

We visited the local graveyard where the graves, ten percent of the total burials, testify to the size of the Icelandic community in Blaine.

We went to the Nordic Heritage Museum. It is huge and, at the moment, has a show on in cooperation with xx on Danish immigrant times. There is room after room of displays. Upstairs, each of the Nordic groups, including Iceland, has a room. I was amazed by the size of the museum but we were later informed that a new site has been chosen and fund raising is in progress and a new building will be built. These displays, alone, could have taken up a whole day. However, we had to be on our way.

The first day we heard from Julie Summers on home as a place of belonging and then Sunna (Pam Fursteau) presented a slide show and talk about her trip around Iceland visiting communities to tell them about our North American community made up of descendants of Icelandic immigrants. We had all heard about this epic voyage and it was a pleasure to share it, even the moment when Sunna lost her cell phone in the middle of an ice covered beach.

A panel of six representing Iceland, North Dakota, Minnesota, Ontario and Manitoba discussed ways that we might strengthen our community. Heritage tours came up quite a bit, that is visits among the various North American groups.

After lunch Ásta Sól told us that the Snorri program, after weakening for a couple of years, has now come back stronger than ever with 15 Snorris and 23 Snorri Plus participants. This program of visiting Iceland and meeting relatives and learning as much about Iceland as possible in the time available is praised highly by former participants.

The hit of the conference, though, was a complete surprise. To my shame, I did not know who Alene Thorunn Moris was. Seeing her sitting at a table, unpretentious, unassuming, elderly, it would have been easy to mistake her for a vinarterta granny visiting to hear a few words of Icelandic. Boy, would that have been a mistake. She took the stage and delivered one of the most powerful speeches I have ever heard. She has spent a lifetime fighting for women´s rights, human rights, and she doesn´t mince any words.

She compared the gains made by Icelandic women,the results, with those of American women and summed up by saying Icelandic women turn up, American women don´t. She never once blamed American men. The fate of women has to be in their own hands. The crowd reacted to Alene´s impassioned speech by rising to their feet and applauding long and loud. If there had been a Bastille to march to, I think they´d have been out the door ready for battle.

Patricia Baer, after the aroused mob had settled down, gave an academic talk on how mainland Europe lost its knowledge of the Viking gods. And, how those Viking gods were found by an Icelander. Because of Iceland, misconceptions about the gods were cleared up and the times of the Vikings better understood. As her part in this, Trish has created a digital repository of images from the Eddas.

In the evening we heard from INL president, Ron Godman, Halldor Arnasson for INL Iceland, and Ambassador Þorður ægir Óskarsson. After the awards ceremonies, Lowry Olafson entertained. Those Snorri graduates met at the Regetta bar and partied away the night.

Saturday, Prof. Fred E. Woods, of whom I had often heard, but never met, gave a highly informative talk on the conversion in Iceland of Icelanders to Mormonism. His slide show of photographs and documents was fascinating for it provided details about an incident in Iceland´s history that most of us have only known about in the vaguest of terms (or, if you are like me, from reading Halldor Laxness’s novel, Paradise Reclaimed).

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After a break, the hippest of the hippest among us, gave a knockout presentation on “Iceland Airwaves: The Hippest Event on the Planet”. Only Donald Gislason, musicologist, Icelandic music fanatic, could have given this talk. It was a Hunter Thompson special. We were besieged, entertained, informed, overwhelmed with music and musicians and I, for one, finally understand many things about Icelandic music that had been mysteries to me. Like how come 320,000 people can produce one successful music group after another? Simple. Every kid gets music lessons. How come they constantly produce new kinds of music? Simple. They don’t have big corporate music companies telling them what to do.

I skipped the AGM meeting and even the walking tour of Seattle. When you are filling in for the editor of Logberg-Heimskringla, it isn’t all party party. Writing doesn’t happen by itself. I did make the banquet but only stayed long enough to hear Ambassador Guðmundur Stefánsson (USA).

The computer and deadlines called. So did the fact that I had to be up at 6:30 a.m. to catch the Clipper back to Victoria. The seas were rough on the return back but not as bad as Lake Winnipeg in a storm. If we’d sunk, I could have said, too bad, but there are worse fates than to sink beneath the waves after a great party.

See you in 2014 in Winnipeg.

Viking women

 

Nancy Marie Brown in Song of the Vikings says that “Marriage in Iceland had long been business transactions, arranged by the couple’s families….The bride’s family supplied a dowry, the groom’s family a bride-price of land, livestock, and other goods that the couple would jointly own while their marriage lasted. The fathers then shook hands on the deal. It was the same way they sold a plot of land or an ocean-going ship or transferred a chieftaincy. The bride didn’t even need to be present—much less agree to the deal. Nor was the groom expected to be monogamous.”

After all, the gods were not monogamous. They had children with many different women. The myths of the gods provided a model for the behaviour of Icelandic men.

So much for the depiction I’ve heard of Icelandic women in saga times being independent, swashbuckling, Amazon types standing on the prow of their long ship, leading their followers into battle. Good romance novel stuff, Disney stuff, comic book stuff, but not much connected to reality.

There are, in the sagas, examples of women who did manage to rise above childbearing, cooking, knitting, spinning, weaving, raking hay. There was, after all, Aud the Deep Minded, and Guðriður beating her breast with a sword. Aud was the only woman to ever become a chieftain. However, in his book Egypt and Iceland in the Year 1874, Bayard Taylor says about saga times

“As in all well-ordered households in all time, the husband’s duty was to see to every thing out of the house, and that of the wife to have care for every thing within it; but now and then a superior, strong-minded women would so far encroach upon the husband’s province as to bring him into disgrace.”

So, there were social restrictions on ambitious females. Add that to being pregnant a good part of the time and it was pretty hard to lead forays abroad. And with Icelandic men not feeling bound by monogamy, the opportunities to get pregnant abounded.

Brown says “Before they went to Norway, Gudny and Ari had married her eldest son, Thord, then twenty-one, to his daughter, Helga. With his young wife Thord got Ari’s chieftaincy and a rich farmstead. When Ari died, the rest of his wealth went to Thord as his wife, but, as the saga says, “Thord was not lucky enough to feel for Helga the love he should have.” After four years of marriage and no children, they divorced. Thord kept the farm, most of Ari’s wealth, and the chieftain’s title. He took up with a married woman, Hrodny, the estranged wife of Bersi the Rich of Borg—the farm of his famous ancestor Egil Skallgrimsson—but though “they enjoyed a lasting love,” Thord and Hrodny didn’t marry. Instead Thord married a rich widow named Gudrun, who “brought a great deal of money with her,” the saga says. “Thord then became a great chieftain.” He and Gudrun had a son, Bodvar, who was his father’s only legal heir, and a daughter. Later in life Thord fell in love again, taking as his mistress Thora, who gave him six children, her son Sturla, born when his father was fifty, wrote the saga.”

Although people like the archbishop of Trondheim tried to explain that a Christian wedding was a sacred event that joined a couple for life in an exclusive relationship, he didn’t have much effect. Even those priests who represented Christianity ignored the rules. In the 19th Century, it was still common for men, including priests, to impregnate young women and to absolve themselves of responsibility by paying someone to declare falsely that he was the father. Halldor Laxness describes this process in detail in Paradise Reclaimed.

I didn’t know this, or maybe I did in a way because of having read some sagas but it didn’t mean much, sort of like the begats in the Bible, read but bored and ignored. Nancy Marie Brown explains what was going on and why. It stops being boring. It even becomes a bit shocking. Those saga heroes were into sex in a big way with all sorts of women, inside marriage and out. None of this takes into account all those serving girls. The only way forward for an ambitious woman was to have a relationship with a powerful man. The men took it for granted that they could have sex with many women. Of course, all women didn’t get the chance to be the wife, mistress, consort of some important man. They needed to bring with them money, connections, land. The indentured girl who was going to spend her life grinding barley wasn’t going to get to even be a mistress. She might get a baby but then she’d be pawned off to some young crofter.

Brown’s book is causing me to do a lot of thinking, not just about saga times but about Iceland during the years of emigration and the Icelandic communities in North America during and after the immigration.

I wonder if it was these myths, these sagas that gave permission to men like Björn of Leirur to behave in the way he did in Paradise Reclaimed. I know it is a novel, but it also obviously is based on what Laxness observed and Björn represents not just one man but many men for his friend the sheriff says that he is constantly busy having to deal with the problems created by men getting girls pregnant.

The pattern of the privileged man, the landowner, the well paid civil servant having the right to have sexual relations outside of marriage seems to have followed the Icelanders to North America, in spite of the fact that the church had done all it could over hundreds of years to make marriage monogamous. The Icelandic priests, for all their preaching of the value of virtue, often behaved like Björn of Leirur. They, too, paid other men to say that a child was theirs. Old saga ways prevailed.

Perhaps we are separated from the vikings by time but the story of Snorri raises the question of how separated we are from them in action.

The viking age only lasted from the 9th to the 11th century. After that it was all downhill, not just for the women but also for the men. Norway took over Iceland in 1262 and Iceland didn´t get its independence back until 1944.

Iceland´s history has been one of physical cataclysm, volcanoes, earthquakes, dreadful weather with the onset of the Little Ice Age, political repression, rampant disease and famine. However, the sagas, those stories of a time when Iceland was powerful and there was wealth, continued to be told. After Bayard Taylor visited Iceland in 1874,  he wrote of an experience with the local farmers at the Geysers,

“I made an effort to talk with a group of farmers, finding them ready enough, only a little embarrassed at the start; but when I asked: “Do you know Saemunds Edda!” there was an instant flash and flame in their faces, and all shyness vanished. The Njil and Volsunga Sagas, Snorre Sturlusson, with a score of obscurer Sagas of which I had never heard, were eagerly mentioned and discussed. It was remarkable to see their full knowledge of Icelandic literature and their vital interest in it.”

According to Kneeland in his book, An American in Iceland, 1874, “The authority of the father, however, or the natural guardians, in case of proposed marriage, was decisive, either with or against the girl’s inclinations; a widow could not be compelled to marry a second time, nor could she marry without the consent of her father, brother, or sons. Marriage was a regular business affair and the settlement of the conditions often a shrewd bargain. If a girl married without the consent of her parents, the father cold disinherit her and her children; and the man who made her his wife, under such circumstances, was liable to be punished for abduction; this right was not always exercised. If the father were dead, the nearest male relatives became her natural guardians. Betrothal could not be extended beyond three years, and neither party could break it without punishment and disgrace. With the introduction of Christianity, marriage became a religious rite. Plurality of wives though not expressly forbidden, was never general, either in Norway or Iceland. Should a man lay violent hands upon his wife three times, she was at liberty to leave him, taking both dower and settlement; but such violence was rare, as it was looked upon as most  unmanly. Says their old law; “Every man owes the same duty to his wife that he owes to himself;” but the husband alone possessed all rights concerning the disposal of the children. As in all well-ordered households in all time, the husband’s duty was to see to every thing out of the house, and that of the wife to have care for every thing within it; but now and then a superior, strong-minded women would so far encroach upon the husband’s province as to bring him into disgrace.

Divorces were very common; mutual disinclination, the will of the husband, abuse of his wife, or the wearing by either party of garments belonging to the opposite sex, were sufficient grounds for separation. When the wife sought the divorce, she was obliged to proclaim her lawful reasons within the house, before its principal entrance, and at the public assembly. A divorce offered no impediment in the way of either party marrying again. When marriage became a religious rite, divorce was granted by the church, and never without the strongest reasons.”

When our myths support positive outcomes for our group, family, ethnic, national, they are to be heralded. I grew up with people mentioning women in the sagas. A lot of what was said was not based on fact. There weren’t armies of Amazons with their own ships raiding the Baltic coasts. Men and women were not equal. There were a few women in the sagas who obviously were exceptional but that’s the whole point, they were exceptional. They also weren’t the vast majority of women who were having babies nearly every year, spinning, weaving, knitting, cooking, milking, raking hay, living in conditions that required constant work just to survive. Nor were they the female servants or slaves. The problem was that there was no golden age for women and the myths obscured and hid the brutal reality of most women’s lives.

Brown’s description of life during the time of Snorri Sturlusson makes clear the relationship of men and women. The attitude that neither the gods, nor men need to be monogamous surfaces in various accounts as late as the 19th Century. According to English travelers like Richard Burton (1872), the number of illegitimate children in some syslas were one in three.

I love the image of the swashbuckling female Viking, standing at the prow of the longboat, sword uplifted, long hair streaming in the wind, riding the waves of the North Atlantic, heading into battle but I’m afraid it is only an image for comic books, movies and fantasy novels. Men could have sex, sail away from the outcome but women couldn’t. They had children to feed and clothe, to educate, farms to tend. That they had a few rights (if they were part of the upper class) was good. It would have been better if they’d had more but with the growing power of the church and its inherent misogyny, with the betrayal of Iceland by Snorri and Iceland becoming a vassal state, their rights became less. For centuries, Icelandic women would live in darkness and not until well after Icelandic regained its political independence would Icelandic women start moving toward undoing an unjust system.

 

Bling

Laxness warned you. Did you read Independent People? Did you make an effort to understand it? Did you realize that unless you are one of the 1%, you are Bjartur of Summerhouses. You don’t think you are? Really? Denial and vanity won’t keep you from being Bjartur.

Bjartur worked all his life to be independent. That’s in the title, right? Independent People. Owe no money to anyone. Never trust a money lender. I remember my grandfather saying the same thing. Both grandfathers, actually. They never believed that debt equaled wealth. Bling wasn’t their goal in life.

Yes, I know, Laxness was first a Catholic and then a Commie. He was looking for something, anything that would make more sense than the system in which he grew up. They didn’t. He threw them off. The way one tries on coats at the clothing store. That didn’t keep him from seeing the crazy way the Capitalist system worked. Boom and bust. Power to the bankers. Success judged by how much you can spend. He should be alive now, in the age of Bling.

When I bought my last house, I didn’t have much money for furniture and drapes, the kind of stuff with which you fill up a house. Stuff to sit on, eat off, eat with, sleep on. I saw an ad in the newspaper saying that some people were selling all their household goods. Second hand, I thought, maybe cheap enough for me to be able to buy a few things.

I drove out there. Mamma mia! Or whatever they say in Icelandic. Mega house. New. This couple had built it, furnished it. Nothing but the best. Twelve months had passed. They didn’t like their stuff anymore. It was piled up on the property and in the three car garage. When you’re competing for the blingiest of the bling, you’ve got to have the latest. You don’t want your blingy relatives and friends to see your couch, your mixmaster, your latte maker and sneer. I fought with the other peasants for whatever I could get. When you’re a peasant, you use your elbows and knees to claim and protect stuff that came from stores that wouldn’t even let you in the door.

What made Bjartur and you spring into my thoughts today was Garth Turner’s blog, http://www.greaterfool.ca/. This post is called geezernomics. Since I’m now a geezer, it caught my attention. He’s got advice on OAS and CPP, the sort of things that are important to geezers.

Bjartur, of course, never had OAS or CPP. What he had was a sheep ranch at a place called Summerhouses. The reason he was called Bjartur of Summerhouses is that there were a lot of Bjarturs and when you mentioned his name people needed to know which one you were talking about. In this case, it was the Bjartur who started to build a house with cheap money when the market for sheep products was good and had it foreclosed on when he couldn’t pay his loan.

However, there are people who feel they, unlike Bjartur, can never have this happen. After all, real estate always goes up. Except in Vancouver there is already a property being offered 40 % below assessment. 40%. 30% below assessment is common. Don’t roll your eyes. This is coming to you. There’s an ad on Craiglist by a couple who bought something they shouldn’t have. In the ad they say you, yes, that’s you, can rent their place for $2500.00 a month and they are going to live in the basement along with the washer and dryer. Their bling has blung. People think they may have bought another house before selling (houses always sell really fast for more than you paid for them, right) and they can’t sell house number one. Imagine having two mortgages and living in the basement along with the washer and dryer. Maybe they can take in washing.

I know that the most brothers and sisters of Bjartur are the young and the indebted but I also know of any number of geezers who bought or built bling, houses that said in spite of the fact that they’re part of the Viagra crowd, they’re going to have a pile more kids. I mean, why would a couple in their sixties build a place with four bedrooms, five bathrooms, unless they’re going to have more kids? Maybe they figure in tough times (have you been watching the stock market these last few days?), their kids and grandkids can move in. Or maybe they’re going to provide room and board?

Garth Turner says get liquid, sell your house, rent until whatever is happening quits happening. Only a short time ago, I could have done that. In my neighbourhood, when a For Sale sign went up, two days later a sticker went on saying Sold. Not no more, no more. DOM (Days on the Market) has gone from hours to months, many months. A beautiful house in our neighbourhood has been on sale for at least three months. Today, as I walked by it said “New Price.” Betcha, betcha, the price hasn’t gone up.

Life’s funny. When I read Independent People it never occurred to me that I wasn’t any smarter than Bjartur of Summerhouses. Cripes, I thought, couldn’t he see what was coming? Nope. And neither could I and neither could you. We keep making the same mistakes over and over again.

Sorry Halldor, I ignored your good advice. You may have been a Catholic and a Commie but you got it right.

 

Independent People No More

Lately, I’ve been writing some posts about the drop in housing prices here on the foggy West Coast. I’ve been intrigued because it reminds me of something that happened to an old friend of mine, Bjartur of Summerhouses.

I went back to visit him, particularly that part of his life called Years of Prosperity. All his life, he struggled against poverty. He worked for eighteen years to save enough money to buy a scrappy bit of land with a falling down sod and rock hut. Like most of us, he couldn’t pay cash. He had to take out a mortgage. In Iceland, the way to independence was not by farming, for there were no crops grown except a bit of hay in the home field, but by raising sheep. Dairy cows were more a luxury because the sheep produced wool, meat and milk on less grass. As Bjartur says more than once, sheep are everything. The narrator of Independent People says, of the farmers, “They lived for their sheep.”

Bjartur allows neither himself nor his family any luxuries. He lives in his turf house and makes all his decisions based on how his actions will help to make him independent of the rich farmer at Rauthsmyri who sold him the land and holds the mortgage. He is plagued with bad weather, with sheep diseases such as tapeworm and lungworm.

But these were the times of hardship and this essay is about the times of prosperity. Some say every cloud has a silver lining. If a store burns down, a competitors business improves. If a tornado devastates a town, the contractors and building suppliers are guaranteed work. So it was in Iceland, except the fire and tornado struck in Europe with WWI. When millions of men are needed for warfare, they must be fed and clothed. They are not available for farming or manufacturing. The demand for supplies of all kinds increases by leaps and bounds and with demand, prices rise.

Bjartur and the other farmers (sheep herders) in Iceland found, with the beginning of the war in Europe that there was an insatiable demand for everything they could produce. Europe needed, demanded vast amounts of supplies that were consumed without concern for cost.

The Icelandic farmers don’t understand what is happening in Europe and when they discuss the war it is “This so-called World War, perhaps the most bountiful blessing that God has sent our country since the Napoleonic wars saved the nation from the consequences of the great Eruption and raised our culture from the ruins with an increased demand for fish and whale-oil.”

With unprecedented prices for everything they could produce, the “tenant farmers undertook the task of purchasing form their landlords the land they held, and those who already before the outbreak of hostilities had gone through fire and water to acquire t heir began now to think of renewing their buildings. Those who were in debt were given opportunities of incurring greater debts, while upon those who owed nothing, smiled with an incredible seductive sweetness….In some houses there were to be seen not one but as many as four china dogs of the larger size, even musical instruments; womenfolk were walking about wearing all sorts of tombac rings, and many persons had acquired overcoats and wellington boots, articles of apparel that had previously been contraband to working people.”

“Now, in this welter of money and joyous prosperity that had burst like a flood upon the country’s scattered homesteads, some, it was to be regretted, appeared to have lost their powers of sound judgment for there was no disguising the fact that holdings were being bought a prices which were ridiculously high, that the passion for building was exceeding the bounds of good sense.”

Bjartur, that crotchety old guy, doesn’t fall for any of it. He says “He who is without debt is as good as any king.”

However, fashion and profit that seems like it will never end, cause him to give up his life-long principles and when the Fell King stops by Bjartur’s croft, he says, “Someone was saying you were thinking of building yourself a house.”

They discuss the possibility of Bjartur getting the money to build a proper house to replace the rock and turf house that has provided Icelanders shelter from the wind, rain, cold and frost for hundreds of years. Left alone to make his decision Bjartur would probably have stayed with what he had but driven by pride, he says “Oh, I don’t suppose I’d need more than a year or two before I was square with them again. Some people thought prices could collapse at the end of the war, but the wool touched record heights in the spring there, and I’ve heard form a responsible quarter that they’ll be giving us more than ever for the lambs this autumn.”

The Co-op manager meets with him again, tells him that they’ve got a large load of cement and that lambs will sell for fifty crowns a head. “and there on the paving, before the crofter has quite waked up to the fact, lie the first loads of cement for building.”

Bjartur is proud that no matter how bad the situation at Summerhouses, “we never ate other folk’s bread. Other folk’s bread is the most virulent form of poison that a free and independent man can take; other folk’s bread is the only thing that can rob him of independence and the one true freedom.” Yet, having decided he will have a house, he wants “A big house or nothing at all.” He is persuaded to have a basement and two stories.

No granite countertops, no swimming pool, no Macassar Ebony flooring, but there were four rooms and a scullery on the main floor. Money ran out before the upper storey and the roof were built. So many people were building that there was a shortage of corrugated iron for roofs and there was little window-glass. Lamb prices held up that fall and Bjartur got another loan and bought timber and window-panes and corrugated iron. There were the kitchen “a range with three grates” plus a concrete stairway. The doors had been overlooked and could not be obtained and Bjartur’s suggestions of knocking a few boards together, using some ordinary door-hinges were rejected by the builder. After all, when you build a real house, you need nothing but the best.

There’s no furniture, either. You don’t have furniture in a croft. You’ve beds along the walls. People sit on them to eat, sleep in them. The stove was a hole in the floor. There was nothing to move into the concrete house.

The narrator says, “People take more upon themselves than they can manage if they aim higher.”

It was, the narrator says, usual for people to owe a merchant money and when they owed too much, to be refused any more credit for coffee, rye flour, a needle and thread. People, refused credit, did die of hunger. Bjartur, owing money to the bank, sells his better cow to pay wages, some money off the loan and interest.

In the autumn when Bjartur’s house was one year old the market for wool and meat collapsed. No longer killing each other, the Europeans had time to raise their own sheep.

The big farmers, the ones with political power, who were able to arrange large financings for modernizing their farms, arranged for people like Bjartur to be put on rations on credit, the equivalent of a today’s soup kitchens or food banks, so they could keep paying the interest on their loans. However, the day came when Bjartur could no longer pay interest. He was no longer of any use to the money machine.

The bank forecloses on Bjartur’s property. It is to be sold by auction. The eighteen years he has spent working to raise a down payment, the interest he has paid on the mortgage, the principle he has managed to pay off, all is lost. When land was rising in value, when lamb and wool were bringing high prices, the sheriff had offered Bjartur 15,000 crowns for his property but Bjartur turned it down for prices were going up, prosperity was everywhere, prosperity had arrived and would stay. Instead, she proved fickle. What he could have sold for a small fortune, he held onto, he abandoned his belief that owing nothing meant independence and freedom and built a house that he could not afford.

Only the rich prospered. What they had sold, they collected interest on and when they could no longer collect interest, they took back. Those who had worked, who had struggled, lost everything in their desire to own a modern house.

It is a cycle that occurs over and over again. What would Laxness have said of the kreppa? Of the housing crises in the USA, of the housing crises that is descending on the West Coast, that may very well spread across Canada? What would Bjartur of Summerhouses, having left Summerhouses for Urtharsel, the croft abandoned by his mother-in-law many years earlier, think if he were watching land falling in value by 55% in Maple Ridge, BC?

What would Bjartur think as he watched house after house foreclosed on, as he watched people walking away from their homes as he walked away from Summerhouses? That the banks always get everything? That the banks have not changed? That as they pushed easy money out the door with their advertisements, as they drove up prices with easy credit and liar loans, as they encouraged people to use their houses as ATMs to pay for holidays, vehicles, new furniture, that they were already getting ready to take back what they’d sold to people who wouldn’t be able to afford what they’d bought as soon as there was the slightest downturn.

Would Laxness think that the bankers and financiers of today, the wealthy elite, the one percent, are any different from the bankers and rich farmers of Bjartur’s day? Or would he only think that now that they have a larger reach, they are able to grab more for themselves?

(All quotes from Laxness, Independent People)