Keeping Our Dream Alive

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How do you keep a dream alive? A dream that is impossible, that is guaranteed to shatter against hard reality?

When the Iceland emigrants left for North America, they had little knowledge of the continent and what they thought they knew was often wrong. This was no different from any of the other ethnic groups streaming across the Atlantic.

In Michael Ewanchuk’s book,Pioneer Profiles he says that when the first Ukrainian settlers came to the New Iceland region, they went west where there was still land available, waded in swamps up to t heir waists, and when they came back to their wives and families, they cried. The information enticing emigrants exaggerated the benefits, the quality of the land, and living conditions.

The Icelanders came earlier, arriving in New Iceland in 1875, and instead of finding streets paved with gold, or even decent farm land, found bush and swamp. The marginal land in New Iceland defeated the dream of an exclusive Icelandic community. Faced with harsh conditions many left for Winnipeg or land further to the west.

In spite of this turn of events, they survived and for a hundred and forty years the Icelandic North American community has found ways to preserve its identity.

Although religion divided the community, the various churches provided a community where people could hear a service in Icelandic, could speak Icelandic and could receive help in dealing with the problems of being new immigrants. During my childhood and teenage years, the church still had a lot of authority. It taught religion and morals, a bit of history and provided solace in times of tragedy.

Few people today understand how religious the original immigrants were.The Icelandic immigrants who arrived in Manitoba were devout, intolerant, argumentative and wasted energy and resources in arguments which had little actual purpose. As usual, the religion was a vessel for containing differing views on social behaviour. Should the settlers isolate themselves, create a society that was exclusively Icelandic, that would exclude non-Icelanders, or should they attempt to integrate as quickly as possible? That question split the community.

The church services, once in Icelandic, gradually changed to English. Language is the centre of identity and it was being lost. The church, always a conservative institution loyal to the past, held on as long as it could but, finally, had to face the fact that many of its parishioners only understood English. At the same time, urbanization meant rural communities died, leaving behind graveyards and empty church buildings. The conservative forces of rural life and rural religion largely disappeared.

The Icelanders in Winnipeg created the Jon Bjarnason Academy. It was to be a Lutheran and Icelandic school. Icelandic was taught.
At first, it drew students with Icelandic backgrounds. Over time, the school drew non-Icelandic students because it was allowed to teach the equivalent of first year university. When that right was extended to other schools, the need for people to pay for their children’s education disappeared and the school closed.

Not one but two Icelandic papers were created: Logberg and Heimskringla. One Lutheran and liberal and the other Unitarian and conservative. Once again, time, resources, money were wasted in fierce, bitter battles. Looking back at things that were written by Icelanders about other Icelanders, one is tempted to say shame on them.

When the Icelandic immigrants left Iceland, their leaving was often regarded as treason. Iceland was on the cusp of getting its independence from Denmark. Some people felt that people were leaving who were needed in the struggle for independence. Others, the wealthy farmers, for example, were opposed to emigration because they were losing cheap labour. Ordinary farm workers had been exploited, some so badly that they thought that black slaves in America were better off. The leaving created a lot of hard feelings on both sides.

Somehow, even though lack of experience and knowledge meant that the immigrants went to areas where there was little or no opportunity such as Nova Scotia where all the good land was already taken, to Kinmount, where the land was not suitable for farming, to New Iceland in Manitoba where the land was so marginal that it guaranteed poverty for most people, they survived. Not just survived, but over time, prospered and with absolute determination, kept hold of their Icelandic heritage.

It took time for society to become secular and more tolerant. In the interim, the churches did provide cohesion, education, and direction. Bringing people together for services and various celebrations and events, helped to create community, helped to provide assistance to those in need, helped people deal with all too frequent tragedies. They were a stabilizing force in a changing society. First formally, then informally, they helped preserve the Icelandic language.

Although the Jon Bjarnason Academy closed, the department of Icelandic was created at the University of Manitoba. It became one of the pillars of the community, providing instruction in Icelandic and in Icelandic literature and culture. The Icelandic library became a repository for historical documents and literature.

The two papers, Logberg and Heimskringla, faced with the reality of people moving away from New Iceland and Winnipeg, with fewer people reading Icelandic, joined and became a single paper. Survival required that differences had to be set aside. The compromise created the rules that there would be no sex, no politics, and no religion. No sex was so as not to offend the ammas and aunties, no choosing sides in politics to get over the divide between the Liberal and Conservative ranting and raving, and no religion to stop the feuding between the Lutherans and Unitarians.

The paper, in spite of complaints about it not being just what any individual wants, is essential to the continuing survival of the Icelandic North American community. It is the second pillar of the community. Just saying North American is controversial. When I was editor, I had people threaten to cancel their subscription because I used North American instead of Canadian. As if all those people of Icelandic descent in Minnesota, North Dakota, Washington State, etc. don’t exist or don’t matter. We are a small group. Gathered together, we would hardly be noticed in the population in most major cities. We need every one of us. LH needs every subscription it can get.

LH is critical to the community because it tells us, or should tell us, about each other. It should entertain us but it should also inform and educate us. Without it, I wouldn’t have known about the descendants of the Icelanders in Nova Scotia. I wouldn’t have known about the descendants in Washington State. Our greatest danger is that we will lose touch with each other. We will stop knowing who we are. Outposts that are forgotten die.

In support and recognition of our ethnic identity, an Islendingadagurinn was created in Winnipeg in 1890. It was moved to Gimli in 1932. This celebration is the third pillar of our identity.

This Icelandic Celebration has helped to give the community cohesiveness. Once a year on the first weekend in August, people travel from all over North America and from Iceland to join together. VIPs from Iceland, including the Prime Minister, the President, have come to join the party. Women put on traditional dresses from the time of emigration. Plastic Viking helmets are ubiquitous. There are speeches extolling our virtues and the virtues of our visitors. There is Icelandic Canadian food. There are displays of Icelandic goods and Icelandic Canadian memorabilia. What is important, though, is that the community congregates, renews friendships, re-enforces its ethnic identity.

Sometimes in the not too distant past, some say 1971, others say, 1975, there was a rapprochement between the Icelanders in Iceland and the descendants of the settlers. My great grandfather had so little use for the Iceland he left behind at the age of eighteen that he wouldn’t even walk half a block to the site of the annual celebration. He wasn’t alone. The emigration left a lot of bitterness on both sides of the Atlantic. The schools in Iceland taught that the people who emigrated were traitors, running away when they were needed. The people who left often harboured dark memories. A lot of people on both sides of the Atlantic have worked hard at changing that and turning old enmity into friendship.

Air travel has meant that people could go to Iceland and Icelanders could come to North America. As usual, when people get to know each other, they find their prejudices against others don’t have much foundation. Now, with a tremendous effort by people like Pam Furstenau with her Icelandic Roots project, families are re-uniting. The Icelandic government has also made tremendous efforts to help the community rediscover its Icelandic identity.

We, as a community, need to provide support for Logberg-Heimskringla, the Icelandic Department at the  U. of Manitoba and Islendingadagurinn. We have a history in North America and in Iceland that is worth preserving and celebrating.

Laxness in the Interlake (chapter 2)

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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.”