The New Iceland Diaspora

michal-mountains
When I first moved to Victoria many years ago, one of my colleagues said, “On the prairies, people live to work. On the West Coast people work to pay for skiing, scuba diving, drinking wine, smoking weed, sailing, surfing and, as soon as they have enough money to live on, they quit their job and buy a few acres so they can raise prize animals, fruit or vegetables and pour their passion into producing the best wines or peacocks. Or plums. Or peaches. Or kiwi fruit. Or sheep. Or llamas. Or they buy a boat and sail.”

People who move west and then further west and then even further west until they can’t go any further west end up on the shores of mainland BC or on the many islands that dot the coast.

In Vesturfarar, Heather Ireland, (from Winnipeg but moved to Vancouver long ago with her husband Bill Ireland) the grand daughter of Guttormur Guttormson, tells us that she said to her uncle that she wished her amma and afi Guttormson had moved to the Coast. Her uncle said, they’d been to the coast a number of times but wouldn’t have moved there because life was just too easy. It was also a world beyond imagining. Think what those early arrivals must have thought of the world represented by this masks like this one by Bill Henderson of the Kwakwaka’wakw?

Bill Henderson,Kwakwaka'wakw

Joan Thorsteinson Linde says that when her parents were on the train to Winnipeg and they arrived, her mother took a look at the city and said, “Let’s keep going.” She said Point Roberts was a wonderful place to grow up and she was grateful her parents stayed on the train.
Jerry McDonald says she is grateful that her grandparents moved to the Coast in 1943. Her grandmother read a poem about the West Coast and insisted on moving there.

Years ago, Bob Asgeirson, told me that he had been working for a radio station in Winnipeg. He had holidays at Christmas. He got on a train during a blizzard and arrived to a light rain and everything green in Vancouver. He immediately bought a ticket back to Winnipeg, quit his job and moved permanently to Vancouver.

Fort Victoria had been first settled in 1843. By the time the first Icelanders started arriving with the railway reaching Vancouver, there were scenes like this.

Tea Party at Point Ellice House

Although my wife and I visited my wife’s grandmother in Victoria during the summer of 1967, I’d never thought of moving here. In 1974, I had a job in Missouri, was heading for a better job in Texas, when I was asked if I’d like a job at the University in Victoria. I said I’d come for a year. That was forty years ago. I did try to move back to Winnipeg. However, try as I might, no job was forthcoming. I was following an old pattern created by the Icelandic immigrants. Go where there is work.

Most Icelanders left Iceland because of poverty, hunger, lack of opportunity, bad weather, political oppression. Although the fares were small and, in some cases, subsidized, many could not afford to pay for the trip from Iceland to Scotland, from Scotland to Quebec, from Quebec to their final destination in the United States or Canada. If they could, they sold their land and animals to pay for their trip. It was the bad luck of some that stormy weather delayed the sailing ships and the would-be travelers’ funds were used up paying for room and board at the harbours. Not only did these people not get to go to Ameríka but they now were landless and were going to be poverty stricken farm workers.

However, times were so desperate that it was worth taking risks. Living conditions were poor. Sod and lava huts nowadays are made for museums and tourists so they are constructed to look romantic. Sod and turf huts were not romantic. IN 1845 Madame Pfeiffer says ‘Small and low, built of lava, with the interstices filled with earth…A dark narrow passage about four feet high, leads on one side into the common room, and on the other to a few compartments, some of which are used as storehouses for provisions and the rest as winter stables for the cows and sheep…The rooms of the poorer class have neither wooden walls nor floors, and are just large enough to admit of the inhabitants sleeping, and perhaps turning round in them. …Above the beds are fixed rods, from with depend clothes, shoes, stockings, &c….Stoves are considered unnecessary, for as the space is very confined, and the house densely populated.

Rods are also placed round the fire place, and on these the wet clothes and fishes are hung up in company to dry. The smoke completely fills the room.”

Houses were cold. They was no stove. They were crowded. There was little light because glass was scarce. Laws were passed by the landowners to control all the workers who, by law, were forced to work on a farm. They could only change jobs on one day a year. Marriage was not allowed unless a man had the equivalent of four hundreds. This meant that many men and women had no hope of marriage. With wages appalling low, in some cases a few dollars a year, there was little opportunity for a man to save enough money to put down on a piece of land and some animals. It might take a careful, tight fisted man twenty years working as a farm hand to save enough for a down payment on a farm. When he did he also had to rent the sheep or cows from a wealthy landowner at exorbitant rates. What land was available for men who wanted to become independent farmers in the years of good weather was marginal land.

Good land had long ago been taken. The land that became available was usually on the edge of lava deserts. With a cold summer that same land quickly became uninhabitable. A cold summer meant the grass didn’t grow. No grass, the sheep and cows didn’t survive. Without them, there was starvation. People farming marginal land could with one or two cold summers lose everything and become paupers with family members sold off to whoever would keep them for the smallest amount of money. A volcanic eruption that destroyed hay land was a disaster.

Even when the weather was decent, farming alone was not enough to sustain most people so the men walked to the coastal fishing areas. Fishing conditions on the North Sea were dangerous. Boats frequently sank, taking ten or fifteen men with them.

Richard Burton, 1875, says that “The storekeeper must advance goods to the farmer, and the latter refunds him when he can, especially in June and July, September and October, when wool is pulled (Icelanders did not shear sheep. The wool was pulled as it became loose.)and wethers (castrated male sheep)killed. A few of the farmers have money at the merchants, who do not, however, pay interest; many are in debt, and the two classes hardly balance each other. Prices are generally high.” That is the prices of goods available at the store are high.

Those people who chose to make two dangerous sea voyages, first to Scotland or England, then to the North America, were people prepared to take risks and endure hardship. Sailing ships were at the mercy of the weather. Conditions on board the ships for steerage passengers were appalling. Narratives of those voyages often record burials at sea.

Icelandic emigrants tried Nova Scotia.The good land was taken. They tried Kinmount, Ontario. The Pennsylvania Dutch (Germans) already had taken up the good farmland in Ontario. The land in Kinmount was not suitable for farming. The immigrants then made a long and hard journey that ended on the beach at Willow Point with winter closing in and no milk cows because hay had not been put up to feed them. The land was mostly swamp and higher ground was heavily forested. Icelanders were not farmers. When an Icelander answered bondur to the question about his employment on his immigration paper, he was not describing himself as a farmer but as a herder of sheep and milk cows.

Having endured living in ratty tents, then packed into roughly made log cabins because there could only be as many cabins as there were stoves, they endured more hardship. The settlers must have wondered when their suffering would be over. If ever.

Gimli may mean the home of the gods but these people were not gods. They were farm folk who had made a heroic journey from Iceland to Canada only to suffer from lack of food, from poor shelter, from diseases such as smallpox and scurvy. It is no wonder that nearly all of them abandoned New Iceland. They’d already made the decision to leave Iceland to search for a better life. For many, New Iceland was not providing a better life. It was cut off from trade. Except for some work provided by the government, jobs were non-existent. In breakup and freezeup, it was impossible to travel over the lake. There was work in Winnipeg. There was work, at least at harvest time, further west where farms were already established. Many walked west.

Will Kristjanson, in The Icelandic People in Manitoba, says, because of the exodus from 1878 to 1881, the colony was reduced to 250 people. It would be replenished as more Icelandic immigrants arrived. However, a pattern of arrival and departure was established that continues to this day.

They went to Brandon. They went to Argyle. Always looking for good land. They went to North Dakota. The good land in North Dakota filled up quickly so those who didn’t get some of it, went back to Manitoba and settled in the Arborg area. The immigrants traveled for years, making a living where they could. Magnús Jónsson with his wife, Margét, and two daughters, settled in New Iceland in 1887. In 1891, they homesteaded in the Argyle district. In 1902 they moved to Blaine, WA.

Metúsalem Vigfússon moved to New Iceland in 1876. He moved to Winnipeg and worked around Manitoba wherever he could find work. He and his wife, Borghildur bought 80 acres southeast of Mountain, North Dakota. After seven years they moved to Roseau, Minn. They lived there eleven years. In 1917, they moved to Yakima, WA.

Many settlers went to Swift Current when the railway line ended there. From there they went by horse and wagon north. They went to Alberta and settled in places like Markerville.

Good land. A place where they might prosper, where they might have a Canadian farm, grow grain, raise animals and, when they got over the mountains into the Okanagan, as unlikely as it seems for Icelanders, create orchards.

The railways opened up land, made it possible to ship produce and to receive necessities. In New Iceland the railway, first stopping at Winnipeg Beach and then Gimli and, finally, Riverton, created the cordwood economy. While those people in New Iceland were struggling in the second poorest part of Canada, only ahead of Newfoundland economically, their brethren, the original settlers and their children, were moving west. Some of those found jobs, land, possibilities. Many stayed in Winnipeg, the new Chicago, a dynamic city, for a time, but then the Panama Canal was built and the boom began to fade. Others gathered in places like Wynyard and Foam Lake, Regina, Moosejaw, Calgary, Edmonton, eddied around the base of the mountains, but with Olafur Norman arriving in Victoria in 1883, the path to the coast was established.

Gerri McDonald says that a survey in the 1930s showed that only 5% of people of Icelandic descent lived in BC. In 2011 25% of people of Icelandic descent lived in BC.

That is not surprising. Although there was no organized group movement to the West Coast, many people during the Depression moved from the Gimli-Riverton area to Steveston to fish, work in the canneries and build boats. A group did settle Osland on Hunter Island in the mouth of the Skeena.

But most were like me or Robert Asgeirson, moving west to take or find a job. My contact with the West Coast wasn’t Icelandic. My wife’s grandmother and grandfather were English. The Oak Bay neighbourhood was still referred to as behind the Tweed Curtain. I knew of no one in Victoria of Icelandic background before I arrived. I’d come to take a good job. There were tea houses, not coffee houses. Doormen in historic English outfits stood outside tourist establishments. The accents on the streets and in the stores were not Icelandic or Ukrainian. They were English, Irish and Scots.

It took a while to discover other people of Icelandic background. Halli Johnson, Mattie Gislason, then a meeting organized by Alphonse Hansen at a restaurant in the country to discuss forming an Icelandic club, the Icelanders of Victoria. Fred Bjarnason was there. We did form a club. We went on to have Thorrablots. We do celebrate June 17.

Richard Beck, that great champion of all things Icelandic, retired to Victoria. He died, then his wife, Margaret, died and their joint will left the University of Victoria their house to sell and create a foundation for the dissemination of Icelandic literature, language and culture. The Beck lectures began in 1988. Since then the Richard and Margret Beck Trust, under the direction of Dr. John Tucker, has funded around two hundred lectures by Icelandic experts.

This is how a diaspora is created. Travelers settling somewhere, meeting each other, forming a cultural club, or a church group, or an educational group. Point Roberts, Bellingham, Blaine, outposts held together by memories, evidence found in photo albums, club records, graveyards. Outposts like Osland on Smith Island, now nearly abandoned, its existence attested to by the book, Memories of Osland. The Jonassons, Haldorsons, Johnsons, Philippsons, Freemans, Oddsons, Grimsons, Kristmanssons, Longs, Snidals, Bjornsons, Einarssons, Laurassons, Erlendsons, Emmersons.

Think on it. The people who have gone west. My uncle Earl (Gimli) went to Edmonton. My uncle Alan (Gimli) ended up in Calgary. My sister in law (Riverton) moved to Victoria. My nephew and niece (Gimli) are here. My cousin, Rudy (Gimli), is on the mainland. His wife, Sig (Riverton) just died. His daughter (Winnipeg) is with him.  Keith Sigmundson (Gimli) has a place here. Dennis Oleson (Riverton) is in Victoria. Glenn Sigurdsson (Riverton) in Vancouver. His mother. (Riverton) His father died here not too long ago. Ruth and Randi Jonasson (Riverton). Christine Anderson (Riverton).

The list seems endless. Linda Bjarnason (Gimli) in Naniamo. Carol Bjarnason (Gimli) Whiterock. Margaret Bjarnason (Gimli) Vancouver. If I tried to list all the people of Icelandic descent in Vancouver, it would fill pages. It far outnumbers the people of Icelandic descent now living within the boundaries of New Iceland. If all these people had stayed in New Iceland, what would they do? They are teachers, architects, lawyers, stock brokers, art gallery owners, veterinarians, chefs, secretaries, professors, city planners. They are myriad.

The Icelanders were not alone in their experience. The Finns came to the coast of BC. They created a village called Sointula on Malcolm Island in 1901. It was to be the new Finland, led by a charismatic leader Matti Kurikka. They came as a group, rowing their way north from Naniamo.

In 1908, led by Verigin, 6,000 members of the Doukhobor sect migrated to BC. Neither of these communities survived in their ideal form. This was the fate of most immigrant groups. They left the mother country, Finland and Russia, in these cases, formed communities in Canada bound by ethnicity, religion and isolation, and these communities could not remain cohesive. Even isolation is not enough to keep the community together. So, there was the original diaspora and then the diaspora from the original settlements. All such cases can be looked at as failed dreams, failed ideal images. On the other hand, they can be looked at as successes because the original communities provided a place for its members to prepare to enter Canadian society.

New Iceland lost many of its original settlers. However, others came, settled in an area where they knew some of the earlier settlers, where people spoke Icelandic, where the harshness of immigration could be softened a bit as people adjusted to a new life. They moved to take up greater opportunities, that often meant leaving the mother colony. That is they stayed true to their original purpose in emigrating, to create a better life for themselves, their children, and future generations.

The Valkyrie disses Laxness

 

laxness4image

Hulga turned up at my door looking like a Valkyrie. Five foot six maybe, brunette hair going gray, eyes like flashing lights and a tightness of the skin under her nose that presaged unpleasant things to come. If Valdi was now close to 90, his daughter would be around fifty four.

If I remembered correctly, he said Mary had their daughter a year after they got married. There wasn’t any hanky panky wtih Mary in the hay before the trip to the altar. Given Valdi’s predilection for hot babes, I was surprised but he’d explained it by saying that after he’d gone to the drugstore six times to ask Mary for help in locating items, she’d said yes to going with him to the local Icelandic dinner and dance but she was not going with him to his hayloft or the back of his pickup truck or to his bedroom. He had a reputation. She said if he wasn’t serious to quit wasting her time because she had lots of other offers.

She was, Valdi told me, gorgeous, fantastic, and while she worked there, the drug store had an unusual number of single men and some married ones wanting her help and advice. She mostly played it straight, never indicating there might be any ulterior motive in their wanting to know where the toothpaste was shelved. Stunning, voluptuous, he said, and he put his hands out as if to cup them around her breasts.

“Was she smart?” I asked.

“Smart? Smart! I wasn’t’ interested in smart. Do you think a bee asks if a flower is smart? Do you think a buck chasing a doe across the field wants the doe to take an IQ test?”

“She wasn’t interested unless you were serious, if you were serious, you could end up living with her for the rest of your life. What if she was as dumb as a post?”

“You think too much,” he said, and shook his head. “No wonder you are single.”

“Separated.”

“Are you spending any time in your wife’s bed?”

“No,” I replied somewhat testily.

“Single. Have you got a girlfriend?”

“If I had a girlfriend, I wouldn’t have time to come to visit you and to do research for my book.”

“There is more to life than writing a book.”

“Once is enough. “

“I didn’t give up farming just because sometimes my crop got hailed out.”

Anyway, the result of Mary’s agreeing to hanky pank once they were married was standing in front of me. Librarians were supposed to be modest, self-effacing, quiet. She said, in a loud voice, angrily, “You could have killed my father. You lame brained idiot. Taking a man in a wheelchair into the countryside in winter.”

I was torn. I was embarrassed that everyone on my floor could hear her because she was in the hallway. She would be muted by if she were in my apartment but I wasn’t sure that I wanted her in my apartment. She settled the question by brushing past me. If I hadn’t stepped aside, she’d have knocked me over.  Head down ready for a head butt, shoulders braced, she reminded me of nothing so much as a snowplough. She stopped at the end of the short hallway, now that she’d charged past me, not sure where to go.

I didn’t offer her a seat. Not that it would have mattered. If she’d wanted to sit, she’d have sat. “You, you,” she said, exasperated, jabbing an index finger at me, “how dare you? I don’t know what you think you are doing but whatever it is, quit. Quit pestering my father. I’ve told the people at the nursing home, you are not allowed to see him.”

“I’m just doing research,” I said but I might as well not have said anything.

She clasped and unclasped her hands and I thought she was going to take a run at me. I looked to the side to see if I could grab a cushion off the couch so I could fend her off without hitting her. It was an IKEA couch. It didn’t have any cushions. It had a futon that folded up and down depending on whether one was sitting on it or lying down on it.

“Research! What kind of research? Two idiots in a van on a country side road in December. Taking a ninety year old man on a Skidoo.”

“That wasn’t me,” I protested.

“Don’t deny it. If you hadn’t decided to take him exploring this wouldn’t have happened. Who do you think your are, the Franklin Expedition?”

“Laxness,” I said in my own defence. “He called me. He said…”

She cut me off with a look of fury. “Laxness. I don’t want to  hear any more about Laxness. A two bit writer from a country so small that it’s not even the size of a suburb.”

“You’re Icelandic.” I was outraged. Iceland may have a small population but it punches way over its weight.

“I am not.” She pointed her finger at me again and pressed her lips together. “I am fourth generation Canadian. I was born in Canada. I don’t even make vinarterta.”

There are some things you can say and some things you can’t. Vinarterta is to people of Icelandic descent what peroghis are to Ukrainians. Vinarterta is a seven layered prune torte that is a symbol of all things Icelandic. Well, not Icelandic in the sense of Iceland today. In Iceland, they’d quit making, forgot what it was, but in the Icelandic Canadian communities, it was revered. No social occasion could be a success without it. Even men learned to make it. There were vinarterta baking bees. Vinarterta were auctioned off at fund raisers. No good hostess would consider serving coffee without a plateful of sliced vinarterta.

I restrained myself. After all, she was Valdi’s daughter. “That’s your loss,” I said. “Would you like some coffee and kliener?”

“Kliener,” she yelled as if I’d stuck her with a sharp object. I backed up. “Kleiner. Icelandic donuts. Is that all you  people think about are your stomachs? Grossly overweight, potbellied vinarterta, kleiner, rullupylsa gobblers.”

“I’m not overweight,” I said sharply.

She looked me up and down and found nothing to approve of. “You’re young. You’ll soon by like all the others. A few more vinartertas and no one will be able to tell you from a seal.”

“I run every day. I go to the gym twice a week. You aren’t exactly slim.”

She was used to dishing it out. She obviously didn’t spend much time looking in the mirror. Her fury had undone her hair so it had started to stick out in places.  He face turned purple at my mention of her not being slim.

“You will not get the farm. You will not trick a poor old man with dementia into signing over everything he owns.”

I didn’t know which I was more enraged about, the describing Valdi as a poor old man with dementia or me as a horrible person trying to take advantage of him.

Even though she was old enough to be my mother, I shouted, “Out. That does it. Out.” And I stepped toward her and put my hands in front of me as if to push her. I didn’t touch her but she backed up and once I got her moving, I kept her moving . She kept trying to say something but her rage made her sputter and I kept shouting out, out and pushed forward until she turned around and fled out the door. In the hallway, she stopped, turned around to face me.

“I’ll go to the police,” she yelled. “Elder abuse.”

I shut the door and locked it. Then I fell onto the couch. I had no allies. Valdi had a granddaughter but she was in Saskatchewan at university. If she was like her aunt, there was no point asking for her help. I realized that my heart was beating faster than usual. I felt like I’d just survived an accident. His daughter was wicked, he’d warned me, but I’d thought he exaggerated. Hell on wheels, he’d said, the devil in bloomers, although she didn’t appear to be the bloomers type.

This book I was working on was important. It was my path to freedom. I had been teaching high school for eleven years. My hair was thinning and my nerves were frayed. No discipline was allowed and everyone got passing grades. If students complained, they got an A. The principal had recently explained that even if a student turned in no work, they still should pass the course. He’d taken down the large framed picture where our top students were honored. There were to be no distinctions made because distinctions hurt people’s feelings. However, he didn’t mind making distinctions among the teachers. It wasn’t do your own thing there, like come late, don’t bother to teach a class, be rude. If he’d had his way, we’d have lined up outside the front door every morning and kissed the students’ asses as they wandered in. Since some were still wandering in half way through the morning, we would have needed knee pads.

The book. The portal to a better life. There might be the opportunity to teach non-fiction at a local college but a scrapbook of articles wasn’t enough. It was good. But I needed a book. A book would bring the program prestige. It would give me credibility. A friend of mine taught in the English department there and acted as my spy. He fed me inside information. He was a nerd, had hair that always looked frightened, wore a suit jacket that was two sizes too big but which he’d got for a great price on sale, pants that folded over his shoes but they hadn’t hired him as a fashion statement. He had a book of short stories and a novel published. They were with a local publisher but that didn’t matter. It gave him the bona fides. People took his pronouncements seriously.

Instead of thirty hours a week of teaching with classes of thirty to thirty-five students, it was impossible to know for sure how many students in a class because students wandered in and out at will and the class lists were always being changed as the students shopped for the most entertaining teacher. The male students gravitated to classes given by young, attractive female teachers. They did not describe their classes as Chemistry or Physics or English but as Hot, Hotter and Hottest. They were at the age where they followed their dicks everywhere. Some of those who were in a relationship necked with their girlfriends at the back of the room. The girls were into their friendships. Packs of them rotated in and out of the washroom, putting on makeup, gossiping, smoking some dope. When going past you needed industrial earmuffs to protect your hearing from all the squealing.

I was trying to teach Pride and Prejudice, the humor of it, the intricate structure, the themes, the different kinds of marriages demonstrated and some blonde with too much makeup, her hair bright green, no bra and platform shoes that looked like stilts, raised her hand and said, “Mr. Kristjansson (that’s me) do you think Elizabeth was frigid?”

I’d resorted to pills. White pills, then blue pills, then white pills again. One before I left in the morning, one at noon and one before I went to bed at night. On a really bad day when someone threw a television through a window because he’d learned his girlfriend was getting it on with one of his friends, I took a pill right then and there. These kids drove Porches, Mercedes, the kind of cars the teachers couldn’t afford. They wouldn’t go to a college. They were destined for university. They were destined to become CEOs, political leaders.

Laxness would give me an edge. There would be other contenders for this job, if and when it was advertised. There were other people writing non-fiction books. None of them would have a chapter on a Nobel Prize winner. Maybe, just maybe, because of the connection, the book would get translated into Icelandic. That would carry clout, would draw admiring glances, would promote sales. I would have published in a foreign language.

I sometimes lay on my bed at night fantasizing about the book being accepted. “Mr. Kristjansson, this is a brilliant book. We have a contract all made up. We’ll start looking for co-publishers right away.” Sometimes this fantasy publisher would say “immediately” instead of “right away.” I saw myself receiving an award and me, modestly, accepting it. I saw myself teaching fifteen hours a week to workshops of fifteen students who wanted to learn to write, who chose to be in the class. Sometimes, I stared at the ceiling and said out loud, as if God needed things said out loud, “It’s not so much to ask.”

I wished I hadn’t got off on the wrong foot with Valdi’s daughter, Hulga or Ulga. I wasn’t sure of her name. When I’d mentioned Laxness, she’d reacted. That meant she knew who he was, she had heard stories about him. Maybe if, in a few days, I called her to apologize, to say I was sorry, that I had no idea the road would be so bad, maybe I could sneak out of her what she had heard about Laxness. I should not, I told myself, think of her as Valdi’s daughter but as a source.  Writers did absurd things to get information from their sources.  They flattered, they bribed, they eavesdropped, they manipulated. I cringed and blushed with embarrassment. I stared at the ceiling and thought about how badly I wanted to change jobs.

When I went to the nursing home, Valdi said, “Hell on Wheels.” His adventure had perked him up. He was using a walker. He’d refused to use a walker until now. It was, he said, the humiliation of being old. It was a step down from a cane, even from the wheelchair. He was making compromises, something he wasn’t good at, but when you want something badly enough, you made deals with the devil. He figured if he could use the walker, he could go back to the farm once the snow was gone. His walker needed to be taller so he didn’t have to bend over it.

“It’s got moveable feet,” I said. “Sit down.”

I turned the walker upside down. There were holes in the legs and pins that fitted into the holes. I pushed the pin in, moved the leg down as far as it would go, then did the same with the other three legs.  I gave him back the walker and he was able to stand up straight.

“Thanks,” he said. That made me suspicious. He had a hard time saying thanks. If I did something for him, it was usually acknowledged with a grunt.

“She thinks I’m sucking up to you so you’ll sign your property over to me. I’ll get your bank accounts. The whole shmear.”

“Not a chance,” he said. “You’ve got a job. Even if your wife ran you through the wringer, you’ve got a paycheck coming in every month. Work ten months and get paid for twelve.”

“The payment,” I said, “is for ten months work. We just agreed to spread it over twelve months because some people aren’t good at saving and come July and August, they have no money.”

“Nobody paid me when I didn’t work,” he said, then he veered back to his daughter. “I know Mary didn’t cheat on me so either the devil slipped into bed during the night or Ulga is  a throwback to some earlier ancestor.”

“I’m not trying to get your farm or your money. I teach school. I write. I’ve been asking you to help me with information. Do you want that information to die when you kick the bucket?”

I had him there. He’d heard that I was working on a book about the area and had contacted me. He was a Wickipedia of the Interlake, that vast area in Manitoba between Lake Winnipeg and Lake Manitoba. Much of it was marginal land. A lot was swamp that grew nothing but cattails. There were sections of good soil deposited by the glaciers as they melted. They also left behind stones, vast fields of stones that had to be picked up and moved to the side of a field so they wouldn’t dull or break a plough. The job was never ending. A field was cleared and the next winter, the frost would force up more stones so the whole job would have to be done again. Every farm had piles of stones, brought from who knows what distance. Every person who’d grown up in the area had stone boat stories, endless days of following a horse or a tractor pulling a wooden sled onto which they put stones. A lot of these stones, pink, white, grey, red, black, were boulders requiring two people to lift them. Lifting stones was like a hard-labour sentence for some unknown crime. As soon as they were old enough, most of the kids fled to the city.

Valdi had parceled out his information. He knew about families, about feuds, about scandals, about deals, about crimes, about triumphs, about love affairs. He hadn’t written it down. It was all in his large head  with its shaggy white hair. He knew about Laxness. He had the inside dope. I’d realized, after a time, that he was torn. On the one hand, he didn’t want to reveal any secrets but on the other hand he was afraid that he’d die and no one would ever  know the passion and the pain that had existed in these isolated places.

We were having coffee in the dining room. Coffee and cookies or cake were available all day long. A lot of the residents were Icelandic and Icelanders were notoriously addicted to their coffee. Coffee came to Iceland in 1703. It was as much part of their self-image as vinarterta. I’d brought a plate of cookies to the table, filled two cups, found a metal creamer with some cream left in it, and set it down in between us. In the hallway, some of the residents were bowling. An attendant had set up pins in the hallway and another was helping individuals to roll a ball down the hallway to knock down the pins. It was a good nursing home. The staff worked hard at keeping the residents entertained. They hugged them a lot.

“She said I mustn’t visit you,” I said. “She told the staff I’m not to bother you.”

“I’m still all here,” he said. “When I’m not, I want you to take me to the harbour and push me down a loading chute. Drowning’s not a bad way to go.” He was, I knew, more afraid of that, of becoming like many of the residents, no longer knowing where they were, or who they were. There was a woman in the home whom he’d admired for her writing. She’d been a historian. She walked up and down the halls holding onto a book she’d written. When he’d say hello to her, she’d say, “I’m carrying this book around but I don’t know why.” She was always cold and even in summer, she wore a red toque. No one ever came to see her. His large hand enclosed the coffee cup in front of him. He had a mug in his room that held two cups of coffee but we’d forgotten it. I thought he might tighten his hand and crush the cup. Instead, he took his hand away and picked up the cup between his thumb and index finger and raised his pinky in mock politeness. “You come whenever you want. She’s not my keeper.”

 

 

 

Book Review: Historical Images of New Iceland Settlements

ben
Ben Holyk’s new book of historic photographs arrived today. It is called “Historical Images Lake Winnipeg New Iceland Settlements”. It covers more communities than usual: Arborg, Poplarfield, Fisher branch, Geysir, Gimli, Hecla Island, Hnausa, Ledwyn, Riverton, Winnipeg Beach. As well, it has a section on Lake Winnipeg Boats and Fishing. It is 376 pages and is crammed with pictures, many of which I have not previously seen.

I have read a fair amount about New Iceland, its people and places, the boats of Lake Winnipeg, the buildings, the farms but I’ve had to imagine what they looked like. Now, I have images for many of those people and places.

I’m happy to have a picture of the S.S.Colville, the ship that brought Icelanders to New Iceland but also a picture of an oxen team that was used in Arborg.

Pictures of Ragnheidur and Oscar Einarsson on their wedding day in 1914 and Sveinbjorg and Nikulas Halldorson provide a good idea of how people dressed. Dr. J. P. Palsson and his wife Sigudur in 1910, are fashion plates and one cannot help but wonder how their clothes were kept clean. No automatic washing machines. As far as I know, tubs and scrub boards and, if you could afford it, hired help were required to keep a person presentable.

Logging camps had bad reputations for the way they treated the men who worked for them. The work was hard, the pay low, the isolation complete and accommodation? Well, the picture of the logging camp north of Arborg provides a good idea of how loggers lived.

Wood, in the early days, was used for heating and cooking plus fueling the steam ships. It created a cordwood economy. It’s hard to imagine the amount of wood needed to fuel the local houses and the houses and businesses of Winnipeg. A sense of that can be seen in the picture of Chapil’s horse team hauling logs to the Arborg railway station, 1940.

One of the surprises in the book is provided by the pictures of Fisher Branch. There’s a general view taken in 1907 and a picture of the St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Church that was built in 1913. The Fisher Branch Creamery’s fleet of delivery vehicles is impressive. I count six nice looking cars. The Ukrainian Farmer’s Co-op store with its employees outside (I count 34) gives a sense of a thriving community. Trains arrived in 1914 and continued until 1980.

Geysir has always had a reputation many times its actually size. My impression of it has been of a dance hall (picture included), a church and a graveyard but Ben’s pictures show pictures of quite elaborate churches, St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic church (1913), Immaculate Conception RC church (1912) and Geysir Evangelical Lutheran Church (1928). There are pictures of the Geysir school, the students and staff, the men’s baseball team (baseball, when I was a boy in the 1940s was taken quite seriously), a threshing outfit and a rather amazing picture of J.K.B. Jonson hauling hay from Fisher Bay for Baldi Halldorson.

Gimli, as usual, takes up a good part of the book, mostly because people came there On holidays and took pictures. I see that at least one of them is credited to my great aunt Stina Johnson but others that I believe she took, are not. The picture of a Manitoba steam side paddler docking at Gimli in the 1910s gives me an image of what life was like in the 1910s that I never expected. My great grandfather’s store at the corner of Main & Centre in 1905 is displayed. It’s an often used photo and will be familiar to many. There’s a picture of the H.P. Tergesen house in 1906 when it sat on open land waiting for the town to be built around it. I was happy to see a picture of the Lutheran church with its spire. There’s a picture of “Beaver House, the Lake View hotel and Lyric Theatre taken sometime in the 1900s.

There are some fine pictures of campers’ cottages. I just wish that the locations were included. Many of the early cottages have been torn down and replaced with permanent houses. I was pleased to see a picture of Bjarnason’s grocery and dry goods store because no one except me seems to remember it. There’s a picture of the original Johnson Memorial Hospital that opened in January 28, 1939, just a few months too late for me to be born there. I’ve always regretted that and thought my mother could have waited or they could have finished the hospital sooner.

Hecla has been a storied place mostly because it is an island. Before the bridge was built from the mainland, access was by boat or ferry (picture included) and, during break up and freeze up, the people were isolated and left on their own to survive as best they could. As harsh as conditions were in the beginning, the local people built Hecla’s first school in 1890 and there is a picture of it.

What are amazing are the pictures of Reynistaour and the Tomasson Boarding house. There’s a picture of the Sigurgeirsson log house that served as a store and post office. There are pictures of a cat bringing logs from the north on five sleighs.

Hnausa often gets short shrift in articles about New Iceland. That is unfortunate because it played a major role in the prosperity of the early settlement. It was “a prosperous community, having a school postal office, store, saw mill, community hall, and a gas station.” It was here that “a trading and shipping centre was founded by Stefan and Johannes Sigurdson in 1890.”

Since I’ve read Glenn Sigurdson’s manuscript about his family’s role in the fishing industry, I know about the house and store that Stefan Sigurdsson built. However, I’d never seen a picture of them. Fortunately, there is such a picture and it fills me with amazement for who would think such elaborate and large buildings would be built in a small community on the shore of Lake Winnipeg?

Most people have forgotten, if they ever knew, but Hnausa held its own Islendingadagurinn in competition with Gimli. There are pictures of the celebration at Hnausa Park in 1932 and of the Fjallkona. There’s an excellent picture of winter freighting with a list of the men in the picture. Some are sitting on top of a sleigh of fish boxes and others lined up in front. There’s even a picture of their mobile home being pulled by two horses.

If Hnausa has been ignored in articles about New Iceland, Ledwyn has been cast into outer darkness. It’s wonderful that Ben has included Ledwyn. While there are Andersons and Arnasons among the pictures of the first settlers of Ledwyn, most of them are of Andrushankos, Bachynskis, Bonkowskis, Dziadykewiczs, Furgalas. These people don’t fit into the normal myth of New Iceland. However, they were every bit as much a part of New Iceland as the Icelanders. There are pictures of the catholic churches, of the Zinkowski store, of the Polish Hall, the community hall (where I had wonderful, memorable times) of the Ledwyn Band. There is a picture of school students that were taught by Peter and Mary Onysko. In 1961, Peter was the principal at Riverton and I was in my first year of teaching.

Riverton was supposed to be the capital of New Iceland but bad weather meant the barges carrying the settlers were cut loose and drifted to shore at Willow Point. Settlers moved north to settle along the lake shore. I found Ben’s description of the settlement of what was called Lundi, then Icelandic River and, finally, Riverton, unclear. I know the story, or at least some of it, but if I didn’t, I’d be confused.

It’s good that he adds in the Ukrainian settlers, the Hungarians, and the Mennonites but the local aboriginal people get short shrift even though they were very much part of the community. There are many pictures including some early ones of the bridges that joined the two sides of Riverton.

The Sigurdsson and Thorvaldson store gives a good example of prairie buildings. There are pictures of farm houses that became well known such as Bakka, Straumnee, Akri, Loni and Unaland. There’s a fine picture of Gunnsteinn Eyjolfsson’s threshing outfit at Unaland and a number of pictures of the freight trains that travelled over the lake in winter.

Riverton has always been known for its music and it is great that there is a picture of the Whiskey Jacks with an amazingly young group of musicians including my friend, Dennis Olson. There is a little bit of everything from Riverton Game & Fish Target Practise (people did shoot their dinner) and the Reggie Leach Night at the Riverton Hall (Reggie is called the Riverton Rifle but his rifle was his hockey stick and his bullet the puck).

I’ve never thought of Winnipeg Beach as being part of New Iceland but it was a big part of our life during the summer. We lived in anticipation of our parents taking us there for the day. It was the Coney Island of New Iceland, even of Manitoba.

Speculators saw a chance to make a lot of money selling lots at Winnipeg Beach for cottages. Therefore, the railway got pushed through to Winnipeg Beach. There’s a picture from 1903 with sailboats and tourists. The railway brought people by the thousands to ride on the ferris wheel, the roller coaster, to dance at the dance palace, to stay at the Empress Hotel. To buy lots and build cottages. The CPR wasn’t missing any tricks when it came to making a buck.

The astounding thing about these pictures and those in the book on the history of Winnipeg Beach is the contrast between the well to do who came to the Beach and the ordinary local people who were struggling to make a dollar. The Dance palace was one of the largest in Western Canada at 14,000 sq. ft. The picture that shows the boardwalk that fronted the beach and the shops where visitors could play games of chance makes clear just how fashionably dressed the visitors were.

I’m very pleased that Ben included the last section on Lake Winnipeg for while it was not a community in the sense of the towns and villages, it was still a community. It was spread all over the lake but it had its own identity. There are welcome pictures of the various freight boats plus pictures of how skiffs were towed out to the fishing grounds by the freighters. There are some pictures of the fishermen. However, the Lake Winnipeg fishery was large and has gone on for generations. It really deserves a book of its own.

This book would have benefited from an editor going over it for small details. There’s the occasional world spelled incorrectly and, in places, I thought some minor points were incorrect or, at least, confusing. However, this is not a book of text. It’s a book of pictures. It is a book that once bought, should be kept and if any corrections or additions are needed, the owner can put them in by hand. I wish this book had been published when my father was still alive. I’d have looked it over with him and added numerous notes in the margins about the places and people he knew. He spent a life time on Lake Winnipeg and in New Iceland and this book would have stirred many memories and stories.

If you grew up in New Iceland, this is a must book for your book shelf. It’s a book to share with friends and family. It can be ordered from Ben W. Holyk, Box 1316, Stonewall, MB R0C A20 for 39.95 plus shipping. His web page is BLAKK.com, email: blkholyk@mts.net.

The Things We Care About

saga book image
Strange, the things we care about. Some people care about the fate of the timber wolf or the prairie gopher or the red legged wombat. Others care about historic events, are fixated on Napoleon and the battle of Waterloo. Others are passionate about Mediterranean frescoes. There’s no accounting for taste.

Me, I care about Iceland. If someone asked me why, I’d have a difficult time explaining the reason.

My mother was born of northern Irish parents. That makes me half Irish. And the family tree goes back to Scotland. If family lore is accurate, two brothers came with Cromwell. One stayed, one went back to Scotland and disappeared in the fog and heather. The one who stayed is an ancestor of mine.

My father, in spite of his Icelandic name, was a quarter English. One of his grandfathers was a Bristow. There are in and around Oxford, lots of graves with stones that say Bristow.

So, that leaves me three eighths Icelandic. That’s not much to hang a passion on. Of course, there’s genetic folding in. Icelanders have a lot of Celtic background. The people who settled Iceland weren’t just Norwegians or Danes. However, that strengthens the Irish background, not the Norwegian.

A big part of that involvement in things Icelandic came from growing up in Gimli, Manitoba. Gimli was the centre for Icelandic immigration to Canada in the 1870s on. A lot of people came, stayed for a while among people who spoke the same language, who were relatives and friends, then moved on to places with better land and more opportunities. However, a core remained in Gimli and the neighbouring villages of New Iceland. There was Hnausa, Arnes, Ness, Riverton, Arborg, and, although it fell slightly outside the New Iceland boundary, Lundar. To the south there was Selkirk and, of course, Winnipeg, with its concentration in the West End that was known affectionately as Gooli town.

In the 1940s Gimli was still very Icelandic. People spoke the language at home and in conducting business. Church services were in Icelandic. However, my mother didn’t speak Icelandic so my father didn’t speak it at home and when I was an adult, I was surprised when I heard him talk to someone in Icelandic. So, it wasn’t the language that made me interested in all things Icelandic. It’s not like I knew the secret code. I couldn’t smugly talk to some of my friends and classmates in a language others couldn’t understand. I did learn pig latin but it didn’t make me identify with pigs or latin.

The defining event in Gimli every year was Islendingadagurinn, the annual Icelandic Celebration. There were official events. A woman was chosen Fjallkona, the Maid of the Mountains, dressed in regal robes, laid a wreath at the foot of a memorial cairn that, at that time, was across the street from our house. An elegant car would turn up, there’d be a bit of a cortege behind. The Maid would be led to the cairn, people from the cars would descend and gather. The Maid would dedicate the wreath to the pioneers, get back in her car and go to the Gimli Park. There, she would be led to a stage where she would preside over a toast to Iceland, a toast to Canada, numerous speeches, many of which were in Icelandic and were listened to raptly by an older crowd.

We’d have run the two blocks to the park to watch the formalities, then leave for the far corner of the park to compete in foot races in hope of winning enough for a hot dog and coke. From a kid’s perspective, the day was mostly about hotdogs slathered in mustard and relish. In the evening, we’d go with our parents to the park pavilion to watch adults dance to old time music. The Icelandic part of the day was eating Icelandic pancakes, prune tort, donuts, pickled lamb flank on brown bread.

There were a lot of Icelandic flags. Mostly, however, we hung around our parents’ house because relatives dropped by from far and near. There was a lot of eating, drinking and talking. The talking sometimes went on all night.

The town was very Lutheran and, at one time, services were in Icelandic. However, I don’t remember that. I’d have been at the Sunday School which was in English. We did have some ministers from Iceland. I don’t remember that having any effect on us.

When I was in grade three, Icelandic lessons were offered after school or on Saturdays. However, the first thing we were told was that in order to learn Icelandic you had to be exceptionally intelligent. I didn’t have any reason to believe I was exceptionally intelligent so I didn’t go back.

There was the Sunrise Lutheran camp. I went there a couple of summers. The only thing Icelandic I remember about it is the sago pudding. Icelanders consumed a lot of sago pudding. Someone said it was frog’s eggs and, after that, none of us would eat it.

There was, of course, the visible existence that the town was Icelandic. There was Tergesen’s general store with a drugstore and soda bar on the south side. Nowadays, it is mostly clothes, many of which are Icelandic and a bookstore. It’s the one place where you can go to get books by Icelanders and Icelandic North American writers.

There was Bjarnason’s store that was a mainstay of the town. It was half grocery store and half dry goods. There was Arnason’s dairy bar. Arnason’s had a dairy and delivered milk that was so rich that, in winter, the milk froze, popped the cardboard lids off and the cylinder that rose up was pure cream. We ate it. You could hear Icelandic being spoken in any of those places.

I don’t remember Gimli as being particularly Icelandic. I never heard of rotted shark or brenevin, nothing of Iceland’s history except that, at one time, there were Vikings there and not much was made of that. I never heard rimur, no toneless, tuneless chanting of rhymed verses. I don’t remember anyone quoting Havamal to me to get me to behave myself.

I was a voracious reader but I read the Hardy Boys and Robin Hood, not the sagas.

When I went to university, I met some students my age who were from the West End of Winnipeg. I don’t remember them talking Icelandic or any discussions we had being about Icelandic subjects. However, a process began to draw us into the Icelandic community. There were coffees at Walter Lindal’s and, if I remember correctly, I found myself discussing the Icelandic Canadian Magazine. Somehow, I got involved in the local Icelandic club. There may have been meetings at Will Kristjanson’s. Caroline Gunnarson became part of my life. These were stalwarts, promoters of all things Icelandic. Walter and Will both wrote important books about the Icelandic communities. Caroline was an editor.

Somewhere in there was Professor Besseson, the head of the Icelandic department at the University of Manitoba. He was offering a non-credit course in the evenings. It was the sagas in translation. My wife and I took it. The Icelandic department and the Icelandic library had begun to play their part.

Terry and Lorna Tergesen drew me into creating a literary event at the Icelandic Celebration.

And there is where it all starts to break down. You see, my Gimli experience wasn’t all that Icelandic. I loved perogis fried with onions and served with sour cream, hollopchi baked in tomato sauce, bowls of bright red borscht made with beets straight from the garden, turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes, pickerel fillets, sweet and sour pickerel, Cantonese food from Sam Toy’s café.

I loved going to Ukrainian weddings and dancing the polka and the butterfly. Add to that, the airport two miles from town with air force personnel from all over Canada and, eventually, from all over the world meant I was used to hearing French being spoken in Olsen’s bakery or Bjarnason’s general store.

There were, of course, Icelandic elements. Local women knitted sweaters made from Icelandic wool. There was Betel, the Icelandic old folk’s home. Tergesen’s store was an anchor for all things Icelandic. There were women who, on special occasions, wore the Icelandic dresses that women wore during the time of immigration. There were a lot of Icelandic books around because Icelanders are great readers and writers. However, if any of my classmates could read Icelandic, I didn’t know about it.

But the Gimli experience was skating and hockey, curling, eating pickerel fillets, stuffed whitefish, smoked goldeye, not cod, fresh or dried, although some people did still make hardfish. We didn’t practice glima, Icelandic wrestling. Instead, we played soccer on snow covered fields. We hunted rabbits and deer, geese and ducks. Some of us had trap lines for rabbits and muskrats.

In Iceland, the Little Ice Age put an end to growing grain because the fall in temperature meant that grain would not ripen. Icelanders did not farm. They grazed sheep and milk cows.

In Gimli the settlers had to become farmers and fresh water fishermen. Farmers broke land, learned to plow, to seed, to harvest grain, rye, oats, wheat, barley. I grew up with my father fishing through four to six feet of ice with nets created for Lake Winnipeg.

In Iceland there were no forests. Gimli was surrounded by forests. Wood in Iceland was rare and expensive. In Gimli, we built with wood, heated our houses with wood, cooked our food with wood. One of my childhood tasks was throwing stove wood into the basement in the fall. We lived in a wood economy.

In Iceland there was a homogeneous population. In one of the travel books I’ve read, an Icelandic farmer says to a visiting Englishman that he is the only foreigner he’s ever seen in his lifetime and he expects that he will never see another. In Gimli, we dealt with “foreigners” every day. My mother and her parents were foreigners, so were all the Ukrainians, Germans, and Poles. There were the summer cottagers, many originally from the UK but many Jewish immigrants from Europe. There were the local aboriginals.

There were few “real” Icelanders, that is Icelanders who came from Iceland during the time that I was a child. There were a couple of ministers and a fellow called Ragnar.

The only person I knew who went to Iceland to visit was my great aunt, Stina. She was going to come back and tell us about all the bishops and poets and rich farmers who were our ancestors. When she came back, she never said a word about her trip. Our ancestors were indentured servants, farm laborers and, in some cases, had children out of wedlock or were married numerous times because their wives died in childbirth. Her dream of a past filled with prestige and glory died like the grass in a cold Icelandic summer. We can’t claim to be related to Snorri Sturluson or any Viking heroes.

Stina’s belief in a golden past when our ancestors weren’t poverty stricken share croppers or indentured servants wasn’t so strange. A characteristic of Icelanders is an abiding belief in a glorious, golden past during the Viking age.

The fact that hundreds upon hundreds of years of poverty, of domination first by Norway, then Denmark, makes no difference. Icelanders, in their heart of hearts, know that not too long ago their ancestors were raiding and pillaging, driving their foes before them, risking everything on endurance, bravery and good luck. Never mind all those hundreds of years of sheep farmers.

Maybe that’s one of the reasons I like Icelanders. They are, on the surface, restrained. So much so that there are discussions and speeches about whether or not Icelanders actually have a sense of humour. However, scratch the surface or have a couple of drinks with them and a romantic streak is revealed. They don’t see themselves as bus drivers, fishermen, dentists, caretakers, stock brokers. No siree, beneath those daily facades, they are Vikings. That suit, white coat, overalls, covers up a Viking heart ready on a moment’s notice to row a longship into the North Sea in search of wealth and fame.

Even those of us who have only three eighths Icelandic blood share those distant dreams and memories. That belief in a golden age survived centuries of oppression, dire poverty, devastating epidemics, starvation, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, fjords filled with ice. Generation after generation said, well, things are pretty bad right now but there was a time when we ruled the seas, when we were honored guests at the king’s table, when no one spun greater stories than us.

That attitude served us well during the time of emigration. Faced with starvation and oppression people emigrated to North America. In the early years New World hardship replaced Old World hardship. People went hungry, died from everything it was possible to die from, struggled to survive, sometimes failed, but they still had those memories of the ancient past to comfort them.

Maybe part of my interest in all things Icelandic is that I’m linked to this difficult past. We celebrate and honour the people who died and those who survived the trip from Iceland to the New World, who survived Kinmount, who survived the cold and poor food and small pox at New Iceland. Hardship and overcoming it shapes people, determines what they believe, how they behave, creates an identity separate from those who did not share the experience.

So, who am I? Where did I come from? How can anyone know who they are without knowing their past? Without kings and queens, without wealth, without great cathedrals or mansions, Icelanders chose to determine their worth on their behaviour.

Cattle die and kinsmen die,
thyself too soon must die,
but one thing never, I ween, will die, —
fair fame of one who has earned. –from Havamal

Not everyone lived by the advice in Havamal. Not everyone lived like a proud Viking warrior but there, in the background, was an understanding of what behaviour should be like. The sagas, those replacements for the great cathedrals, the castles, the elegance of Europe, gave everyone a history of the golden age.

Much of this was lost by the time a fourth generation, that’s me, appeared. There was intermarriage, the desire to integrate so that better jobs, greater opportunities existed. Yet, there was enough retained to hold firm to an identity. The Icelandic Department at the University of Manitoba was funded, the Icelandic library, for a time, the Jon Bjarnason Academy, the Icelandic Canadian magazine, the newspapers, Logberg and Heimskringla, the various clubs that were formed, the INL. A lot of it is based on nostalgia for a past that is romanticized, not just that distant Viking past but the past of immigration, but it doesn’t matter. What immigrant past isn’t romanticized and idealized?

With the internet, publications and documents that before were hidden away in distant libraries have become available at little or no cost. It is possible, today, to read about what life was like for our great grandparents and great great grandparents, to read back, to the times beyond them, to know ourselves.

Maybe that’s why I identify with Iceland and Icelanders. The dream of a golden age infuses everything, is always there, Gunnar and Njal and dozens of other characters, so that while I’m caught up in the mundane, cutting the grass, washing dishes, buying groceries, there is the world beyond that, the world of bravery, excitement, daring, strength, adventure. It rises closer to the surface during the Thorrablots, the INL conference, the club events, the Icelandic Celebration, the Beck lectures, August the Deuce, Icelandic summer camp, the Snorri program.

What causes me to identify with Icelanders and Iceland is not just a personal question. It is a critical question for the continuing relationship between people of Icelandic descent in North America and the people of Iceland. Canada is a multi-cultural society. Intermarriage is the norm. History appears to have been abandoned by the educational system. I’m three eighths Icelandic. My children are three sixteenth. My grandchildren are three thirty seconds. How will we infuse them with a belief in the Golden Age, make them proud of their Icelandic history, make them feel it is their history?

The Bard of Riverton

 

In 1961-62 I lived in Riverton, Manitoba. It was a memorable year. The one thing I didn’t do was meet Guttormur. I regret that. I was already writing. Already wanted to be a published author. I knew of his poem “The Winnipeg Icelander” but really didn’t know anything about the author. Part of that is being busy in my first job teaching high school, being young, being recently married. It’s a time of life when one’s focus is more inward than outward.

An opportunity missed. Guttormur was born in 1878. He died in 1966. He was born in New Iceland and his interests and concerns in his poetry was largely about the settlers. These are the people he knew. He was in a different situation from Stephen G. Stephenson, the Alberta poet who was born in Iceland and didn’t come to Canada until his late teens.

I always regarded Riverton as a bit wild. It was something of a frontier town. For a long time it was the end of the road. Here is where the horse and cat trains left for their hard journeys north along Lake Winnipeg. This was their first civilized stop on the way back. The Riverton Hotel was famous (notorious) for the hard drinking and fighting that went on there.

Surprisingly, or maybe not, it turned out highly intelligent, successful students. My classes were memorable for the abilities of the students. For in the frontier -roughness was a culture that valued learning and literature. It was a place where the bar room brawler could also talk  knowledgeably about the sagas or quote verses from Havamal.

It was a place where someone like Guttormur could live and write.

If there is one thing I admire more than others about Icelandic Canadians it is their ability to laugh at their own foibles and Guttormur, in “The Winnipeg Icelander”, does just that. He hears on a daily basis how Icelanders have adapted their Icelandic and have mixed it with English. However, they say it in Iceland, in New Iceland it’s a mix of Icelandic and English “on Main street with my five dollar cheque.” And you may be able to say “út í marshi‘ but what do you do with “moose”. There ain’t no moose in Iceland. There is a story told about the first settlers not having any idea what a moose was thought that when it was suggested they go hunting for a moose to feed themselves that they thought it was mice they were looking for.

Eggert Peterson left me a message on my blog site asking me to post the entire poem. Here it is. He says that when a relative of his used to read it out loud at gatherings, he laughed so much that he could hardly finish reading.

Guttormur, you’ve been gone awhile now. However, we haven’t forgotten you. This is a tip of our hat to you. Thanks for the poems you left behind. Some people leave death, destruction and pain behind them. You, like many poets, left love and laughter. Thanks.

Eg fór on’ í Main street með fimm dala cheque
Og forty eight riffil mér kaupti
Og ride út á Country með farmara fékk,
Svo fresh út í brushin eg hlaupti.
En þá sá eg moose, út í marshi það lá,
O my- eina sticku eg brjótti!
Þá fór það á gallop, not good anyhow,
Var gone þegar loksins eg skjótti.

Að repeata aftur eg reyndi’ ekki at all,
En ran like a dog heim til Watkins.
En þar var þá Nickie með hot alcohol.
Já, hart er að beata Nick Ottins.
Hann startaði singing, sá söngur var queer
Og soundaði funny, I tell you.
Eg tendaði meira hans brandy og beer,-
You bet, Nick er liberal fellow.

Og sick á að tracka hann settist við booze,
Be sure, að hann Nickie sig staupti.
Hann hafði’ ekki í lukku í mánuð við moose
Af Mathews hann rjúpu því kaupti.
-Í Winnipeg seg’r ann að talsverðan trick
Það taki að fira á rjúpu
Og sportsmann að gagni að gefa ‘enni lick,
En God – hún sé stuffið í súpu.

Við tókum til Winnipeg trainið-a fly,
Nick treataði always so kindly.
Hann lofði mér rjúpuna’ að bera’ upp í bæ
Eg borgaði fyrir það, mind ye.
Svo dressaði Nick hana’ í dinnerin sinni
Og duglega upp ‘ana stoppti,
Bauð Dana McMillan í dinnerinn sinn,
„Eg drepti ‘ana,“ „sagði’ ann, „á lofti.“

 

The Winnipeg Icelander

guttormsson_gj

Over my lifetime, I’ve read thousands of poems, as a student, as a teacher and as a reader who loves the well-wrought word.

Keats and Shelley and Donne and Yeats and Plath and Wakoski and Bly and Eliott and Frost and Berryman and Shakespeare and….the list seems endless.  I call it the anthology of my mind.

There is in that anthology a poem that I often think about it, and that is “The Winnipeg Icelander” by Guttormur Guttormsson from Riverton.

It’s a fun poem. Some might call it verse. I call it the mark of a society in transition. Here is the first verse.

Eg fór on’ í Main street með fimm dala cheque
Og forty eight riffil mér kaupti
Og ride út á Country með farmara fékk,
Svo fresh út í brushin eg hlaupti.
En þá sá eg moose, út í marshi það lá,
O my- eina sticku eg brjótti!
Þá fór það á gallop, not good anyhow,
Var gone þegar loksins eg skjótti.

It is a satirical look at how the Icelanders in Winnipeg spoke Icelandic.

It encapsulates, perhaps better than anything else, the internal conflict among the immigrants over whether they should assimilate as quickly as possible or whether they should isolate themselves from Canadian society in their New Iceland and remain as Icelandic as possible.

This conflict existed from the very beginning of the emigration. There were those who believed that the emigrants should go to various locations, hire out to established Norwegian and Swedish farmers and learn how to live and farm in North America. Photographs from the time show well-established farms, buildings, equipment and cultivated land. On the other side were those who wanted to create a New Iceland where everything would remain Icelandic, where it would be just like Iceland except in location.

The language, that secret code, that privileged communication, that way of identifying us from them, was the marker of identity.

It was also the evidence of how impossible was the dream of isolation. As Guttormur’s poem makes clear, this was a new land, it contained within it things that did not exist in Iceland. E.g. moose

The immigrants, during the first years, in Nova Scotia, in Kinmount, in New Iceland, struggled to stay alive. Many didn’t make it. They died on board ship, as they travelled across the continent, in various locations across North America. Graveyards tell their story.

Not to adapt was to die. Only a fool, and a short-lived one, at that, would have insisted against all evidence, on keeping fishing with the nets brought from Iceland. Only a fool would not have learned how to cut down large trees safely and how to build with them. Only a fool would have insisted that he, or she, would only do things just as they were done in Iceland, never mind the -40 below, the summer heat, the mosquitoes, the forests, the vast distances.

Why would language be any different? Only a fool would insist that no object be talked about if it didn’t exist in Iceland.

When people are going hunting in a Manitoba winter, trying to learn how to hunt animals that they had never before heard of, and returning empty handed, when they were trying to figure out how to get through four to six feet of ice to set nets and had to invent the tools to do it, when they had to plant crops they’d never planted (in Iceland, they’d planted no crops) in land that first had to be cleared, they didn’t have time for effete intellectual exercises in creating a new Icelandic word for the  thousands of things with which they were confronted on a daily basis.

When they had a chance to buy bif (something they weren’t able to buy in Iceland), or bins or kabits and karats to cure scurvy, there wasn’t time to have a discussion about how these new items should be properly described in Icelandic. The people they were buying from didn’t have time, either. They, too, were living on the edge of survival.

In Winnipeg the situation was less dire. There was work, at least for the women, sometimes for the men. However, Winnipeg was a city of immigrants. Survival required communication. Getting work from bosses from other ethnic groups required that Icelanders learn, as quickly as possible, to communicate, to learn a new vocabulary, one that described the world they woke up to every day. There was no time to write to Iceland to ask if the academic authorities would please tell them what to call a bonkhús. If these authorities had any idea of what a bunkhouse was. And then wait for a reply.

A lot is made of the fact that Icelanders today can still read the sagas. Some would claim that means that Icelandic doesn´t change. Hogwash! In my reading about Iceland in the 19th C. I come across words that even Icelandic historians do not recognize or they disagree about the meaning. Language exists to communicate not to ex-communicate, although some would have it that way. Purity of language, enforced by official purifiers, is an exercise conducted in a society with resources to spend, where hunger doesn’t greet you every morning and go to bed with you every night.

My grandfather built a bunkhús, he told his Icelandic relatives that he´d built a bunkhús, and since he went to Winnipeg buying supplies, he learned to go to the hólsíl. When the Icelandic emigrants were leaving Iceland, there were few fences, there were, however, lots of stone walls because there was little wood and lots of stone. Stone walls are walls, not fences and, in Canada there was lots of wood and it was necessary to fence land, and the Icelandic immigrant learned to build a fens. They learned to build a fens on a hómsteð. There were no hómsteðs in Iceland. The very idea was foreign, beyond imagining for most people in Iceland. It required a new way of thinking.

None of this change, physical, mental, spiritual, was done without sacrifice, without pain, without suffering, without conflict.

Guttormur’s poem, “The Winnipeg Icelander,” nicely encapsulates a society in transition, moving from the past into the present. He was able to do it in a clever, amusing way. GG left us a poem to enjoy but more than that, he left us a picture, through language, of the transition our Icelandic ancestors underwent as they struggled to survive and prosper.