Christmas Past

I can’t find a suitable winter picture of my grandparent’s house so high summer will have to do.

There we are, the lot of us. I can’t find the photo but I don’t need it. I can see us quite clearly. We’re at my grandparent’s house in Winnipeg. It is a small, tidy blue house with a kitchen, a living room that was turned into a dining room on special occasions, two bedrooms, a bathroom, a basement. It is in a working class neighbourhood. The Italians have started to move in, buying up two story frame houses on twenty-five foot lots and fixing them up.

We weren’t a large family. My mother’s parents, my parents, my brother and his girlfriend, me and my new wife.  Grinning like all get out. We’re in our best bib and tucker. The women in their best dresses. Us guys in good dress shirts and slacks. Only my dapper father is wearing a suit.

We’ve gathered to celebrate.  But what, precisely, is it that each of us is celebrating?

My Irish grandfather came to Canada before 1914. He had three sisters already in Winnipeg so he settled in the city. He got a job as a glazier, then as a drayman. I asked him once why he left Ireland and he said, without hesitation, “I got tired of having to carry a pistol in my pocket.” He was young, he was Protestant, he was living in Northern Ireland. The Troubles were constant.  I expect he was celebrating the fact that since he’d arrived in Canada that he didn’t need to carry a pistol in his pocket, that when he returned to Europe in 1915 to fight for King and country, he’d survived his wounds in the Great War, that as hard as things were in the Great Depression, he managed to hang onto his job.

My Irish grandmother was, I expect, celebrating that she’d met my grandfather when he was on leave and had gone home from the Front to see his family in Ireland, had met her and had saved her from spinsterhood by writing from Canada after the war, asking her to marry him. She’d booked her fair on the Empress of France and, a woman by herself, she crossed the ocean, crossed the continent and now had a home of her own, a daughter and two grandsons. Until my grandfather wrote she had seen her future as a babysitter, housekeeper for her brother’s wife because, even though her brother was the youngest in the family, he would inherit everything. Her own house. Her own husband. Her own child. Grandchildren.

My father was celebrating that he’d married my mother, that he’d survived numerous disasters, both physical and financial, that he was loved and liked by my mother and her parents, that somewhere north, through the falling snow, there was, in his home town, a large Icelandic-English family that supported  him through a number of tragedies. Times were difficult and he had to have two jobs to feed us, clothe us, put a roof over our heads, but he was doing it. He was proud of that. I expect he was celebrating that he had finally been able to buy a car. He’d wanted a car for a long time.

In the picture, my brother, four years younger than me, is tall, taller than everyone else. Good looking, very blond and, as an older brother, I’m not sure what, as a teenager, he was celebrating except being with his family, with his girlfriend. His smile says he’s very happy. In the not too distant future, he would die in an accident at work but in this moment, there is no warning, no presentment, only happiness with the place, the people, the food, the holiday.

The girlfriend? Although they didn’t marry, I expect she was celebrating in that moment because she knew that everyone in the room, not just my brother, loved her. She was the daughter my parents never had, my sister I never had, my grandparents’ granddaughter they never had. The happiness of that moment was so great she and I became like brother and sister and her family and her husband’s family, sort of related by marriage to us, have become a big part of my life. Happiness endures.

My wife? Celebrating her beautiful green Christmas dress she was so proud of, a dress that set off her copper colored hair, celebrating being recently married, celebrating being there in that room, safe, loved, secure, happy that there was a place for her, happy to be with people who wanted her, celebrating our having a place of our own, an apartment in the top floor of a house even though if you went barefoot, we were in danger of getting splinters. Celebrating that she had found a job and could support us as I finished my degree. Celebrating that my parents cared enough about her to buy her a muskrat coat (bought through a Winnipeg wholesale) so she’d been warm while waiting for a bus at five o’clock in the morning as she went to work.

And me? If someone had said to me, that evening, what are you celebrating, Bill? I’d have said, I’m celebrating that I’m in the last year of university, that I’m married, that we’ve found an apartment, that I’m writing, that I feel, in this moment, we’re together, talking, visiting, sharing a meal. I know that I wasn’t celebrating gifts. I have no memory of gifts. I know there must have been some, but whatever the gifts were, they are long gone, long worn out, long forgotten. What I remember is being together, the table set, the supper cooking, the conversation, us sitting on the wine colored, overstuffed couch and on chairs that had been added to the living room for extra seating, happy at being in the light and warmth instead of alone in the dark and cold outside where the wind whipped the snow over the drifts.

That was my celebration. The conversation, the voices, the food being placed on the table, the anticipation of eating, the place at the table, the knowledge that in this moment, we were one. In a day or two, we’d go back to our individual lives, the distance among us would need walking, driving, telephone calls, letters, to overcome the silences of the miles,  but for now we had us. That was something to celebrate.

 

Book review: The Rockey Mountain Poet

Viðar Hreinsson. Wakeful Nights. Benson Ranch, Inc., 2012, 607 pages.

In the 1870’s Icelanders began to emigrate. In Iceland times were difficult. Iceland was the poorest country in Europe and Europe was so poor that massive numbers of Europeans were on the move. They were immigrating to places such as Brazil but the greatest number had as their destination, Amerika. Amerika was not a specific geographic place but a direction, a place of rumour, myths, and letters.

In Iceland, society was still medieval. Although the Icelanders like to point out to everyone that they had the first parliament in history, they conveniently leave out that this annual representation of the chieftains where real power was distributed and enforced lasted a short time. Internal conflict led to Iceland being ruled by the Norwegian king and, when Norway was taken over by Denmark, Iceland was, too. For hundreds of years Iceland was a vassal state, its resources and people sold off to commercial interests.

Although some English travelers in the 1800s made the mistake of declaring that because on Icelandic farms everyone slept in one room, ate in one room, worked in the fields or fished from the same boat, that everyone was equal. Nothing could have been further from the truth.

What they did not take into account was who had the key to the food storehouse, who decided what and how much each person got to eat, what work they did, how many hours they worked, whether they would be employed or, if they were a tenant farmer (share cropper), whether their lease would be renewed. Only one percent of Iceland’s land is usable (not arable, for that assumes that it can be cultivated) and that was for pasture. Wealth was in sheep and milk cows and, for the larger farmers who had land on the sea shore, boats.

Stephan G Stephansson grew up in that society. He was “born in 1853, the population…roughly 60,000)”. It’s capital city was a village. There were no cities. People lived in little isolated worlds on farms in houses made of turf and rock and some wood from Denmark or driftwood. Wood was so precious that some houses used whale bones for rafters.

There were no crops except hay for no grain would ripen.

Stephan’s family was too poor to send him for a formal academic education. In 1873, he came to North America with some people for whom he had been working. His life was different from many of the immigrants right from the beginning because they did not go to Nova Scotia or Kinmount, Ont., or to New Iceland in what was to become Manitoba. He went to Wisconsin and began life as a farmer. He moved a number of times, settling, finally, in Alberta in the Markerville area.

His story is no different from many others except for one thing. In spite of his lack of formal education, he became a poet of great renown. He became known as the poet of the Rocky Mountains. His work was published in Canada, the United States and Iceland. However, he wrote in Icelandic and so, even though he took his material from daily life in North America, his audience was restricted to those who could read Icelandic. Today, as the Icelandic North American population continues to intermarry and disperse, there is the danger that Stephan G will be forgotten.

That is why Viðar Hreinsson´s new book, Wakeful Nights, published by Benson Ranch Inc., is particularly important.

Stephan G Stephansson was not just a poet, not just an excellent poet, but a man with a clear vision of what was right and wrong in society.  He was the conscience of society. He wrote about social issues, spared no one´s vanity or self-importance. His unwavering beliefs about social justice and religious matters brought him accolades but also enemies. His opposition to WWI resulted in a Manitoba MLA who also was of Icelandic background, trying to have him charged with treason.

The book begins with 65 pages of description of life in Iceland. I, personally, would have liked this section to be longer, more detailed, but that is because I’ve done a great deal of research into the 1800s in Iceland. For most readers this first part of the book provides a good historical perspective and solid base from which to understand the impetus for Stephan’s beliefs and actions.

The journey west which follows is well described. It has enough detail to keep the reader focused on what the trip was like rather than on some romanticized version.

The remainder of the book centres on the conflicts in which Stephan found himself embroiled. We are taken into the division of the community between Unitarianism and Lutheranism. Today, the remains of that battle can be seen in the capital of New Iceland, Gimli, Manitoba, with the Lutheran church on Third Avenue and the Unitarian church on Second Avenue and the gap between them like a vast crevasse on an Icelandic glacier.

“Over the years, Winnipeg had become the home of an increasing number of Icelanders in North America. They established newspapers, first Leifur, that lasted only a few years, then Heimskringla (1886) and finally Lögberg (1888).  The latter two papers became a spiritual and worldly battlefield between various groups of Icelanders. Lögberg was liberal in politics but conservative in religious matters, while Heimskringla was conservative in politics but liberal in religion.”

“Stephan examined social issues closely and developed a fascination with Felix Adler’s ethical movement. Adler, a German Jew whose family immigrated to America in 1857, had studied on both sides of the Atlantic and had read the works of Emerson and Kant. In 1876 he established an ethical movement, the Society for Ethical Culture, among radical intellectuals.” “Stephan with a group of farmers, established a society of liberal Icelanders who could accept neither the doctrines of the church nor the church’s declaration that religion was the fortress of culture and progress.”

Translations of Stephan´s poems appear throughout the book. The author does his best to provide the reader with translations of Stephan’s poetry but given the intricate forms that simply won’t work in English, settles for prosy translations that give the reader the meaning of what is being said. Creating translations of Icelandic poetry that capture the quality of Stephan´s work seems like an insurmountable problem. It is a problem that has already and will continue to keep English speaking readers from appreciating the genius that is declared in Iceland for Stephan’s work.

The book plays close attention to Stephan’s family life, the tragic death of one of his sons, the struggle to prosper at farming, his relationship with his wife and children. This helps to make him real, not a caricature of the embattled and battling poet. When he is honoured by being asked to visit Iceland and he tours the country to widespread adulation, Viðar describes Stephan as being worn and small, not the physical giant that some expected. The contrast between Stephan´s struggle to succeed as a farmer in difficult times and his success as a poet brings the reader close to the man whose search for truth in a world constrained by religious and secular dogmatism, makes him human.

I have found nothing to criticize about Wakeful Nights. There are a few typos in the text but nothing to distract the reader. I’m only grateful that the book has been written and published. For me, it has revealed and explained many things about my own ethnic community that I have not understood.

For many in the Icelandic North American community, the simple mention of the conflicts Stephan had with ministers, editors, members of the Winnipeg elite, will be enough for they will already know the background to the struggle. For readers outside the Icelandic North American culture, though, such references may hold no meaning, particularly those to do with the church. It would have been helpful to have had a glossary that explained each of those references but it would have made a large book even larger. One of the joys of Viðar’s writing is that it is easy to read. To have included more background detail in the text would have bogged down the story, taken away attention from the poet. Perhaps Wakeful Nights will inspire others to extract references and expound on them.

It would be wonderful if Wakeful Nights would help to establish a permanent place in Canadian literature for Stephan’s poetry. At the very least, this biography has brought us closer to knowing a remarkable man whose work bridged three countries.

(Wakeful Nights can be purchased from Tergesen’s bookstore in Gimli, from Jim Anderson http://www.abebooks.com/home/jimandersonbooks, directly from Benson Ranch Inc, 251018 Tower Ridge Estates, Calgary, AB, T3Z 2M2 or from Amazon. Local bookstores will order it. Copies will be available at the next INL convention in Seattle.)