The Icelandic Wasteland

Wasteland with Words


Sigurdur Gylfi Magnússon

This is a book that every North American of Icelandic descent should own. And read. And reread.

I‘ve read Wasteland once from the beginning to the end. Now, I‘m reading it, one chapter at a time, from the last, then the one that came before it. It may seem a strange way to read a book but I want to read the chapters individually and, at the same time, to move from the present to the past.

I don‘t know why but I had to order my copy from England. This book should be on the shelves of any bookstore where there is an Icelandic North American population. Tergesen‘s should have a case and Lorna shouldn‘t let anyone out of the store without a copy.

The chapters include topics such as Icelandic Connections: The Lure of the New World, Death and Daily Life, Urban Living: Industry, Labour and Living Conditons, The Myth of the Model Woman: Gender Roles in Urban and Rural Iceland, Children in Urban Areas.  That‘s just a sample. Don‘t be scared off by the chapter titles. The writing is easy to read and the details and descriptions clear.

This is the best description in English that I‘ve come across of both historic description of Iceland and the shift to modern day life. Every chapter is worth reading and rereading. This isn‘t a novel or soap opera. The information requires close attention. I found that it made me thoughtful. This is a book the reader wants to understand.

The chapter most directly connected to North Americans of Icelandic descent is the Icelandic Connections: The Lure of the New World. In it, Magnus says , “The Icelanders were the last of the Scandidnavians to start emigrating to the New World. The main emigrations from Norway took place in the 1830s and the ‘40s, from Sweden in the 1840s and ‘50s, from Denmark in the 1850s and ‘60s, and from Finland in the 1860s and ‘70s….By and large the Icelanders stayed put througout the first decades of the second half of the nineteenth century, in spite of difficult conditions at home such as sheep scab, deteriorating climatic conditions and poor fish catches. This failure to follow in the footsteps of their Scandinavian cousins was probably, more than anything else, down to simple lack of opportunity: until around 1870 shipping to and from Iceland remained very infrequent and irregular.“

“Later, after 1874, the shipping companies that arranged passages from Scotland to America started sending special ships to Iceland to pick up passengers. As the turn of the century approached the fare dropped considerably, from around 200 kr. to a little over 100 kr.“

The author discusses, in some detail, the conflict over emigration, with excerpts from various publications. The excerpts make clear how heated the conflict was.

One of the great strengths of the book, for me, is the copious use of quotations.

In the chapter on Urban Living: Industry, Labour and Living Conditions, he tells us that “In the final decades of the nineteenth century Reykjavik developed into the main centre for manufacturing, commerce, service, transportaiton, communicatonsa nd administration. By 1890 its population had grown to almost 3,900, 5.5 per cent of the total population of the country. By 1910 this figure had risen to 11,600 (13.6%), by 1920 to 17,450 (18.5%) and by 1930 to 28,300 (25.8% ).“ The change was not easy.

“In an article in the newspaper Lögrjetta in 1906, ‘Fátæku heimilin í Reykjavik´(The Poor Homes in Rekjavík), another doctor, Steingrimur Matthiasson, gives a graphic account of the conditions in which much of the population of Rekjavik was forced to subsist. Like other family doctors, Steigrimur was well familiar with the situation at first hand from his visits to families throughout the town.

“‘To start with the basement slum on entering or leaving one generally hits one‘s head on the doorframe. Inside it is dark and gloomy as there is no sight of the sun from one end of the year to the next except as a reflectionin the windows of the house opposite. The air is damp and the walls are rotten and covered in mould. There is no proper heating, just a small stove where the food is cooked and the steam from the pot fills the room and mixes in with the foul-smelling air emanating from all the people that huddle there night and day.‘“

The author quotes from many autobiographies. Icelanders are nothing if not honest and they don‘t try to prettify their daily lives.

Toward the end of the book, Magnus takes us into Iceland‘s present. He, like the people who wrote their autobiographies about life on the farms and in early Reykjavik, minces no words.

“Iceland is in some senses a wasteland. One can, if one wishes, see some kind of reflection of the physical surroundings in the Icelanders‘ culutural obsession with literacy, an urge to impose order on the desolation of the Icelandic landscape, to build a wasteland with words. But wasteland can come in other forms. In October 2008 the population of Iceland sat helplessly as the country‘s entire financial, banking and political systems collapsed around them in the course of a few days.“

He goes on to discuss the economic disaster, the kreppa, and what he believes brought it on and what it presages for the future. I find his take interesting but, for me, it‘s the Iceland before the collapse that interests me in this book. I can read all I want about the crash and its aftermath on The Reykjavik Grapevine, Iceland Review, or in numerous other publications.

If you are interested in understanding Icelandic society, its powerful links to its past, the societal forces that moved inexorably toward creating the crash, why your Icelandic relatives behave the way they do, and many other things, buy this book, read it, ponder it. Give a copy to any of your relatives or friends that care about their Icelandic heritage.

There is a letter in this book that is worth the entire price. It is hard today for people to understand how helpless everyone was in the face of disease. Children nowadays get immunization shots as a matter of course. Before such immunization was available, there was nothing to be done when people contracted diptheria. You lived or you died.

A letter by Elin Samúelsdóttir to her brother-in-law after one of her children had died and while her other children were desperately ill with diphtheria is wrenching.

“I am sending you a few lines. I can only write briefly, I feel so wretched, there is so much pain in me. But again it has pleased God to inflict a deep wound on me. I have lost my darling, fair-haired, my little angel, my youngest flower. Oh! My dear friend, there is no way I can describe the sense of loss.”

Read this book and say a prayer for Elin and for all the others who, through no fault of their own, for they did not make the weather cold, nor keep the fish from coming, nor create the diphtheria, the typhoid, the measles, the myriad diseases the spread among the people, suffered greatly but persevered. Heroic are those who get up in the morning in the face of tragedy and milk the sheep and pound the cod, who scythe the hay, who make the best of what they’ve got.