By Ken Kristjanson

The year was 1950.The month, May. The winter had been long and the spring wet. Manitoba and Winnipeg were experiencing the worst flood in history due to the lack of planning by all levels of Government. Consequently, Gimli and District were crammed to the rafters with people escaping their flooded homes.
For paper boys it was “Boom Times.” Summer residents had by necessity opened their cottages and they wanted to be kept abreast of the happenings. The Red River continued to spill its banks in all directions. It was nationwide news and it was beginning to look like the legendary Lake Agassiz would be born again.
Of course to a fourteen year old this was news that was happening far away. Our minds were on the upcoming  “May Long Weekend” when the rides and concessions at Winnipeg Beach would open for the season. In the days before television, the attractions at The Beach were greatly anticipated by people of all ages.  
My pal, Raymond Solmundson, and I had inherited our paper routes from our older brothers. Raymond delivered the Free Press and I the Tribune – still the best paper I ever read. My paper route covered roughly two miles in winter and it took me about an hour to finish my deliveries. Double that in the summer when I delivered to South Beach. The Free Press was the bigger paper but my brother Robert and I managed to convince 15 various relatives and friends to take the Trib. So six evenings a week I would trudge or ride my bike the four blocks to the CPR station located on Centre & Seventh to meet the train which arrived promptly at 7:10 p.m.
The paper cost 25 cents a week.  The Trib got 13 cents (remitted weekly) and I got 12 cents. My earnings were $1.80 a week. In addition, all Gimli paper boys had two bags – one for the papers and one to pick up pop and beer bottles. The pop bottles were turned in for a 2 cent refund. The beer bottles did better at 2.5 cents.
Any paper boy worth his salt had to have a bike. A new C.C.M. at Lakesides Trading cost a king’s ransom – the grand sum of $52.50. Out of the money I earned, I first put 50 cents away in a locked bank that my Mother guarded absolutely. “The Bike Fund”. I still had money left over…Harry Greenberg ran three movies a week and I went to three shows a week. The movie started at 8:30 p.m. at a cost of 18 cents and a big Wynola Cola cost 7 cents. I made sure that there was money set aside to use for the concessions and rides at the Beach. This type of money management stayed with me my whole life.
The Saturday of May Long 1950 dawned clear and beautiful. Raymond and I set off early on our bikes for the 10 mile pedal to The Beach. Bike and rider became one as we sped down the gravel road. Two fourteen year olds on a great adventure, prepared for anything. We had with us tools, tire repair kit and lunch. Thankfully nothing happened and we made the trip in good time, enjoying the spring air as we pedaled.
We parked our bikes at the C.P.R. Station, pre-paying the 25 cent return fare from our saved hoard for the trip back to Gimli. We planned to ride every ride and visit every concession until we dropped or spent all our money. We did both. We went on the bumper cars, the carousal, the airplanes and the roller coaster (our hands down favorite). What a marvelous, care-free time we had. I even won a box of Lowney’s chocolates to bring home to Mother!
At 4:10 we boarded the train with our bikes for the ten mile ride back to Gimli.  We were totally exhausted but armed with yards of stories to regale our friends back in school. We noted the train with its many stops made poorer time then we did. Next year we would bike both ways and save the 25 cent fare.
Our papers were waiting for us when we de-trained. It was raining again and the streets were muddy. I would get wet but the papers would be dry. As I biked to my first customer I was re-energized!  We had had a great time at The Beach. Looking ahead to the end of June, I knew I would be boarding the M.S.Goldfield for a trip to Georges Island. Perhaps more adventures would be encountered there.

The Madness of Suburbia

There is, today, in The National Post, an article on how long commutes are killing commuters. Not in car crashes but by forcing them to sit for long periods of time.
I’ve been lucky. In my first job, I walked across a field to reach the school. It took five minutes. My second job required a twenty minute commute. With the return trip that was forty minutes of having to  sit still. In my third job, I lived five minutes from work. In my fourth job, I lived further from work but it was a good walking area and I could walk to work in half an hour. In my next job, I lived just across the street. In my last job, I walked to work. Twenty to twenty-five minutes each way. On days I felt energetic, I walked over the hill between my place and work. On non-energetic days, I walked around the base of the hill.
I think of my daily walks, those mornings and evenings, with pleasure. I looked forward to heading out the back door as the seasons changed. In spring the crocuses peeked through the grass, the snow drops appeared singly, then in white swaths and, later, when I walked over Mt. Tolmie, the daffodils and narcissi turned the rocky slopes to gold. Some mornings, I saw deer browsing among the broom. Frequently, eagles floated overhead and when I reached the top of the hill, Mt. St. Helen’s sat on the horizon like a Disney Land creation painted large against the sky.
For the summer, I always slipped away to Gimli, Manitoba and Lake Winnipeg, drawn by family and friendship. By the time I was leaving Victoria, it was turning brown and faded yellow for this intensely green place suffers summer drought.
In August when I returned to the Coast and began my commute once more, the yards were awash with late blooming pink lilies. The air was cooler and, some mornings, I needed my GorTex jacket to fend off the rain. Victoria slowly, miraculously, turned green again. Having been away six weeks, I moaned and groaned as I trudged up the hill, sucking wind but relieved when I made it to the top. Six weeks of not walking 2.2 kilometres twice a day, not hiking up the gradually increasing slope of Mt. Tolmie, only six weeks of flat ground, of seldom walking more than a block or two at a time,  and my legs and lungs were painfully out of shape.
There’s more to the risks of commuting by car for any length of time. There’s the stress of rush hour traffic, of course. We have something called the Colwood Crawl. Suburbanites leaving Victoria for the suburbs in Colwood frequently sit, unmoving, then inch ahead the length of a few vehicles, then stop and wait again. After a hard day in the office, sitting unmoving in traffic creates so much stress that it sometimes leads to road rage attacks, curses hurled out car windows, middle fingers poking to the sky. It’s not surprising. In heavy traffic, one in always only split seconds away from the metallic crunch of cars colliding. A moment’s inattention results in bent fenders, frayed nerves and insurance claims—or worse.
What I cherished most about living close to work, to walking there and back in twenty minutes was the hours each day that belonged to me. For years, a relative of mine commuted an hour and a half to work and another hour and a half back. That is three hours a day of commuting. Eight hours a day of work, three hours a day of commuting, eleven hours. Up at 5:30 a.m., on the road at 7:00, at work at 8:30, at her desk at 9:00, finish work (if she were lucky) at 5:00, home at 6:30, supper over by 7:30, get ready for the next day by 8:30 or 9:00, an hour in front of the TV, in bed at 10:00, up at 5:30. There were, of course, as there always is, those days when work didn’t finish at 5:00, maybe not until 6:00 or 7:00. The only good thing about that was the traffic wasn’t as bad. Life becomes a non-stop grind. There is neither time nor energy for exercise or much else.
Suburbia. The middle class dream. Three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a backyard, maybe even a swimming pool, a BBQ. The further out, the bigger the house can be. The schools may be better. The children’s classmates may be better. That is, they may be more like us economically, socially, ethnically. If there are drugs, the drug of choice will be alcohol and since the liquor cabinet is full for those weekend BBQs, it’s just training for when the kids have two kids of their own, three bedrooms, two cars and, maybe, a swimming pool. There may be soft drugs, of course. Soft drugs are okay. They’re bought quietly, even delivered to the door. No harm in a few tokes. Or even a little coke. No, you don’t think so? Who do you think is buying all those drugs imported from Mexico, drugs that people are dying over in Mexico by the thousands? But, but, but, it’s not the same. It’s civilized in suburbia. There isn’t the shooting up, the crazy sex right on the street, the violence, the filth, the disgraceful behaviour, the B and E’s. In suburbia we all sin softly. Until that is someone goes nuts and offs his family and then we’re all shocked and surprised because he was such a nice, quiet person.
Except, except, except to all those buts, I lived in the city and the sins of my neighbours were no worse than those of suburbia. Mind you, it was not hard core, right down town living. I wasn’t out to prove anything, picking a place to live so I could sacrifice my kids to my liberal beliefs. I just wanted a place close to work.
The initial downside of living closer to the city, of course, is cost. The further out you buy, the more you usually get more for your money. My experience showed it to be a false economy. Yes, my place when I bought it was a bit of a wreck. Yes, it needed fixing up. However, when it was fixed up, it was very nice. The upside was I didn’t have to pay for parking. On the way from work, I could stop at the local grocery store and carry two bags of groceries home. Now, that was a good workout. Up the undulating slope of the main road with bags fulI of groceries. I got by most months on one tank of gas. The truth is that if I hadn’t driven across Western Canada and back every summer, I didn’t need my truck. I used it so little that I was able to keep it for twenty-seven years. The low cost of having a vehicle meant being able to make bigger mortgage payments.
I don’t know about others but, for me, the simpler my life is, the less stressful it is. Being able to walk to work, being able to stop at the grocery store on the way home, having my evenings free to work on the yard, to go to events, to not be exhausted at the end of the day, to get exercise every day simply by following my routine, has made my life more enjoyable. I’ve had the time and energy to have birthday parties, to have brunches, to have Easter egg hunts, Christmas gatherings, to enjoy having visitors, to garden, to read, to write a few books.
Maybe all that is available in suburbia but these recent studies have shown that suburbia is killing people. Commuting to work is only part of the cost. The other is the need for two cars because the kids need to be driven to school and to extra-curricular activities. Some parents spend what spare time they have acting as chauffeurs. The cost of two vehicles and their maintenance. The need to drive to the nearest shopping mall for groceries. The need for the gym membership to get the exercise that otherwise is impossible.  
The family car gets lots of exercise, the driver’s heart and lungs and legs, hardly any. If you live in suburbia, maybe that pool is a necessity, maybe using it every day, not for splashing about but for serious swimming, is a necessity. If you’ve got the time. If you’ve got the energy. 
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with toppling over with a heart attack at the water cooler. It’s quick. It’s good for the CPP. It means a job for some young person who wants to live in the suburbs. Tough on the family, of course, unless you have lots of life insurance. If you commute a lot, call your insurance agent, don’t mention the commute, increase your coverage. Or, maybe, start looking at the possibility of living closer to work and walking to the office.

Social classes in Iceland

Embracing our heritage is hard work. It requires effort on our part. Putting on a plastic Viking helmet, drinking an Icelandic beer and gobbling up rullupylsa doesn’t take any effort at all. However, a plastic helmet, an Icelandic beer and eating some rullupylsa isn’t our heritage.
If we are going to understand and honour our ancestors who came to North America, we have to learn what their lives were like. That means giving up nonsensical ideas based on misunderstanding and vain fantasy and replacing it with knowledge.
When I was a kid in Gimli, I was told that in Iceland everyone was equal. No they weren’t. Not even close. Iceland was not a classless society. It was a highly structured society with people slotted into various classes. The classes differentiating among people were carefully defined.
I first came across a detailed list of these classes in Richard Burton’s book, Ultima Thule, published in 1875, right at the beginning of the migration to North America. However, I then read a book I highly recommend, Words In A Wasteland, by Sigurdur Gylfi Magnusson, Historian (Ph.D.), from The Center for Microhistorical Research at the Reykjavik Academy. He is the holder of the Dr. Kristján Eldjárn Research Fellowship at The National Museum of Iceland.
The list Dr. Magnusson gave was somewhat different from Richard Burton´s. Not in any substantial way but enough that I wrote to him to ask about the social strata in Iceland at the time that our people were emigrating.
Dr. Magnusson kindly replied. He says that he used the classifications from Dr. Gisli Ágúst Gunnlaugsson. Dr Gunnlaugsson identifies ten different groups in nineteenth-century agricultural society in Iceland.
Here is the list Dr. Magnusson sent:
1) Crown officials (embættismenn) (who were often farmers as well). This group can be further divided into several categories according to education, economic, social, and political status. 
2) Landowning farmers (sjálfseignarbændur) who were not crown officials. This group can also be subdivided according to the value and size of land owned. 
3) Merchants (kaupmenn) and artisans (handverksmenn). This was until the turn of the twentieth century a relatively small group, but grew in size during the last decades of the nineteenth century. 
4) Tenant farmers (leiguliðar). This group can also be divided into two or three categories according to economic means, size of land, live-stock, terms of tenancy etc. 
5 – 6) Sub-tenants (hjáleigumenn) and cottars (búðsetumenn). The position of these differed slightly. Their social and economic position was in most cases weak, but they enjoyed a household situation of their own. 
7 – 8)  Lodgers (húsmenn) and boarders (lausamenn). Although their legal status varied slightly, these groups enjoyed in theory, at least, a household status of their own, although (particularly in farming districts) they often resided within households where they worked. They could freely dispose their labour capabilities, live as day laborers in towns and villages or be seasonal workers in farming districts. 
9)  Servants (vinnuhjú). They did not enjoy a household status of their own and were forced to sign (although probably their contracts were often verbal) a contract with a head of household on an annual basis. 
10) Paupers (þurfamenn). This group lacked several personal, political, and economic rights enjoyed by others. Paupers can be divided into sub-groups according to whether or not they lived (with the help of poor relief) in a household of their own or were cared for in the household of taxpaying farmers.
Other studies have shown that there was little movement between the social classes. Rich farmers didn’t want their daughters marrying some laborer. They wanted them to marry the sons of other rich farmers. And, in spite of fantasies about the independence of Icelandic women in the 19th C., those marriages would have been arranged because there were highly restrictive laws against men marrying unless they had a set amount of wealth (four hundreds). That would be a minimum. They probably needed a lot more than that to have any security for the family that would inevitably come.
Items 1 and 2 on the list is where the wealth and power lay. The farmers with good land and lots of it, with big flocks and herds, with fishing boats, also were the people who were likely to have official positions. They were the people who got to make the law and enforce it. The relationship between the sheriff and Bjorn of Leirur in Paradise Reclaimed isn’t an exception but the rule.
 Iceland was a highly stratified society. Where were your relatives in these rankings? My great great grandfather and great grandfather on my father’s side were listed as laborers. It looks like they were in categories 7-8. I expect that most of the immigrants who identified themselves as farmers on the ship manifests were from categories 5-6 with some from category 4.
If we are going to embrace our heritage, I think it is far more important to know where in this ranking our ancestors fit than whether in 1210, some ancestor was a bishop or a poet. Or anything else, for that matter. 
The bishops and poets weren’t the people who risked everything to come to North America to give their families a better life.
It’s my great great grandparents and great grandparents whose coming to New Iceland gave me the opportunities for the life I’ve lived. I embrace them all.  

The Women Who Stayed in Winnipeg

The lady of the house, 1890. If your great great amma worked as a domestic she worked for this lady or her friends.
When the 285 Icelandic settlers of 1875 arrived in Winnipeg, around 50 of them who were able to find work stayed in the city. Little did they know how good a decision that would become.
 Your great great amma looked like these cooks and maids in 1890.
 Coming from Iceland where farms did not have stoves, your great great amma had to learn to use one of these. This looks like the one in our kitchen in Gimli when I was a boy. My mother made wonderful meals on it.
The settlers who went on to New Iceland were towed down the river in flat boats, were cut loose before reaching their destination at the White Mud River (Icelandic river, Riverton), arrived late in the season without enough stoves for each family to have one. Instead, they hastily built cabins of logs, something they’d never done. They were not woodsmen as there were no trees in Iceland large enough to use in building. One cabin to each stove. In Iceland, none of them had stoves. In spite of the name, Iceland, the weather is so much more moderate that people could survive with thick turf and rock walls, body heat and the fire used for cooking. In Manitoba, they would have frozen to death.
In 1875 there was a surplus of men. Employment for men, except seasonally (harvest time, for example), was hard to come by. However, there was a shortage of women both as wives and as domestic help. Although Winnipeg only had 5,000 residents, women could find jobs in the city.
 Bread. Bread. Magical bread. Wheat, rye, oats, barley. Grain. Lots of it. Affordable. None of these breads made in Iceland. Great great amma had to learn to make bread like this.
In 1876 a group of 1200 Icelanders arrived in Winnipeg. Some of these also stayed behind in Winnipeg.
These people, the ones who decided to remain in Winnipeg, formed the nuclease of the Winnipeg Icelandic community. This community, with more emigrants coming from Iceland, plus people leaving New Iceland and moving to Winnipeg, by 1890, was large enough to hold the first Icelandic Celebration at Victoria Park.
By 1890, fifteen years had passed from the arrival of the first settlers in Winnipeg. During those years women found jobs in non-Icelandic households. With some staying in the city and some going to New Iceland where the goal was to have a separate colony, the same drama was being played out as had gone on earlier with some leaders saying settlers would be better off integrating, working on the farms of Swedes, Danes and Norwegians who were established. That way they would learn how to farm. On the other side were those who wanted, at any cost, to stay separate, to keep to themselves and recreate a new Iceland.
 Life in New Iceland started hard with no cows, no milk, dreadful living conditions, and got harder when smallpox broke out.
Those in Winnipeg managed to avoid some of these hardships that we hear so much about. But what was life like for them?
First, they had to adjust to seeing non-Icelanders every day. To working with non-Icelanders every day. To being employed by non-Icelanders every day. They had to learn English. Having non-Icelandic employers demanded it. Even harder, perhaps, they had to learn new ways of doing everything. Everything. Living to a different code of cleanliness, behaviour, thinking, relationships, customs, food, clothes. Everything. Right now.
Pounding dried cod so it could be eaten, knitting endlessly or weaving, taking care of sheep, raking hay didn’t prepare anyone for being a good housemaid. If your great amma or great great amma got a job as a housemaid, these were the duties she was expected to perform. This is what she had to adjust to, had to learn.
 “A good housemaid will rise at six, and have her grates cleaned and rooms swept by seven. She will then go upstairs, wash her hands, and make herself tidy for taking to the bedroom hot water if required to do so. In the meanwhile the dust will have settled, and the rooms will be ready on her return to be finished by eight. By nine o’clock breakfast ought to be cleared away and the housemaid ready to strip the beds, empty slops, and set the bedrooms in order. By eleven o’clock the up-stairs work ought to be done, unless extra cleaning is in question. Washing up china and glass, dusting the drawing-room, and other light labour of the kind may take till twelve or one o’clock, by which time a housemaid ought to be dressed for the day, fit to answer the door, wait on the family, and do needlework. Any work required of the servant after mid-day should be of a nature not to soil her garments. At dusk, it is a housemaid’s place to close all the windows at the upper part of the house. Before going to bed she has to turn down all the beds of the family, replenish ewers and water bottles, empty slops, and put everything in its place. If she has the charge of the plate-basket she carries it to the master’s room, together with hot water. Considerate employers will dispense with a housemaid’s attendance by ten o’clock, bearing in mind her morning duties.
 “The day before a wash is intended, all the dirty linen should be looked up, sorted, and entered in a book with the same precision as is observed when things are sent out. Any articles that are in excess – owing to the state of the weather or what not – should be thoroughly dried, folded, and put away, under lock and key, till a convenient season. Saturday afternoon is the best time for the above preparation; the clothes can then remain in soak till Monday, which greatly facilitates the removal of stains, &c.
 “All the best white linen should be put in a separate pan, or tub, and coarse things in another. Sufficient lukewarm, or cold soda and water should then be poured over the clothes.
“Coloured things, flannels, and woollen materials should not be laid in soak. These require washing separately, piece by piece, when the work is in progress. Pocket-handkerchiefs should be first rinsed out, and the water thrown away before they are put in with the rest of the things.
“The next arrangement to make should consist in shredding fine yellow soap into a jar capable of containing sufficient liquid, according to the amount of washing to be done. About a pound of soap to a gallon of water is a good proportion; no soda should be added. Having poured boiling water on the soap, cover the jar and set it aside on the kitchen stove, or range, till Monday morning, when the soap will be found to be melted to a jelly. When lukewarm, take some of this soap-jelly, and mix it in the water in which the clothes are to be washed. By this means a fine lather is easily produced without waste. About a pint of soap jelly to an ordinary tub of water will be sufficient. The clothes will require but trifling rubbing with hard soap in the very soiled places.
“It is a good plan to begin a wash with the flannels. No soap is required for them beyond the jelly described, except for the cotton bands and tapes. Each article should be washed separately in moderately warm (not hot) water. Having washed them in one water, rinse them in clean warm suds, shake them Out, and hang them on the lines at once. Never rinse flannels or woollens in plain water. By doing so they become harsh and shrink.
“The water in which the flannels have been rinsed is excellent for the first washing of the white things. If too dirty for that purpose, it should be poured on the coarse things, having first taken them out of the cold soak.
“The white things will require two washings, rubbing soap on the stained places, if required. The second water should be used for the first process of rubbing less im-[51-]portant articles. By the time the white things are washed, the copper should be ready for the boiling process. The water should only be lukewarm when the clothes are put in, as boiling water fixes the stains instead of loosening them. The water in the copper should contain a fair proportion of soap jelly and about two ounces of soda. From ten minutes to a quarter of an hour after the clothes have been at boiling heat, they should be taken out and plunged into plenty of cold water for rinsing. Having been wrung out of the rinsing water, they should next be put into clean blue water, one by one, passing each piece swiftly through the water to prevent the blue from settling into those unsightly streaks which are afterwards so difficult to remove.
“There is no waste of time in this precaution, because each article has to be wrung out separately, even if a basketful of linen be tossed into the blue water at the outset. Directly ·the clothes are blued and wrung, they should be shaken out and put upon the lines.
A propos of “hanging-out.” Before putting up the lines, they should be passed through a coarse cloth, to remove any dust or soils from the gravel-paths, &c. All articles set in a band should be slightly festooned from the bottom hem-never from the band. Sheets and table-cloths should be hung with the short side towards the wind, to enable the air to blow the folds apart. Shirts should be suspended from the bottom hem. A good many pegs are necessary to hang things out well, and the laundry-maid should be careful not to place the pegs at the corners, without first doubling the corners. Stockings should each have a peg, and should be turned inside out before being put on the lines. Wooden pegs are best.”
And, if she were fortunate, your great great amma was able to negotiate for one day a month off. Plus time for church on Sundays but the time was to be limited to the time needed to attend the service.
Halldor Laxness offended people when he came to New Iceland and read a story that criticized the settlers for having their wives work as domestics. His criticism of the settlers was silly. In Iceland, unless you owned land, you worked as an indentured servant with severe restrictions on your life. Perhaps he thought that if you were a landowning farmer, your wife should be like the wife of the owner of Myri (although, in Independent People, he mocked her) and everyone that worked for you should be a bonded labourer. But farming in Canada doesn’t and can’t work that way. In the early days the struggle was to get enough money to get onto the land, to get it cleared and planted. Men took whatever work they could get, on the railway, cutting firewood, harvesting, that would bring in cash. Women took whatever work was available.
This wasn’t Iceland. It couldn’t be Iceland. To try to make it Iceland was a doomed task. Trying to keep things the way they were had kept Iceland from moving into the industrial age with resulting poverty for the largest portion of the population.
Our fate is evident often in the smallest of things. In Iceland, grain was prohibitively expensive for most people. They seldom ate bread and, if they did, it was only on special occasions. In a Blue Ribbon Cookbook from 1905, 30 years after the settlers landed on a cold, windswept beach at Willow Island, there is a section called “Chart of Oven Temperature for Cakes”. Just imagine. Oven temperatures. That means there are ovens which means there are stoves which means there must be a lot of cheap fuel. There was so little fuel in Iceland that there were no stoves and no stoves means no ovens. No one needed to know oven temperatures. Also, there were no cakes. Cakes require finally milled flour and that was only available to the wealthiest farmers. Plunked down in Winnipeg, great great amma had to learn about wood, wood stoves, ovens, baking.
There are instructions on “Essentials for Success” in baking cakes. There are instructions on different methods of baking cakes. There are nineteen pages of recipes for making cakes, cookies and puddings. They all require grain. They all require stoves. They all require abundant fuel.
Bread in Iceland was usually from rye flour coarsely ground, cooked as a flat bread. In the 1905 cookbook, there are eleven pages of recipes and advice on making bread. Overnight bread, sponge bread, soft whole wheat, graham, bran, oatmeal, date, baking powder bread, Boston brown bread, corn bread, Florida pone bread, Sally Lunn bread plus recipes for rolls, biscuits and muffins.
  White bread. Food of kings. Christian IX brought white bread from Denmark when he came in 1874. In Canada, available to all.
I expect that the women who took work in English houses learned about making bread, cakes and cookies and puddings quite quickly. Learned to eat them. Learned to make them. I doubt if any of them pounded dried fish with a stone hammer. This wasn’t Iceland.

What The Bear Said (INl Reads)

The short story, What The Bear Said, takes place in New Iceland. The settlers have lived there long enough that they have spread out from the first settlement at Gimli and have built cabins. In Iceland, these people survived by raising sheep and dairy cows plus going cod fishing once the hay harvest was over.
Something that many people don’t understand is that the Icelandic settlers were not farmers. That cannot be stressed too strongly. They cultivated no land in Iceland. The home field, that precious island of grass, simply received a topping of dried and pulverized sheep manure once a year. Nothing was ploughed. No seed was planted. Land in Iceland that was productive was pasture for grazing by sheep and cows. The term bonder or farmer is, in a Canadian context, misleading. Icelanders were shepherds and/or dairymen. The land that did grow grass was often marginal, grass production scanty. No matter how hard anyone worked, sheep and cattle could not produce enough food for the population. Essential protein had to come from fishing.
This dual production of food led the settlers away from arable, farmable land in Canada. The settlers chose to settle along the shores of Lake Winnipeg even though the land close to the lake was often swampy. Those who were fortunate, like Gusti Axelsson, claimed higher ground.
The settlement at Gimli has been established, enough that Gusti can row there in his skiff to get supplies.
Gusti lives in what I call the In Between World. He was born and raised in Iceland, emigrated to Canada with his wife and one child. In New Iceland, they have had two more children, a son and a daughter. The daughter,  Ninna, is the apple of Gusti’s eye.
Gusti and his wife are clearing and planting the land. The children do whatever work they can and have the task of picking potato bugs off the potato plants. Survival requires that everyone help.
New Iceland is a truly foreign place. In Iceland, except for the occasional polar bear that arrives on an ice flow and is quickly killed because of its danger to both people and sheep, the Icelanders have no experience with large wild animals.
Bears in New Iceland were, in fact, a problem. Even at my father’s fish camp in the 1960s and 70s, they were a problem, tearing apart fishing camp kitchens, ripping open icehouses and stealing meat. Bears are powerful and fast. The bears of New Iceland must have seemed like mythical, mysterious creatures, lurking in the wilderness.
Folktales often include animals with extraordinary powers and relationships between people and animals that are magical.
The tradition goes back into the earliest Scandinavian mythology. There are Odin’s wolves, Geri and Freki, plus Huginn and Munnin,  his ravens. There are selkies who can transform themselves from seals into  humans and back again. There are troll fisks, eight legged horses, Fenris, the wolf, and the nykur or water horses. And many more. There is nothing strange about an Icelander having a special relationship to an animal.

Gusti, like the vast majority of Icelanders combines being a poet with superstition and a relationship to the natural world that goes beyond logic. When a starving bear with a cub appears, he doesn’t kill it. He shows it mercy. He feeds it and the cub with waste fish, maria, a fish he won’t eat because it doesn’t have scales. “Of all the marine animals, these are ones you may use for food. You may eat anything from the water if it has both fins and scales, whether taken from salt water or from streams. (Leviticus 11:19)

One of the great hardships for the Icelandic settlers was the weather. People with no experience of Iceland assume it is like the arctic. Instead, because of the Gulf Stream, the climate while wet and windy and highly unpredictable, doesn’t have the extreme temperatures of Manitoba. Everything for the settlers was new. The ways of securing food, the plants, the animals, the weather, the landscape. The long cold winters, the sudden blizzards that left deep drifts of snow that lasted sometimes from early fall until late spring were new.
Gusti, in befriending the sow and her cub goes against the general mores of the community. He’s advised to shoot the bear or to hire someone to shoot the bear. He tries to explain what happens to him when he communicates with the bear but is mocked.
His kindness is repaid when Ninna is lost? Or is it? Is it just a myth created by people who have come from a land filled with ghosts, trolls, huldafolk, and magical creatures such as sea cows?
When I was a boy, someone shot and killed a sow with two cubs. The cubs adopted our fish camp and the people in it. They were “wild” animals but they threatened no harm. They were quite curious about what people did. Any danger from them would have been something done on our part that startled or threatened them. However, people often kill other species not because they pose any great danger but because people are afraid. The logic seems to be, “I’m afraid of you so I will kill you.” The same rule appears to be regularly acted out in human relations. At the moment, there’s a tragic case in Florida with a  young man being shot because someone was afraid of him. Also, some years ago a Japanese student (in Florida again) went out on Halloween trick or treating. He was wearing a mask. A homeowner shot and killed him.
Perhaps this story is not just about a different way that the early settlers could (and sometimes did) relate to t heir environment but might be seen as a way of approaching all that is not us.

Embrace your heritage Episode 10

 Hafragilsfoss, waterfalls were an important part of our ancestor’s lives. Why wouldn’t those others who shared the Icelandic landscape live here?
Episode 10 Embrace Your Heritage
However, a heritage is not just living conditions, working conditions. It is also a state of mind. In my blog, wdvalgardsonkaffihus, I’ve written about my great grandfather, Ketill Valgardson and the fact that he was a Christian. Even a small amount of research makes clear  how important religion was to people living in a situation where there was often little except prayer and hope against oppressive laws, a climate that often caused widespread hunger, and a landscape that was so filled with ice and fire that many believed it housed the entrance to hell.
Was it any wonder that people were not only religious but superstitious?
There are thousands of Icelandic folk tales. They exist because people needed to find a way of explaining the inexplicable. Remember, for example, that when our ancestors lived in Iceland in the 1800s, Geyser was still inexplicable. One account after the other of the Great Geyser tries to explain it. Foreign explorers come to study it. It was a wonder of the world.
With isolation, disease and death at every hand, with storms raging on sea and land, with avalanches and volcanic eruptions occurring at random, who would not believe that malevolent creatures were to blame? Who, living in wretched rock and turf houses, without heat, often without enough food, would not dream of the good houses, the good food, the good lives of the invisible people, the huldafolk?
With avalanches of rock, sudden, unpredictable, unstoppable, destroying prosperous farms, beggaring a farmer and  his dependents in an instant, who would not believe that trolls caused them?
With death at every hand, appearing for no apparent reason, with no treatment for diphtheria, smallpox, measles, leprosy, with four doctors for a country where travel by horse was often not possible for a good part of a year, where medicine ordered from Denmark could take a year to arrive, where ice sometimes filled the bays, where grass didn’t grow, where animals became ill and no one knew why, why wouldn’t people believe in ghosts, many kinds of ghosts? Children died in great numbers, so did fishermen, people disappeared on the vast lava fields and heaths. There was always a great source of ghosts and why, when much of this was inexplicable, wouldn’t it give rise to a land thick with ghosts?
When people emigrate, it is not just their bodies that they take to a new country. They take with them their experience, their knowledge, their superstitions, their religion, their fears, their strengths, their weaknesses, their virtues and their vices.
How could it be otherwise?
Icelandic Canadian people have told me about the trolls that lived under local bridges, about the fylgjas that came before some people, about malevolent spirits that plagued some families in places like Gimli and Arborg and Lundar
in New Iceland.
These creatures came with the settlers for as people must have them so must they have people. These creatures are part of the stories in What The Bear Said. They were as real as the wolves and bears, the moose, the deer, all the strange unbelievable creatures that don’t exist in Iceland.
In this scientific age, we feel that science can and must explain everything, although in recent years there has started to be a rebellion against the dictatorship of science.
In New Iceland life was harsh. Many died. One of my great great grandparents children died of smallpox. Two sons of my great grandmother drowned. Perhaps, those who lived in the inbetween world needed trolls and huldafolk and otherworldly creatures plus their religion to help them deal with these events. After all, tragedy accompanied them when they boarded the ships for Amerika.
As for the people of this in between world, I embrace them. The world, the settlers knew, was not a rational place and that what was not rational needed an irrational explanation.  

Embrace Our Heritage Part 8

If we want to embrace our heritage, we must know a number of basic things about the Iceland of the 1800s. Even some of the most ordinary things are so different that, today, they require explanation.
For example, in Canada, land is valued and sold by size. In Iceland our families valued land by what it produced. That value wasn’t expressed in kronur or rigs dollars but in Wadmal. Or it was expressed in how much fish an ell of wadmal was worth, that is two heads of fish and a fraction.
Many valuations were made in hundreds. When I first came across it, the term hundreds, like the term ell, completely puzzled me. How can one embrace one’s heritage when even the most basic concepts are not understood? How can one understand one’s people,  how they thought, what they believed, when something as simple as measurement isn’t understood?
What was a hundred? In 1810, the value of a hundred represented one milk cow or two horses. Each of the horses would be worth 60 ells. That half a hundred would be worth a horse and half a hundred was worth 60 ells of wadmall which was, remember, 2 3/8 English feet.
In 1872 a hundred represented six milk or eight milkless ewes; or eighteen sheep, one or two years old. A hundred is equal to 240 fish weighing over two pounds.
A major concern of the landowning farmers–and most immigrant families were not landowning farmers–was that Icelandic women had a lot of children. Many had 12 or more.
Grazing land was in short supply and when there was poor weather, people on marginal land became paupers could not feed their sheep and cows. A family of parents and twelve children became fourteen paupers. There was a law that said men couldn’t marry unless they were worth four hundreds. That meant they needed enough land to support the equivalent of four cows. That was what was needed to support a family. If you couldn’t afford to support a family, you couldn’t have one. If you want to know what a struggle it was to support a family read Halldor Laxness’s Independent People. Bjartur of Summerhouses attempts it and fails.
Today, we are used to instant communication. The internet, the IPad, the Kindle, the tablet, the telephone, email, courier service, have been around long enough for people to forget how slow communication was only fifty years ago. This is a major change over a relatively short time. I remember when my parents got a telephone. Before that if there was an emergency and people only phoned in emergencies, my mother’s parents who lived in Winnipeg, phoned the local doctor and a member of his family came to get my mother. West of Gimli some local farmers created their own phone line using the barbed wire fences. News and entertainment were delivered by radio.
In the land of our ancestors, there were no telephones, no roads, and a mail system that was inefficient, cumbersome and incredibly slow. In Copenhagen a letter could be posted but only the cost to Iceland could be paid. When a letter arrived in Reykjavik, it would sit there unless a friend re-posted and paid the postage to its destination in Iceland. Letters written in January might not be reach the east coast of Iceland until July. Burton says that “There is a northern courier road which takes five days via Reykholt and Arnarvatnsheiði to Akureyri but in winter it is impassable.” A postman only visits the eastern coast a few times during the year. No overnight courier service there.
Gudmundur Stefansson, an Icelandic immigrant in Canada,  refers to the high cost of mail when he says “Since it is costly to send many letters to Iceland from  here, please let our relatives at Eyjadalsa read this scribble, if you yourself, can read it. I do not want them to hear our news second hand.”
Research about this first world, the world of Iceland in the 1800s is full of surprises. Strange as it may seem, there was a demand from Europe for the hair of Icelandic women. Traders came to Iceland and traveled from farm to farm to buy hair. It is details like this that surprise me, make me realize how little I really know about my heritage.
I have discovered the existence of Luasa-fé, the rent on movable property, especially cattle and sheep, opposed to land, or even land with its cattle. The rent was generally levied in butter.
In the immigrant ships‘ manifests, many of our male ancestors are listed as farmers. However, most of them were not farm owners but share croppers.
Most of our ancestors usually rented farms from year to year, with the right of the landlord to evict them with six months notice. They could be evicted for neglect or misconduct. Rich people with political connections with the sherrif and the local priest and government officials found it easy to prove that poor people had neglected something or misbehaved. Our people were often critized for not having initiative and improving the land they rented but people had little reason to improve rented land because the rents would then be raised.
I think what surprised me most, since I was brought up to believe that Iceland was a country where everyone was equal, was the social and legal ranking of the tenants on a farm. How can we embrace our heritage if we don‘t know what our people were? 
Which of these following six were your ancestors? Mine were Kaupamenn.
1.   Bonders, the land owners. These were the big shots. They had economic, social and political power.
2.   Husmenn. People who have houses at a farm but can´t use the pastures or make hay. They were just renters.
3.    Kaupamenn, labourers working for hire.
4.    Hjaleigumenn, crofters, they occupy a small farm that is part of a larger farm. Share croppers.
5.    Servants Vinnumenn
6.    Paupers,

Tom Oleson, writer, reporter, columnist

Tom Oleson has died. JO called today to tell me. I didn’t take it in right away. There are a number of Tom Olesons around. “The Tom Oleson,” she said.
“He was six years younger than  me,” I replied, not quite believing her. There is disorder in people who are younger, dying.
Our paths crossed from time to time. I’d have a new book out or be doing something odd or interesting and he’d give me a call and we’d do an interview. I guess he had the Icelandic beat at The Winnipeg Free Press. I always enjoyed the interviews.
Life hasn’t been good to Tom the last couple of years. His son, Kristofer, died two years ago in an accident. His wife, Laurie, had terminal cancer and died of a stroke. There’s always a sense of guilt when people you love die. It’s like you didn’t love them enough to keep them safe.
You can read his last columns on the Free Press website hope they leave his columns up for a long time. They’re worth reading. If you haven’t been reading them, go take a look. He’d have been a regular at the Weevil Café. He writes about brussel sprouts and abortion, cell phones and pensions. He has an opinion on everything, which is the mark of a good journalist and columnist. No pussy footing.
The column that everyone should read is a recent one called “She was some woman”. It’s about the death of his wife, Laurie, and, more generally, about mourning.
Although Tom claimed, as many do, that Icelanders don’t have a sense of humour, he had a wicked one. He begins his column with a quote about death by the British writer, Harry Graham.

Poor Uncle Joe has gone, you know,
To rest beyond the stars.
I miss him, oh! I miss him so,–
He had such good cigars.

He then tells us that his wife’s funeral urn is sitting in the room with an assortment of objects around it, a shrine of sorts. Then he adds that his son’s ashes are there in an urn with his favorite baseball cap on it.

Like any good writer, Tom knew that in tragic situations, in situations filled with sorrow and great emotion, it is necessary to avoid exaggerated expressions of feeling because they shove pathos into bathos, opera into soap opera, genuine feeling into melodrama.

Tom was pro. His writing was smooth, easy to read, his articles entertaining and thought provoking.

I’m sorry that he won’t be there to do another interview. We had  sort of an erratic ritual.

The Icelandic Canadian community is poorer for his death. He wrote about a vast number of topics but, time and again, his comments had a line or two about us, about his Icelandic community.

In one of his last columns he says, “”Happy Icelanders” sounds a little bit — quite a lot, actually — like an oxymoron. The New York Times once referred to Icelanders as a notoriously lugubrious breed, and the immigrants who came to Canada in the 19th century brought that same sense of solemnity with them. If you have ever heard a joke about Icelanders or Icelandic-Canadians, please share it — as an Icelandic-Canadian, I would like the opportunity to stop taking myself so seriously.”

It is obvious that Tom took many things seriously but his writing proves that Icelanders do have a sense of humour and that thoughtfulness and caring go quite well with the ability to bring laughter into people’s lives.

INLReadsSigga’s Prayer

1. In “Sigga’s Prayer”, Sigga is a hired girl working on a farm. Her pay might be board and room, 2-4 rigs (the English spell this rix) dollars a year and a piece of new clothing at Christmas. Her fare is paid by her brother who has preceded her to Canada. Her dreams are not large. A job that pays better than the farm, a new dress, a chance to marry.

She is young. The farmer who is a widower finds her attractive and says, when he finds out she is leaving, that he might have married her if times were better. She would have married him if times were better.

“Working people were obliged to contract themselves to a farm for one year at a time. This system of bonded service put severe constraints on people’s freedom and extended to between 35 and 40 percent of the entire population of Iceland through most of the nineteenth century. Its primary function appears to have been to supply farmer with a ready source of cheap labour; In addition, it prevented poor and unlanded people from establishing families, since permission to marry was dependent on control of enough land to be self-sufficient.”(Wasteland with Words, S. G. Magnusson)

One of the reasons that Sigga is leaving for Amerika is because she wants to have a family and there is little chance in Iceland of a man with enough land and cattle to support a family wanting to marry her.

The farm where Sigga lives is plagued by bad luck. Rock falls, poor hay harvests. Rock falls were frequent in some areas of Iceland and could turn a prosperous farmer into a beggar in a matter of minutes. In Paradise Reclaimed, Steinar, the farm owner, spends much of his time collecting the fallen rock and using it to make stone fences. A rock fall onto a home field could destroy a farm even though the sheep and cows spent the summer in the mountains and on the heaths.

Sigga and the other farm workers are waiting and hoping that the farm owner and the other men from the farm will return with a good catch of dried cod. The sources of food in Iceland were very limited. There was only one crop: hay. That was used for sheep and dairy cattle. Milk and milk products were a major source of the Icelandic diet. The other source was dried fish. During haying season, everyone worked at haying because hay for the winter was critical but once the haying was over, farm works and even farm owners would head for the coast to fish.

Sigga and the other farm workers blame a troll for the destruction on the farm. She takes it a precious gift. That precious gift, the dried head of a cod fish, seems little but in Iceland, fish heads were a precious source of food for poor people.

In Canada there is a good chance that Sigga will get a job working at a hotel or private home as a domestic. The job may pay $2-4:00 a month plus room and board. “Domestic service was the most common paid employment for Canadian women before 1900: in 1891 there were nearly 80 000 women servants in Canada., perhaps as high as $5.00.” (The Canadian Encyclopedia). She will soon will she be able to buy a new “English” dress to replace her coarse Icelandic wadmal.

In Ontario in 1871, the population of Ontario was 1,620,851 with 46,100 in Toronto. There was work in urban centres (Hamilton, 26,700; Ottawa, 21,500). In 1873 Winnipeg had a population of 1,869 residents. .By 1881, it was 7,995.
In Iceland there were no cities. Burton (Ultima Thule) says that during his 1872 visit, Reykjavik had 2024 residents and during the trading fairs another 500 would come from the countryside.

Embrace Our Heritage Part 7

Ragnaheiður Straumfjord Magnusson´s spinning wheel, thought to have been made in Canada, now in Lauga Magnusson’s possession (Winnipeg, May 2012) Photograph W. D. Valgardson

When our ancestors came to Canada, butter was still being used as currency. In 1878, Athony Trollope, the English novelist who comes to Iceland as a guest of John Burns on the yacht, The Mastiff, is amazed that there is no bank in Reykjavik. Where there is no currency, there is no need for a bank. Although sour butter could be kept for years without spoiling, no bank wanted to keep its vault full of butter.
Our ancestors, if they were share croppers, paid their rent and debts in June and July with the “wool which was washed and ready for sale; and in September and October by wether-mutton smoked and cured; by grease and tallow, and by sheep-skins and lamb-skins with the coat on.” They reserve the butter and cheese (skyr) mostly for household use. “…Besides supplying food, the animals yield material for local industries—coarse cloth, clothes, frocks and jackets, mittens, stocking and socks.”
The production of wool and turning it into clothes was an essential part of life in Iceland. In Iceland, Burton says “The principal occupation of the women is spinning yarn during the summer, and knitting and weaving in winter. A rude loom fixed and upstanding…stands in every farm. A good hand can weave three yards a day.”
This wadmal was sold by the ell. You can’t embrace what you don’t know or understand and I, when I first came across a measurement called an ell, had  never heard of it and didn’t know what it meant. What was an ell? It was two Danish feet and two Danish feet were two and three eighths English feet. Our ancestors had to be able to do these comparative sums in their heads. In some places, these measures were drawn on church walls so people could check to see that they were measuring correctly.
How important was all this making of coarse cloth, all this knitting? Mr. Consul Crowe (he was an English consul) in his report of 1870-71 reports that there were 76,816 two threaded stockings produced, one threaded, 1,092, Socks, 28,431, mittens, one fingered, 55,601, full fingered, 69 and wadmal, measured in yards, 280. Your ancestors and mine knitted and wove some of those stockings, mittens, wadmal.
In writing a book, you dishonour a people and a subject by making errors. It is your obligation as an author to get facts right. This is as true for fiction as non-fiction. To include errors because of casual carelessness insults the subject. However, even with the best of intentions, the closest attention to the material, errors crop up. Often an author is tripped up by the obvious because it is the obvious that isn’t checked and double checked. The devil in writing is always in the details. I had mentioned in an early draft of one story in What The Bear Said that a farmer was shearing his sheep. However, that detail was wrong and had to be changed. Fortunately, I kept researching and stumbled across the fact that sheep were not sheared. The wool was pulled off when it came loose.
During my childhood many homes in New Iceland had spinning wheels. They were essential to survival in Iceland. In the beginning, they were essential to survival in New Iceland. These spinning wheels, along with carders and combs were a common sight. These spinning wheels were part of the In Between World. However, what was called European cloth was available in New Iceland. There were North American fashions and clothes that more properly suited the climate with its hot summers and cold winters.
My great grandmother, Freddrika Gottskalksdottir had a spinning wheel in her living room. Our great grandmothers’ spinning wheels have pride of place in many of our homes but, today, they are not essential parts of our lives. They are treasures from the past. They are reminders of our families, bits of nostalgia.
In spite of the general poverty in Iceland with its one crop (grass) economy, caused by the cold summers that kept the grass from growing, Burton says “The peasant sells his cattle and sheep to buy for himself vile tobacco; “bogus” cognac; brenivin or kornschnaps,and perhaps even “port” and “sherry;” and for his wife chignon and crinolines, silks and calicoes, instead of the homely but lasting frieze cloth. His grandfather infused Iceland moss; he must drink coffee, while raisins…are replaced by candied or loaf sugar…The Althing has attempted to curb the crying evil of ever increasing drunkneness, the worst disease of the island because the most general”.
If we are going to embrace our heritage, we need to embrace all of it and that includes the Danish trading posts that sold 600 gallons of cheap brandy every year. That includes some Danish trade ships that, instead of bringing desperately needed goods such as horseshoes, metal bars, rye flour, they brought only cheap brandy because it gave the greatest profit.