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.