Graveyards, oooohhhhhh, spooky places when I was a kid. The only spookier place was the undertakers. If I had to go past either, I got to the other side of the street or the road, moved quickly and, sometimes, whistled. I’m not sure if dead people are frightened by whistling but it bucked up my courage. Dead people, I believed, didn’t like noise.

One of the problems with graveyards when you are a kid is that that’s where they put dead people and at that age, the people you know about who are dying are close to you. Family, friends. The deaths often untimely, the grief profound. People are in excruciating pain. You pick up their pain. If you don’t,  people tell you to go out and play and be quiet.

Unless there’s a sudden death from an accident, there are the weeks or days leading up to a death. There’s grief in people’s faces, postures, often anger in their voices, tears, despair. They go from being adults in charge to not being in charge of anything. They are helpless in the face of death.

Death is a mystery, arbitrary, unexpected, unfair, often unreal. Sometimes, it is filled with blame. “You should have….”

Later, as I grew older and more people I knew died, death became more familiar.I became used to its rituals. It’s beginning and end became more familiar. I noticed that the living survived. In a day or two, or a week or two, they went back to their daily chores.

In spite of movies where rotting hands rose out of the earth, the graveyard became more less scary .

Gradually, I became more familiar with graveyards, became interested in who had been buried there. They were, I discovered, filled with both information and questions. I discovered that God would not strike me dead if I stepped on a grave. Sometimes, I rode my bike out to visit.

To me, graveyards were sacred places, places deserving of respect and permanence and I was shocked when I heard that graveyards sometimes were dug up, the remains of people moved to somewhere else so the ground could be built on. It didn’t shock me to discover that graveyards were often neglected. Small towns all across the prairies have disappeared, their graveyards tangled with thistle and grass, the headstones tipping or fallen. The houses have fallen to ruin or been moved so there is no one left to care.

That’s why, when my cousin Dilla said that she’d show me a nearly forgotten graveyard, I said yes, let’s go see it. It’s the Fagrabakka graveyard. At first, it was in the wilderness, then on a farm, now, incongruously, in a posh lakeside suburban neighbourhood north of Gimli.

Dilla Narfason, my guide

It’s rescue started many years ago. In 1987 a ceremony dedicating a headstone with the names of those known to buried there was held.

Stefan Stefanson made the Gimli chapter of the Icelandic National League aware of the cemetery’s state and the League and the Rural Municipality of Gimli worked together to restore the cemetery. A Mr. S. Wood who owned the surrounding land, donated the cemetery plot and fence.

Because of Stefan’s involvement, the site became known as an “Acknowledged Pioneer Cemetery”. There are few headstones. The area was isolated, travel was by boat on Lake Winnipeg, people were poor, stones would have had to be brought in from distant places like Selkirk.

Some names of those buried at Fagrabakka were discovered and one person was buried in 1897 and the last was in 1954.

At the time of the dedication, Guðny {Gwen) Cronshaw was able to provide information as she’d lived near the original farm called Geiröstodum. The area is now called Lake Forest Farm. A rose granite stone was unveiled by Olla Stefanson and Gladys Harris (nee Thorkelsson).

The visit to Fagrabakka was worth the drive and the walk. The cemetery plot in the forest is pleasant. There’s no need to whistle to keep the ghosts away. Those that are still around will be glad of the company. If you go on a nice day, take a book of favorite poems with you and read them in silence or aloud. The early settlers were poets. In spite of tremendous hardship, they found time to write and read poetry and share poetry. It’s not a bad thing to share some poetry with them.

Where you walk, where you sit, where you stand, your ancestors walked, sat and stood, in much harder circumstances, a long way from their homes in Iceland.

(With information provided by Dilla Narfason, any errors or omissions are mine.)


A Night to Remember On Lake Winnipeg

By Ken Kristjanson. Ken is writing a series of articles from  his experiences living in Gimli, Manitoba in a commercial fishing family and his experiences fishing on Lake Winnipeg.

Keenora at the locks.

The idyllic July weather of 1952 was about to dramatically change on this beautiful day during my third summer as a shore hand at Georges Island. The barometer just hit the roof and we knew an early summer storm was brewing. Storms are a part of the great lake but what we did not know was that a rare Arctic high was coming right at us with gale force winds. The Nor-wester hit in the evening after 9 o’clock coffee .It turned very cold. The momentum built as the sun set in an uncertain sky.

Georges Island occupies about 10 square miles and is situated approximately 60 miles from the west shore and 15 miles from the east shore. It’s roughly 50 miles to the north end of the lake. This is a big expanse of water with an average depth of about 60 feet and the relative shallowness encourages huge waves.

Dredging at George’s Island, Lake Winnipeg

We felt secure on our little island. We were, after all, located on one of the finest man made harbors on Lake Winnipeg. Our boats could ride out any storm as they were protected from the elements by high sand ridges on three sides. The south end had a man-made rock breakwater. This was all thanks to the Canadian Government who built the harbor in the 1920s.  In their wisdom and wishing to support the Fishing industry, they realized a safe harbor on the north basin was needed. They dredged out a swamp on the east end of the island. They then blasted and dredged a channel through granite rock into the former swamp. The result was a beautiful half mile square all weather harbor. Quite an engineering feat for the time and a harbor which is functional to this day.

Our temporary summer home was about to be the center of a real life drama.

By now it was 4 a.m. and the breakfast bell was ringing. Even though our boats could not go out to lift their nets due to the severity of the storm, the crews still wanted breakfast. The weather had by now turned even colder. During the night two other lake freighters: the J.R. Spear and the Luanna, had taken refuge in our snug harbor. Their captains decided to forgo their tight schedules for the comforts of our harbor.

Lake captains are like train conductors and they have a driving will to stay on schedule. Blow days mean that the crews perform other tasks such as mending or fixing equipment. I was assigned to man the store. The station manager and my father were going to spend the day working on the accounts. We had 32 fishermen plus 6 shore hands and 3 cooks on our station. Now we had an additional 15 crew from the two freighters. Armstong Gimli Fisheries had the same number of personnel as us. As our store was better stocked we right fully expected to do some business.

My father kept our 2 way radio activated all the time, even though it required that our lighting plant would constantly have to charge up the batteries. The radio was located in the store/office. On a good day ten people could squeeze inside the store but the transmissions were loud enough for everyone to hear outside on the board sidewalk. There was always a steady stream of messages and general banter. Our personnel liked to know what was going on around them so out of courtesy the volume was turned up.

At 8A.M. All hell broke loose.

A heavy Icelandic accented voice cut through the messages and in a calm voice said, “S.S. Keenora calling Georges Island. Do you read over?”

The store went as quiet as a graveyard. Before I could blurt out, “Why is the Keenora  calling us?”, my father calmly answered, “Georges Island to S.S. Keenora  Go ahead.”

The Captain said in a steady voice, “Ted, everyone on board is tired .The passengers are all seasick. The wind is abating a bit.  I am going to bring the Keenora into Georges harbor. Would you see that Armstong’s dock is clear as I will follow the range lights directly into their dock.” My father said out loud to no one in particular, “We better ready two boats just in case.” Two Boat Runners or Captains immediately jumped up to volunteer and rushed to ready their crew. In no time their motors were running and they were ready to castoff.

The shock of the radio transmission now set in. Ten voices said at once where had the Keenora been? The Georges Island lighthouse keeper, Willard Olson, had joined the group and he spoke up. “Well I can tell you the Keenora passed Georges Light about midnight on her regularly scheduled run to Warren’s Landing.”

Keenora at the dock


Warren’s Landing is at the mouth of the Nelson River. The Nelson is not navigable in the dark so the Keenora would arrive at the outside buoys and proceed at day break. The weather was not determined to be a factor so the Captain opted to stay on course. She was low in the water –  loaded with cargo bound for Norway House 20 miles down the River. At this time of year, the Selkirk Navigation Company which owned the boat, started to haul in winter provisions to the Northern communities. She would off load at the Landing and the M.S.Chicama would make the final deliveries. The Keenora carried up to 61 passengers and a crew of approximately 15 men and women.

Word spread like wild fire. Some personnel rushed to the north side off the Island to catch a glimpse of the great boat. Our thoughts were with the passenger and crew. They would have spent a hellish night somewhere. But where?  We all knew the Keenora – she was the best known and best loved of all the lake boats.

The Keenora  was a soundly built craft. The Port Arthur Ship Building Company built her frames and deck beams. The iron hull was prefabricated in Clyde, Scotland and the rest of the boat was prefabricated at Sorel, Quebec and then shipped by flatcar to Rat Portage, Ontario for assembly. Rat Portage changed its name to Kenora shortly after. The Keenora served the communities of Fort Frances and other ports on Ontario’s Lake Of The Woods. Traffic was brisk until the railroad connected the communities around 1915 and the Keenora was sold to Winnipeg interests. She variously was a floating dance hall and cruise ship until in 1923, she became a general freight and passenger boat on Lake Winnipeg

All available personnel on the island were on Armstrong’s dock to greet the Keenora. We were all curious as to her mysterious appearance at our harbor. So with nerve born of curiosity my brother Robert and I boarded  the Keenora. A scene of destruction greeted us. Cargo was strewn everywhere. She had been in a battle with the great lake. But where? We sought out the Captain and the First Mate for a first hand accounting. Both were exhausted. They told us that the storm appeared to be manageable when they passed Georges Light. They proceeded approximately another 10 miles north when the full fury of the storm hit them. They were opposite Poplar Reefs – a very dangerous part of the Lake and it was pitch black. They could not go ahead or turn back because the waves were too great so the two men held onto the wheel all night.

The crew woke the passengers and assembled them in the dining room. Everyone was frightened. They had booked the state rooms on the upper deck and up until yesterday had been enjoying a relaxing cruise. They had never been on a lake this big before. The crew handed out life belts – not so much for the safety of the passengers, the crew confided to us, but to make it easier to find the bodies if the ship went down. The Keenora, with her huge cargo load, could have gone straight down.

But the Keenora was a superb sea boat and she had a veteran crew to run her. In talking to some of the passengers, who were mainly from the U.S. Midwest, we learned how they spent the night. In true Titanic fashion a piano player was recruited from the passengers and he pounded the piano all night while the rest huddled together and sang songs. No doubt “Abide with me” was one of them. At day break the Captain and First Mate timed a turn so they could head south for the safety of Georges Island.

Although the ship had made it to safe harbor, the excitement was not yet over. The ship was secured by the bow and the Captain wanted to make the ship tied parallel to Armstong Gimli Fisheries dock.  One of the over-tired deck hands started hauling the stern hawser to the front but the rope slipped out of his hand. From the dock we frantically yelled to attract the Captain’s attention as the 1 inch hawser sank into the water and wrapped itself around one of the propeller shafts.

Someone in the wheel house heard us and stopped the engine but the damage had been done. Now volunteers from the crew had to dive into the water with sharp butcher knives to cut through the rope so the propeller could be free. It took all day to finish the job.

The next morning the fishermen went out in a still blustery day to try and untangle their nets. Long hours would be spent on this unwanted make work project. While the crew was readying the big ship for travel, some of the passengers came to our store for a visit. They liked the quaintness of our little fishing village. They visited our processing plant, although those with still squeamish stomachs didn’t stay long. They all said they would have stories to tell their grandkids but there were some who were not all that keen on continuing the voyage.

The good ship S.S. Keenora continued on her journey, now temporarily behind schedule. She continued to serve the people of the great Lake for many years to come. She was wisely saved from the wrecker’s ball and today sits proudly in the Selkirk Maritime Museum in Selkirk, Manitoba. For a small fee visitors can explore her various state rooms, crew cabins, engine room and large hold. She sits quietly now – a proud reminder of an exciting period in the great lake’s passing parade.


On The Beach


They’re doing it in Gimli again. Showing movies, some of which are mainstream, but some that are strange and weird and wonderful.

The family movies, the kind you can take an uptight relative to or your youngest kids, are shown on the beach. There’s a framework set in the water. The framework holds the screen. The screen can be rolled up when a film is over. Good thing, too. We had a windstorm and pelting rain one night. That’s part of the gamble, of course. Will there or will there not be a Manitoba thunderstorm  for the five days of the festival?

You have to wait for dark to fall to see the beach movies. You bring a comfortable lawn chair, a drink, something to snack on, find a comfortable location for viewing and relax. The beach is flat and accommodating because the town sends a man and a machine to smooth out the sand.

On the beach, you’ll see movies like E.T., Marley, Blue Hawaii, Jaws2.  You can see these films at home on services like Netflix, but it isn’t the same as sitting on the beach, the sound of the waves lapping on the shore, the stars overhead,  waiting, in the case of E.T. for a spaceship to descend from the sky or in the case of Jaws2, a huge tulibee to fling itself through the surf to snatch some viewer up and drag him away.

There are four inside venues. The Gimli Theatre (itself an historical artifact since it was started in 1947), the Lady of the Lake Theatre, the Aspire Theatre (the Unitarian Church on Sundays) and the Gimli Park Pavilion. The only one of these venues that is meant to show films with subtitles is the Gimli Theatre. The two documentaries I watched in the Lady of the Lake Theatre had subtitles at the bottom of the screen and since I didn’t get a seat on the risers for the second film, I got up and stood along the wall with a lot of other people who also couldn’t see the subtitled dialogue. Since foreign films are one of the attractions of the festival, it might be a good idea to add more risers so that people can see over the heads of the people in front of them. Either that or seat people according to their height with short people in the front row, next shortest in the next row, etc.

There are 130 films being shown over a period of five days. For $55.00, you can attend everything including the events held for the industry and rub shoulders with film makers and wannabe film makers. You can also attend the hospitality events. It’s a bargain. Pickerel supper for two with a couple of drinks at the Beach Boy comes to around $55.00 and you are hungry the next morning. You get to fill up on film for 5 days.

There are films for every taste. You can see major films like A Separation or The Frog Princes, Guy Madden’s Keyhole (which I regretfully had to miss because of another obligation) or an hour made up of short films that might be as little as one or two minutes long. It’s the shorts that are likely to be experimental, strange visions of reality. The shorts are grouped as to subject matter. You could, for example, attend the Inuit Short Program or a series named Truly Awkward Love.

It’s great to see the festival hosting the Global Winnipeg Short Film Awards and Best Short Film for Artistic Achievement, the Emerging Filmmaker Competition ($10,000.00) There’s also The Lake Short Film Contest.

No festival survives on ticket sales alone. The brochure has half page and page ads from some expected supporters like Icelandair, Sobeys and Pharmasave. These companies are strong supporters of local events. However, Sensible Shoes Foundation Inc. and RBC have taken full pages. I, along with three others, gave a talk on stories that might make good films at the Gimli Park and that was supported by The Mauro Family Foundation. The Gavin Wood Law Corp provided box picnic lunches. When I mentioned that I had celiac disease, they whipped up rice noodles, stir fried vegetables and a piece of fish. How’s that for classy?

As the film festival has grown up, it’s added events for the film industry. There are talks on expanding the producer toolbag, a workshop on how to make a pitch, a chance to meet the festival industry guests. Having been involved with drama of various kinds over decades, I know how exceptional it is that these opportunities are provided in a small prairie town like Gimli.

Every day at the film festival, I’ve thought about my grandmother, Blanche Valgardson. In the 1920s, she was writing, directing, producing, acting in plays in Gimli. She took her local troup along the rail line to put on plays at other villages. There were Icelanders from Winnipeg and elsewhere who went to Hollywood pursuing the dream of making it big in cinema. She kept in touch with some of them, asking advice and sending manuscripts. How pleased she would be to see the Gimli Film Festival.


The Gimli Film Festival: Meet The Fokkins

Yesterday, I watched two full-length documentaries at the Lady of the Lake Theatre. The first was a Mexican film called El ultimate bolero. It’s not the kind of film, if I were home in Victoria, that would get me out of the house and to SilverCity. Not that SilverCity would likely show it. The theatre that might show it is The Roxy, a small, old theatre on Quadra that shows a mix of the old, the new and the eccentric. The Roxy’s full name is the Roxy Cinegog. It’s a pun originated by Howey Seigel a previous owner with a great sense of humor. I love the fact that the theatre is advertised as a uniplex as opposed to SilverCity, the multiplex.

At one time, I used to go to Cinecenta, the movie theatre at the University of Victoria. It was the one place in the city where you could see foreign films. Polish films, Hungarian films, Russian films, lots of subtitles, movies that were off the beaten path, the kind that would never get shown at SilverCity. However, students are more fashion conscious these days and they want the latest, not the most exotic.

That really leaves film festivals as places to watch movies made from outside the commercial factory. Festivals are also the place to watch documentaries. For whatever reason, no matter how good they are, documentaries never have the cachet of Hollywood films. They don’t let the viewers fantasize about being a hero or having sex with the latest hunk or honey.

One of the delights of both El ultimate bolero and Meet The Fokkens is that there were no special effects. For years now, stilted dialogue, broken plots, cardboard characters, a clichéd theme have all been excused by having oh wow, fantastic, stupendous special effects. It’s a bit like eating a meal where the meat is burned, the potatoes half raw, the vegetables cooked to a slimy mess but the dessert is great.

El ultimate bolero (The Last Bolero) has a simple story line. A group of Mexican musicians, now in their late seventies and eighties, decide to have one last major concert playing the music they were famous for in their heydays—bolero. Not the Hollywood movie bolero, but the real bolero, full of love, pain and sadness. In their youth, they were handsome, beautiful, and clips from the past and still pictures capture them in their glory days. Now, they have to resurrect voices, make fingers touched by arthritis,  nimble again. Not all have stopped playing and singing. Some still perform, although the main character says, for only one or two hundred people.

They are afflicted by the diseases of old age. One of them, the character at the centre of this last great resurrection of classic bolero music, is on daily dialysis. He knows that time is short. That if this last group performance is to be done, it  has  to be done as soon as possible.

As they prepare, we get to see into some of the pain and love in their lives. We see how brave they are to go into musical battle against time and its crippling effects. They risk humiliation. They must constantly compare their bodies now with what they have been. They are professionals. They promote their concert with the accumulated knowledge and experience of decades.

One of them says, “We are professionals. Even if only one person comes, we will perform.” But, more than one person comes. The professional opera hall is filled to capacity. The music and musicians are not forgotten. The performance is a triumph.

This is a movie for everyone but, most of all, for aging baby boomers, now on the hard side of the worship of youth.

There were a few empty seats for El Ultimo Bolero. When I came out of the theatre, there was already a line up for Meet The Fokkens. I had no idea what to expect from this movie about twin sisters who are now seventy years old, one whom retired from professional prostitution in Amsterdam’s red light district and the other still working. The shocker, the one sister retired at 68. The one still working is 70.

The movie is essentially a dialogue with the sisters and a recording of the sisters  conversation with each other.

The first thing you have to do, that I had to do, was toss out all my preconceptions about what the film might be like. Kitchen sink drama, exploitation of women drama, pornography, exploration of society. Whatever you think, it is wrong.

Louise and Marten are 70 years old. They’ve worked in the red light district of Amersterdam for over fifty years. They are completely unapologetic. Their only real complaint is that when they set up a brothel, political skulduggery got the license taken away from them. People with political power and money stopped what was a good business for them.

They don’t see anything particularly intimate about sex. It is something that men need and are willing to pay for. Scenes in the room where the one sister still practices sex are all about masturbating men. They find their customers amusing. Lots of ministers, they say, lots of priests, even rabbis. The tell funny anecdotes about their clients. They go on a shopping trip for sex toys and talk about how they would work but reject all of them except one.

Did I tell you that they are 70? That they are fat? That they are likeable. That they have a great sense of humour. That they love and take care of each other?

In 70 minutes, the documentary shows us a little about life in the red light district of Amsterdam where prostitution is legal. In the glass fronted windows of the shops, lithe young women in the smallest amount of clothing possible, pose. Compared to them, Martine (is it Martine, they are identical twins), competes, knocking on her window to get the attention of men going by.

It all seems quite preposterous, given our views of sexuality and how it belongs to the young, but Martine, when encouraged to retire, says “There are men our age and they are more comfortable with women closer in age to them.”

I came away bemused, a bit confused, for the film undermined all my prejudices, pre-conceptions, not defending prostitution, but not condemning it either while presenting two women whom it was impossible not to like.

That’s what film festivals are for. To open our minds, to provide us with ideas heretofore not thought, to make us see the world through a different point of view.


Indridason: Hypothermia, summer reading


These are the lazy days of summer. These are hammock days, days for lying on the Toronto couch (if you have one) at the beach and losing yourself in summer reading. If you are in Gimli, Manitoba, go to Tergesen’s bookstore and buy a murder mystery by Indridason. He’s Iceland’s best murder mystery writer. Not just Iceland’s, he’s one of the best. His novels are perfect, I’m at the beach, it’s hot out, I’ve got a cold drink, I want something to read, solutions. If you aren’t lucky enough to be in Gimli for the Gimli Film Festival this week, you can find Indidason’s novels in most bookstores. The quality paperback versions are out so you won’t mind getting sand among the pages.

I’m a great fan of Indridason’s writing and his main character, Erlendur. Here’s what I had to say of Hypothermia in an earlier review.

Hypothermia by Arnaldur Indridason kept me up last night. I haven’t stayed up reading until one in the morning for many years. On the ferry home from Salt Spring Island, I kept reading, and when I got home, I started a fire in the woodstove and continued to read. Except for making a cup of coffee, I did nothing else.

I have a friend who says she is in love with Erlendur, the detective in this murder mystery. He is the main character in a number of Indridason’s novels. I understand. Erlendur is one of those unforgettable characters, as un-Jamesbondish as its possible to be, flawed, frustrating, obsessed. He was a terrible husband and not much of a father. His own life has been completely messed up by the loss of his brother in a blizzard in rural Iceland.

Hypothermia isn’t a police procedure novel. The story begins with the suicide of a woman called Maria. Her death seems quite straight forward. There’s nothing to indicate that anything is amiss. Maria’s mother has died some time before. Maria has been depressed, unhappy, has her own obsession, a desire to know if there is life after death. Her husband is a respectable doctor.

Something, though, doesn’t seem quite right and when one of Maria’s friends comes to Erlendur to tell him that Maria couldn’t possibly have committed suicide, he begins to ask questions. There’s no indication of a crime and official police investigation. However, Erlendur is like a dog with bone. He can’t quit chewing on it.

The brilliance of Idridason’s writing lies in his ability to juggle plot elements. Along with Erlendur’s inquiries into an expanding circle of people connected to Maria, he is still bothered by the disappearance of a young woman and a young man. There seems to be no connection between them. The case of the young man is kept alive for Erlendur because the parents and after the mother’s death, the father’s coming to the office once a year and, gradually, every few years, to ask if there has been anything found of them.

Idridason is highly skilled in that he plants tiny details in the story that at later stages have major implications. In the case of the miss young woman and man, he has a character describe the young woman’s car as being a bit of a wreck, the passenger door being stuck, the window handles not working. It seems one of those background details of no significance. By the time the novel is over, these details turn out to be critical to events.

My friend who says she loves Erlendur also says that she only reads a set amount of pages each day because she doesn’t want to give up reading about him, his travails with his children and his ex-wife, his grief over his lost brother, his determination to follow obscure possibilities until they fit together like a jigsaw puzzle to reveal a whole picture.

Put it under your Christmas tree. Even non-fans of murder mysteries will be intrigued by this complex personality.

The Little Book of the Icelanders


I’m reposting t his review. Kolla mentioned it on Facebook and reminded me how much I enjoyed it.This is one of those books that someone with any Icelandic background at all will find humorous because they’ll recognize themselves and their friends and relatives. Those without an Icelandic background should get a laugh because the short essays reveal the silliness of Icelandic society without being unkind.

This is the second time I’ve read The Little Book of The Icelanders. It was just as funny and as insightful as the first time. Although I’m four generations away from Iceland, I still recognized quirks and behaviours that made me both laugh and cringe.

Tragedy is easy to discuss. We all agree on tragic. Humour is hard to discuss. What is funny to one person isn’t funny to another. However, there is likely to be something humorous for everyone in Alda Sigmundsdóttir´s ebook.

Laxness is concerned with social injustice, Yrsa and Indridason with murder. That can all be leavened by laughter.

Alda had moved abroad at the age of five. She returned to Iceland twenty-five or so years later in 1994. Although she was Icelandic and had been in the Icelandic school system between the ages of seven and ten, she was now a foreigner with a foreign perspective. That has allowed her to observe her fellow Icelanders with a keen eye and make note of their quirks and oddities. She is definitely not heimskur.

She points out in her introduction that tradition and conforming are important to Icelanders. Because of their history sticking together and not rocking the boat have been important. Something that is interesting is how this has changed with the financial meltdown and its aftermath but those comparisons, you will have to do for yourself.

She explains about people, young and old, being addressed by their first names. We should have had this explanation when I was in high school and we got a new principal who was outraged by our disrespect because we addressed him by his first name.

She explains about the oddity of the phone book listing everyone by their first name and their profession. While there are official controls over what you can call a child, there are no controls over what profession you can claim. The result is that the Icelandic phone book has “nine sorcerers, three alien tamers…59 Jedi Masters and (my personal favourite) two hen whisperers.”

Some people have written essays on whether or not Icelanders have a sense of humour. They obviously didn’t grow up in an Icelandic community. Alda says “The Icelandic sense of humour is dry, self-effacing, sarcastic and has a special penchant for the absurd.” Taking yourself too seriously is considered a minor offense in Iceland. In the Icelandic community in Canada, the tradition holds for a cutting criticism is to say that someone is full of himself.

She tackles explaining naming, family names, the politics around the naming of babies including the role of að vitja nafns.

A section on driving in Iceland made me greatly relieved. There are things I do that I can now blame on my Icelandic genes. “Take indicator lights, for example. Icelanders use them very sparingly, if at all. Frequently they’ll put them on in the middle of a turn (as in: look, I’m turning!) or right after they’ve turned (I just made a turn!).

Twenty-to-twenty-nine year-old Icelanders are 95% on Fésbók. Fésbókarlýðræði, or Facebook Democracy is having a major influence on the political situation.

There are too many topics covered to mention them all but only a book about Iceland and the social habits of its population would have a chapter on The Invaluable Social Function of the Hot Tubs”.

Buy it. You can’t put it under the tree but you can put it on someone’s computer. Laughter is good medicine. Alda says she’s signed a deal with Forlagið, Iceland’s largest publisher, for the publication of this book in print form (and electronic form too, in fact). Publication slated for 1 May 2012.

If you want a paper copy, you should be able to buy one in Iceland this coming summer.

You can go to this address on your computer:


There is information about the book and you can purchase it there. Just click on a credit card symbol on the page. It will open up and provide PayPal. The book is 24.99 and worth every penny.


Comic books and guns

There are those who would blame the Batman comic, the Batman movie, for inspiring the mass killing in Aurora, Colorado.

However, I grew up with comic books, I loved comic books, they helped me learn to read, I read every comic book I could get my hands on: Superman, Batman, The Green Lantern, Archie, the Classic comics, war comics. If it was a comic, I read it. Never once did they encourage me or inspire me to commit mass murder or, to commit a crime of any kind. I was on the side of the Super Heroes, fighting for justice.

Although, in some ways, I had a strange upbringing (and who doesn’t), I never identified with the Joker or with any of Superman’s arch enemies.

Comics never separated me from the fact that acts have consequences. Dumb acts on my part were normal adolescent inability to imagine my mortality. That’s an adolescent trait. It makes young men good soldiers. Others may die but they know they won’t. If we are lucky we survive these years and become sensible.

The violence of the shooter at the Aurora theatre wasn’t caused by dumbness. He was a graduate student. He must have some smarts.

Intelligence doesn’t preclude serious personality disorders. It doesn’t preclude all sorts of illnesses.

President Obama used the word evil to describe what happened in Aurora. So did presidential candidate Mitt Romney. I would have preferred they had used other words, words that didn’t absolve us, society, from our part in the tragedy. The problem with using the word evil is that it takes what happened and puts the cause out there, in some other dimension. Saying and act is evil absolves us of responsibility. After all, someone can say evil is always with us so there is no point in trying to do anything about it. Assigning an act to the presence of evil takes away our ability to try to make things better. The words “an inability to understand consequences”. The words “an inability to separate fantasy and reality”. The words “an inability to have empathy for others”. I would prefer to hear those words about the shooter in Aurora. Those words give us back the possibility of creating a better society.

And having used those words, then we could look at what creates an inability to understand consequences, what creates an inability to separate fantasy and reality, what creates a lack of empathy for others. And then we can have a public discussion about what we need to do to create a society where people understand consequences, where people can separate fantasy from reality, where empathy is nurtured.

Before I make the rest of my argument, let me say that I grew up with guns. My father started to teach me to use a rifle when I was only able to pull the trigger. When I was two, he took me deer hunting by towing me on a sleigh behind him. I got my first rifle when I was twelve. I got my shotgun when I was sixteen. I hunted. I skinned and plucked and gutted. I ate what I shot. But I used a single shot .22 and a 12 gauge shotgun. You don’t shoot rabbits and ducks with a Glock pistol. Or any pistol. You don’t need a repeating rifle or a rifle intended for combat to hunt deer or moose.

If I still lived in the country, I’d own a small calibre rifle and shotgun. I’d still hunt small game. But I live in the city and there is absolutely no reason for me to own any kind of weapon. None.

Semi-automatic and automatic weapons are just that, weapons. They are not used for hunting. Hunters do not need semi-automatic and automatic weapons. They don’t need pistols. If they do, then they’re not hunters.

We, as a society, are quite capable of placing restrictions on who may or may not own a firearm. We are quite capable of saying that there have been enough instances of people who don’t understand consequences, who can’t separate fantasy from reality, who have no empathy,  who have used firearms to do great harm. We are quite capable of saying we cannot afford to produce or distribute weapons that are only suitable for warfare.

The person who says, “But I need a handgun to protect myself.” is really saying, “I need a handgun because I might need or want to shoot another human being.”

The shooter in Aurora, if he couldn’t buy weapons because he had no proven need for them, could have stormed the theatre with a knife and done some harm. But he wouldn’t have been able to commit mass murder and wounding. We may not, even with our best efforts, stop someone who is deranged from attacking others, but we can take away the instruments that give them ability to kill and injure a lot of people.

The fact that a rancher in Colorado needs a rifle or shotgun on his ranch is no reason to provide semi-automatic pistols to people living in the Denver or its suburbs. It’s not even a justification for providing a semi-automatic pistol for the rancher. No rancher needs that kind of firepower.

America does not want the Iranian government to obtain nuclear weapons because they think that the Iranian government might do something very harmful with them. I’m all for that. But the truth is that the Iranians have never killed as many Americans as Americans have killed Americans. Americans kill other Americans at a rate of around 16,000 a year. A majority of those are killed with guns.

Just because you can produce something is not a reason to produce it. We can produce all sorts of weapons, hand grenades, mines, artillery, but we know those are for warfare. We don’t sell them in shops all over North America so people can mine their front yard or lob grenades over the fence into their neighbour’s yard.  These are the weapons of war. So are automatic weapons of any kind. Let’s keep guns but let’s make a shooter reload after every shot. That would at least give his targets a chance to bring him down or escape.


The Como Hotel

It’s always a pleasure to publish an article by Ken Kristjanson. Born and raised in Gimli in a family that has been involved in commercial fishing on Lake Winnipeg from the very beginning of the colony, he has a wealth of information about both the fishing industry and the area known as New Iceland.

by Ken Kristjanson

Some years ago I was helping my father straighten up his museum and I came across a magnificent solid brass spittoon. My father said that the fellow he bought it from thought it was from the old Como Hotel. He had enjoyed many a glass of Mr. Shea’s delightful brew in the beer parlour at that hotel. As it was a “men only” establishment, chewing tobacco and snuff were allowed and so there was need for a spittoon


I had forgotten about The Como Hotel, which I saw last in a blaze of glory in 1945. The hotel was built shortly after 1906 when the CPR came to Gimli. It was built across the street from the CPR Station and thereby enjoyed a good business with the travelling public. (It was on Seventh and Centre – the Co-Op Service Centre occupies part of the property today.)  It started life as the Icelandic Hotel, then the Gimli Hotel and finally The Como. The provenance of the final name is not clear although I know that the hotel was purchased by Jon Thorsteinson in 1913. He was a former employee of Shea’s Brewery in Winnipeg and he ran the hotel until he died in 1936. My mother remembers Mr. Thorsteinson from when she worked for him in the early thirties.

I clearly remember the last time I went to The Como. Our morning coffee had been interrupted by a loud banging on the door. It was 10A.M. January 1, 1945 –  New Year’s Day. The banging ceased and the visitor opened the unlocked door and came in. It was Elie Anderson, the Town Foreman.  The Como Hotel was on fire, he said, and he needed every available volunteer to come and fight the fire immediately. The reason for his personal call was because at that time Gimli had very few telephones. We ran outside to see heavy smoke four blocks away.

I was 9 years old and had never seen a big fire. My father said it would be alright if I came as long as I didn’t get in the way. Upon arriving on the scene it was evident the fire, which was later determined to have started in the second story at the north end of the building, was already well established.  I took up a position across the street at the CPR Station and I had a perfect view of the chaotic scene in front of me. The volunteers were doing their best with a daisy chain of water buckets from the artesian well on the south end of the property. The Gimli  RCAF Station sent their pumper trucks which helped, but as there were no fire hydrants in the town, all they could do was race back the two miles to the base for refills. The fire was raging throughout the wooden structure.

Word came to salvage anything possible. The  “men only” beer parlour was located on the main floor at the south end of the hotel. Beer kegs, furniture, anything of value was being frantically hauled to safety and dumped on the parking lot. Soon, word came again from the RCAF Fire Chief to stand down –  the situation was hopeless. The gallant volunteers, some with tears in their eyes, could only stand and watch their beloved watering hole go up in smoke.

While nearly transfixed by the flames, I caught sight of a dog team approaching. It was driven by a fellow who was thought of by the boys in town as something of a hero figure.  He was 17 or 18, the youngest of a large family. He had quit school early and supported himself by trapping and fishing. With his Errol Flynn haircut and  buckskin jacket he was quite a dashing figure. Unnoticed, except perhaps by 9 year old me, he pulled his sleigh up to the pile of rescued full beer kegs. Like a mixed up Santa in “A Night Before Christmas”, without a word he quickly went to work. While I watched, and in what seemed like slow motion amid the chaos all around, he loaded several full kegs on to his sleigh and then gave a loud whistle to his dog team. I caught sight of a huge grin on his face and then in the blink of an eye he sped away.

The hotel burned to the ground that night – it was a spectacular fire.  Salvaged items were sold or disbursed, including, perhaps, the spittoon that is now a conversation piece in our home. As far as I know, none of the stolen kegs of beer was ever recovered and no one held to account, although rumors circulated about an impressive, week-long party somewhere in the country.



The White Rabbit: on losing a brother

We all do it eventually. Die, that is. Although we have a built in denier, thank goodness, otherwise it would get in the way of partying or sex or just enjoying ourselves. Who wants to be constantly aware that the Queen of Hearts is somewhere out there constantly yelling, “Off with their heads”?

We haven’t got time for death, of course. All about us, constantly reminded by the White Rabbit, friends, family, colleagues, race frantically about, from meeting to meeting, from appointment to appointment, from job to job, saying all the while, “I’m late, I’m late, for a very important date.”

It’s not just Alice who lives a crazy life.

The craziness stops briefly with the death of someone close, a mother, father, friend, relative, partner, child. Time pauses.  The world goes on without us for a day or two or a week but there is little time for grief. Life demands to be lived. The cell phone rings, the IPad fills up with messages, the laptop’s email box begins to fill up.  The Queen of Hearts is still shouting “Off with his head.” And the White Rabbit is still racing about declaring he is late. Even at the funeral service, some people are checking their Blackberries, afraid that some critical memo will not be seen in time. That the instant of opportunity will pass, that a client, boss, lover, ignored for the hour it takes to say goodbye to the dead will delete them from their address book.

Life demands to be lived. It has always been this way even before the incessant need to instantly communicate. Life in pioneer times required cows be milked even if tears fell into the milking pail, crops be planted or harvested, water hauled, wood cut, food cooked and eaten. Neighbours, recognizing the paralysis created by death brought casseroles, often helped with farm chores for a week or so. But then they had to return to their own families, their own tasks.

The hardest deaths are those for which we are unprepared, deaths that take place outside their natural time, when the Queen of Hearts’ cry for another head is answered. When my brother was killed in an accident at work when he was thirty, the RCMP came and told his wife, his wife told my mother, my mother phoned me, surprising me at the typewriter working on a short story in the heat of a Missouri afternoon.

“Dale’s dead,” she said. “Dale’s dead.”, then hung up. Dale’s dead, off with his head. The Queen’s shout, the White Rabbit stopped. I sat frozen at my typewriter. Then, slowly, I began to type, believing if I just kept typing, the phone call would have been a momentary fantasy, the figment of my imagination. Except the phone rang again and my mother said this time, “Dale was killed at work. He was crushed between two barges. They can’t find his body in the river.”

The White Rabbit dropped his watch. “We’ll come as soon as we can,” I said. I went into the bathroom and threw up. The short story, the typewriter, the need to publish, the desire for a raise, a promotion, an advance in my career, forgotten. I called the college, explained that I would have to leave for a time, then took a sleeping pill. While I slept, my wife packed the car, got our son and daughter ready for the trip ahead.

Twelve hundred miles, twelve hundred miles, around Kansas City, past Iowa City, stopping in a motel somewhere on the edge of Minnesota. The fields starting to turn yellow and brown with fall. Crossing the border in a daze, circling Winnipeg to highway 8, entering the long dark tunnel toward my home town of Gimli, not wanting to arrive, wanting the trip to go on forever, to pass by Gimli, to keep on to Ontario, Quebec, Newfoundland, a ship to Europe, travelling, travelling, on a journey without end, but the turn north onto Hwy 8, into the dark tunnel between the trees and fields was automatic, done without thinking from long practice, from years of turning here for summer holidays, for Christmas gatherings, for birthday parties and then, after drifting through the darkness, the sign proclaiming familiar streets, childhood houses, I slowed, not wanting to arrive. At midnight I pulled up to my parent’s house.

I always thought of death as full of darkness, of houses filled with tragedy submerged in darkness but my parent’s  house blazed with light. Every light in the house was on. Light poured from windows into the yard. And, instead of sleep or stupor, my mother, my father, my grandmother, appeared on the front porch, as if energized by death.

Grief centres in the eyes. It fills them up not with tears but emptiness as if behind them there were great distances. We held each other tight and tightness led to tears from eyes one would have thought were emptied out, parched dry like prairie soil in drought. On the buffet lay a telegram announcing the circumstance of death but answering none of the mysteries of how it could have happened.

The next day I steeled myself and walked two blocks to my brother’s house to see his widow. Twenty-six, with two children, a grade ten education (she’d been my student some years before), she’d not slept all night and would not sleep in their bed but on the living room couch for months to come. There was crying then, as seeing each other’s face, released our tears. We stood, embraced until the crying stopped.

The White Rabbit sat at our feet, his watch forgotten, his eyes confused. They could not find my brother’s body for a day or two. Lost in a dark river, then found and flown to Edmonton, then Winnipeg, then Selkirk, Manitoba. My parents went to see his body just to be sure that what was happening was real. I needed no such assurance and spent my time digging potatoes in my sister-in-law’s garden.

“They’ll wait,” someone said, not understanding my need to dig, to keep busy, working so as not to collapse upon the bed or floor.

The church was crowded. Commercial fishermen from town went early to their nets so they could come. At the graveyard, my father could not stand and had to be held up by his brothers and, for a time, he could not speak.

This house, this house my mother’s parents bought to give to my mother and father when I was one, in which I ate and slept and played and laughed and cried and fought, where lived I, with my brother, was filled too much with memories. Small as it was, it was big enough to hold the years of our lives. My mother cried at small items found in drawers. They built another place and moved.

But, the funeral held, the White Rabbit stirred, his fur wet with tears, but took from his pocket, his watch and checked the face. And sitting there, he thought, I’m late, I’m late, for a very important date, and so I said to everyone, I must return, there are classes going untaught, classes that will have to be made up, tests that  have to be given, committee work that needs be done, obligations to be met, the children need to go back to school.

Twelve hundred miles, twelve hundred miles, leaving behind the fresh grave, the family and friends, the mixed poplar forests, the fields of Manitoba, through the plains of Minnesota, the hills of Iowa, curving around Kansas City to the sweltering fall heat of southern Missouri. The cicadas hummed like hydro wires in a winter storm. Our neighbours brought apple pie and sympathy. The half-finished story still sat in the typewriter.

Somewhere over there the Queen of Hearts cried, “Off with their heads.” And someone else began a long journey home. The White Rabbit showed me his watch. “Yes, yes, I know,” I said, “in a little while. I’ll begin to run faster in a little while.”



Gimli Film Festival: Bloodflowers 6

There is no truth about fiction and drama greater than “What happens is less important than to whom it happens.” The task of the writer is to get readers, viewers, to care. There is no better example of this than the program, “Coronation Street”. People care so passionately about the characters that they make seeing every episode a priority. There are even books written about the fictional characters.

What happens to someone uninteresting or someone an audience does not care about is of no consequence. The task of the writer is to create characters that readers or viewers care about. Long after what happened is forgotten, plot has faded away, it is the characters who stay with an audience.

The creation of character in fiction is often done, in large part, by internalization. The reader hears the character thinking. The character’s feelings, reactions, hopes, dreams, suffering, are all explained either by the character’s thoughts or by exposition. “Jake was a  homeless boy of seven when he arrived at the farm gate of the Sutherlands. He was hungry, thirsty, tired, afraid.” Or “I was seven years and homeless when I arrived at the farm gate of the Sutherlands.” Third person or first person but internalized.

You don’t want a film to begin with a scene of Jake sitting on a stump thinking “I was….” The film writer has to show, that is the critical word, show, a scene of seven year old Jake arriving at the Sutherland’s farm gate. As a matter of fact, the scene should probably start with Jake coming up a dusty road, dirty, his clothes in poor condition, his tiredness showing on his face and in h is actions, his fear showing in  his actions as he approaches the farm. His hunger can be shown by his digging in an old potato patch, rubbing dirt off a potato and biting into it. But, hunger, thirst, aloneness, fear, all have to be shown.

If the story is going to be about Jake, we want the audience to start building empathy with him right away. We don’t need to pluck the viewer’s heart strings to the point of creating melodrama along the lines of the “Poor little match girl”. However, we need the audience to start caring. The caring can be built up about some of the most improbable characters. The major device for that is point of view so point of view is critical.

From what point will we see the events? In True Grit we see the world through the eyes of Mattie. We share her experience. As an exercise in adapting a piece of fiction read over the story and write down where the point of view is established, whose point of view it will be, is there more than one point of view. Ask yourself what point of view you would use in a script as opposed to the pv in the fiction. This is the work of writing.

The success of a character in a novel is entirely up to the writer. However, when a narrative is moved to drama, that success depends in large part on the ability of the director and the actor to bring the character to life.  That does not absolve the writer of the need to give the both the director and the actor the lines and information with which to work. Even the best actors cannot overcome a badly thought out script.  For this reason, it is important to watch and analyze films that don’t work and to figure out why they don’t work. There are lots of disastrous films out there. Take your pick.

A character reveals who he is, that is, he shares himself with his audience, by what he says, what he does, and given the choices available in any given scene, what he chooses not to do. People are highly complex. Any novel or film can only provide a small part of a character. The writer has to choose what it is that will be shown about the character(s). What elements of their personalities are important to the story being told. In fiction, the question of the beginning writer, often is, why did you choose to dramatize that piece instead of using narrative or exposition. Frequently, the writer can’t answer the question because he doesn’t know the difference among dramatization, narration and exposition.

In adapting material to film, the question morphs into, why, given all the potential scenes, why did you choose to include this scene? What happens in it that moves the plot forward, contributes to back story (exposition), OR develops and reveals essential qualities of the character? On the right hand side of a working manuscript, I always write down notes to myself that say what is revealed about a character in a scene. “Shows generosity, or greed, or ambition, or cowardliness, etc. Remember, in fiction, the narrator could say, “He was acting out of generosity caused by his religious belief.”  In film, “Show.” Of course, another character could say that about someone else. In that case, the motivation of the speaker needs to be clear, the tone, the attitude.

I always assume with a character, that I need to know ten times more about a character than goes into the story. Only then will I  have him act in a way that is consistent with who he is. Only then can I answer an actor who says, “Why does my character do this? How am I supposed to say these lines?”

I’ve had actors ask me these questions. The fact that they had to be asked meant that the script wasn’t clear enough. It needed rewriting. Rewriting. Rewriting. And rewriting. Getting it right. That means knowing your characters inside and out. Knowing more about them than will ever appear in the novel or on the screen.