When Vesturfarar was conceived, it was for an Icelandic audience. However, this ten part series on the descendants of Icelandic settlers in Western Canada has won over a North American audience. Before it was finished, Canadians and Americans were asking that English subtitles replace the Icelandic subtitles and the series be made available for purchase.
The series begins in Iceland at the immigration museums. All the dialogue in Episode 1 is in Icelandic. However, the following nine episodes have large amounts of English with Icelandic subtitles. Because of the visual narration with photographs and film clips from both the past and the present, even a non-Icelandic speaker is able to understand the events. I’ve watched the series twice now and have had little difficulty following the story line as Egill Helgason, the TV host, travels around New Iceland and then to Winnipeg, North Dakota and Markerville, Alberta and, finally, the West Coast.
When the first Icelandic settlers came to what became New Iceland on the shores of Lake Winnipeg, the land was inhospitable. They had intended to land at the Whitemud River (Icelandic River) thirty miles north of the sandbar where they were forced to land their barges because the steamboat towing them cut them loose. They drifted onto a spit of land open to the winter wind with the lake in front of them and a large lagoon behind. The land was not suitable for farming or raising cattle. A second group arrived in 1876. Within two years, many of the settlers had left looking for better land and employment. That pattern of Icelandic immigrants arriving, staying for a time, then moving West looking for greater opportunities has continued to the present day.
Appropriately, Vesturfarar begins in New Iceland. In the Gimli episode, there are some nice moments with people like Robert Kristjanson, fisherman; Lorna Tergesen, proprietor of the historic Tergesen’s general store and bookstore. The finest moment, though, has to belong to the interview with Oli Narfason. He has a fine voice and he plays an accordion brought from Iceland over a hundred years ago while he sings in Icelandic.
The show has two episodes set in Arborg, a farming community with a strong Icelandic heritage. Rosalind and Einar Vigfusson are pillars of that heritage, with Rosalind training a young people’s Icelandic choir for many years. Einar is famous for his wood carvings of birds. Perhaps the finest moment in these two episodes is David Gislason, farmer-poet in the old Icelandic tradition, reciting Guttormur Guttormson’s poem “Sandy Bar” as he stands at Betty Ramse’s grave.
In the Riverton episode, numerous people are interviewed but the most telling moment is when David Gislason and Bragi Simundson sing Lækjar Vísur, a poem sung in a harmony using fifth intervals. The focus on Nelson Gerrard and his decades of work preserving the Icelandic immigrant heritage is so impressive I hope it will bring him some of the recognition he deserves.
On Hecla, Maxine Ingalls story of the eighty-five year old teacher who has escaped from a nursing home is delightful. Maxine’s passion for the island where she grew up shines through.
In the first Winnipeg episode, Stefan Jonasson, the Unitarian minister, does a great job of taking Egill on a tour through various parts of Winnipeg, including the oldest sections where the Icelanders first settled. He explains about Shanty Town and Point Douglas. The highlight, though, has to be the interview with the IODE club. Always an anomaly, the members of the Icelandic Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire are charming, thrilled to be included and it is an opportunity to show the books the club created about the armed forces members of Icelandic descent. Although Iceland never had an army, Icelanders in Canada joined the British army to fight at Batoche. Icelanders joined up in WWI and again in WWII in both Canada and the United States.
The second episode, this time focused on West End Winnipeg (Goolie Town) where the Icelanders dominated the area around Victoria and Sargent, was led by Janis Olof Magnusson. She grew up in the West End. Her father taught at the famous Jon Bjarnason Academy and was a chess champion at a time that Winnipeg was a chess powerhouse. This intellectual side of the Icelandic community was very important but seems, over the years, to have been forgotten and replaced by the prestige of making money. It was nice to see Icelandic intellectual life being recognized.
The search for good land led many Icelandic settlers to Mountain, North Dakota. A local poet, K. N . Julius, is much loved both in North America and in Iceland. He was a hard drinker, his poetry was often sarcastic, sometimes scatalogical, but it could also be tender. One of the most touching moments in the series is when Egill interviews Kristin Geir. She is 104 years old. She was a little girl when K.N. worked on her mother’s farm. He wrote a poem to her and as she recites the poem, it is hard not to shed a tear. There is a lovely photo of her as a child that is paired with a picture of K.N.
From North Dakota, Egill went to Markerville, Alberta. In Markerville, the focus was on our most famous poet, Stephan G. Stephanson. His grandson, Stephan Benediktson, and other family members, described Stephan G’s life on the farm as he wrote his poems that made him famous.
The last episode takes place in Vancouver, Victoria, and Point Roberts with a bow to Osland, BC. Two stories by Robert Asgeirson make this episode a must see. He tells about the consequences of only speaking Icelandic as a child and then of meeting Stephan G’s ghost while filming a documentary in Markerville. Fred Bjarnason takes Egill on a tour around Spring Ridge and tells the amusing story of Christian Sivertz swearing his oath to Canada on an Icelandic book of poetry instead of a Bible.
There are, of course, numerous others interviewed and many fine moments. I think everyone did an excellent job of explaining, describing and performing. Much credit for that has to go to the interviewer, Egill Helgason. He puts people at ease.
This series has been so successful in Iceland that the last episode was shown in a theatre. I’d like to have been there. I look forward to the version with English subtitles. I would like my children and grandchildren to see it. Although, because of lack of time, some places like Lundar or Selkirk or Brandon, or Vatnbygg, Sask., Blaine, Wa., were not represented, a tremendous amount has been packed into this series. What I have heard time and again is that people hope Egill and his crew return to fill in the gaps. Although this series was made for Icelanders, I found it highly instructive. I learned many things and met many people I did not know. Watch for the English version of Vesturfarar to go on sale. It’ll make a perfect Christmas gift.
Watch all ten episodes now at http://www.ruv.is//sarpurinn/flokkar/vesturfarar