The Icelandic Wasteland

Wasteland with Words


Sigurdur Gylfi Magnússon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stina Johnson

The dead hands of the Icelandic Bishops lay heavily on the lives of people for many generations after the Bishops had died. Their stern, disapproving gaze touched lives half a world and centuries away.

Bishop after bishop declared his hostility to dancing. In Scandinavia the opposition to dancing was to doing so in churches or churchyards, after funerals. In Iceland, dancing was considered evil all the time, in every place. But the Icelandic bishops’ opposition went far beyond that. In the 18th C., Christian VI sent

Ludvig Harboe, a Danish priest to Iceland to check on the status of religion and church affairs. (Shades of Christianity Under the Glacier). Harboe and Jón þorkelsson wrote a report for the king. The king responded by issuing decrees in 1741 and 1746 that prohibited Icelanders from any type of amusement unless it was religious.
Culture arises out of  leisure activities. In an agricultural society those leisure activities are often connected to the seasons and harvest. Dancing, singing, feasting, playing games, courting, rituals, all normally play a part in the changing of the seasons. Given the short growing season in Iceland and the long, harsh winters, one would normally expect a great deal of ritual and traditional behaviour, the involvement in public folk lore. Iceland was locked in poverty for long periods of time. Sometimes, epidemics swept away twenty  percent of the population. Farms were isolated. Yet, all of these qualities would be expected to help create folk art, not suppress it. One would expect a rich folk art life.
Instead, Robert Burton says of Iceland in his book, Ultima Thule or, A Summer In Iceland, published in 1875:
“Art simply does not exist in Iceland and, to judge from the little museum of Reykjavik, it was always rude as that of Central Africa: the only attempt appears to be on the part of the goldsmith. There is a single painter at Reykjavik, and his career has been cramped by inability to study in lands where the sun shines. The sculptor and architect have no business here.”
When the Icelandic settlers came to Canada, they brought books. Most of those were, as the bishops had decreed many decades before, religious. Eventually, black Bibles filled boxes at the nursing home in Gimli. What they didn’t bring was art and, because of that, although the emigration is known in words, it is not known in drawings or paintings from that time. Poverty, illness, lack of materials, all would have contributed but other groups suffered privation, yet privation did not keep other groups from creating artwork.
My great great grandfather, Valgardur Jonsson and his son, Ketill Valgardsson, came to Canada in 1878. Valgardur died two years after arriving at Icelandic River. Ketill, although he was young and without resources, made a life for himself. He worked on the railway and fishing. He moved to Winnipeg, working for the city as a laborer and then as a foreman. In 1894, he started a dairy business. Later, he moved to Gimli and started a flour and feed mill.
He had three children, Swanee (my grandfather), Valentinus and Kristin. Swanee married Blanche Bristow. Blanche’s father was English and her mother,  Icelandic.
And here, the invisible hand of the bishops reached through time and space. Not in disapproval because my paternal great grandfather was English. But because of something Kristin did in 1916.  Five young people took a sailboat to go berry picking. They were caught in a storm and all five drowned. Blanche’s two brothers,  Alfred and Herbert, were two of the dead.
The drownings were a terrible blow to the community. This was a community that already had been devastated by the deaths of the small pox epidemic, a community that had been torn by religious strife. A community that had lost many people as they had moved away to farm better land.
At the funeral for Alfred and Herbert, Stina who was around sixteen and already an accomplished photographer, took pictures of the funeral procession and sold them to The Winnipeg Free Press. The community was outraged, in part at the idea of pictures being made of a funeral and, in part, that they would be sold. And, in part, that the photographer was a young woman.
But Stina Valgardsson Johnson (she married Mindi Johnson)was one of the women who were forcing their way out of the tight little box Canadian society and the Icelandic community had created for them.
She continued her photography. Today, her photographs are in the Manitoba archives. Some are famous. They hang in the National Library in Ottawa. They appear in books and on brochures. However, she didn’t just do photography. She did all those leisure activities the bishops would have so disapproved of. She sculpted and did ceramics. She practiced virtually every craft. At Icelandic events she was often found dressed in her Icelandic costume, making lace.
But it wasn’t easy. She could have stuck to just making pönnukökur. She wouldn’t have been mocked for making Icelandic pancakes. When she came to Gimli to take photographs, to draw or paint, to show her sculpture, she was mocked by many. As Burton said, there was no tradition of art in Iceland. There was no tradition to bring with the settlers. In 1878, when Jemima Blackwood, England’s beloved illustrator of animals and country life, came to Iceland, there were no artists to meet her or for her to meet. It was unlikely that anyone knew who she was. 
Stina, with her will of iron, kept producing art. She took photographs, not snapshots, photographs, and she sculpted, and she produced ceramics and crafts of all sorts. It was the world of Manitoba and Iceland that changed to catch up with her.
In Iceland, the change happened after the emigration. In Iceland it was like the people, freed to be creative, were determined to make up for all the years their creativity had been imprisoned. Nowadays, Iceland is a nation of musicians, dancers, artists, craftspeople. The dead hand of the bishops has been pried from the Icelandic soul.
And Stina? Her art has been forgotten but she has given us a legacy of photographs and when she finally quit photography, she gave me her darkroom equipment.
 Photo by Stina Valgardsson Johnson    Ketill Valgardsson and Soffia Sveinbjarnardottir ready to go to church.

Paradise Reclaimed

We should all read Laxness because his books answer many questions.
For example, I knew that a man needed to be worth the equivalent of four hundreds to marry but what are four hundreds? I would have asked Haraldur Bessason but he isn’t with us anymore. So I asked Laxness. He isn’t with us anymore either but his books are still with us and we can get answers to our questions by reading them.
In Paradise Reclaimed Laxness says that Steinar’s farm was worth twelve hundreds “whereby one hundred was the equivalent to the price of a cow.”
If you know about hundreds, then when Laxness says in Independent People that when the Bailiff of Myri’s wife married the Bailiff, “She had added a hundred hundreds of land to the estate as her dowry and had stocked this land afterwards on obtaining her inheritance.” She was the daughter of “a boat-owner in Vik”. Her family was so rich that when she married she brought with her as a dowry the equivalent of a hundred cows. When she got her inheritance, it was so large that she was able to stock all this land with cattle. The rich and politically connected families married each other. The Bailiff wasn’t going to marry some hired girl and the daughter of the boat builder wasn’t going to marry some crofter.
Bjartur, the protagonist of Independent People,  had to work eighteen years to save the down payment on a terrible piece of land, a piece of land on which no one  had been able to prosper . However, with making a down payment on this land, he is able to marry and so the novel begins not just with his purchase of the land from Myri but his marriage to Rosa, one of the female servants of Myri.
He is suspicious of the arranged marriage, the enthusiasm of the Bailiff’s wife for the marriage and he asks his new bride, Rosa, in a roundabout way if she is not already pregnant. It turns out that she is. The Bailiff’s son has made her pregnant and the Bailiff’s wife is using Bjartur to cover up what her son  has done.
There is not much described of what went on at Myri, no flashbacks of Rosa in the hay with the Bailiff’s son, but in Paradise Reclaimed, we see the seduction of Steina. She’s a young, just confirmed, girl, naïve, living on her father’s farm. She has no experience outside the farm. Bjorn of Leirur, is worldly, older man with powerful political connections.
Steinar, the protagonist of Paradise Reclaimed, has inherited his farm from his father. He is not rich. However, he is very careful, treats his land and animals well. He is described as meticulous. He asks Bjorn of Leirur for some mahogany from a shipwreck. In return he says that Bjorn may use his homefield to feed his horses. In Iceland, where grass is the most precious commodity, this is a generous offer. Steinar then leaves for Denmark. In his absence, Bjorn abuses the offer and brings not one or two horses to feed on Steinar’s  homefield but  hundreds. A homefield and its cultivated grass is precious, necessary for survival. Bjorn’s horses destroy it. Bjorn also impregnates Steinar’s innocent daughter.
After Steina has had a son and visits Bjorn one late night to ask him what he knows about her father’ s fate, Bjorn discovers that she intends to leave for Utah to join the Mormons. Bjorn, who has denied that he was the father of her child, decides he wants to keep him in Iceland. That men like him get many young women pregnant and then declare that they are not responsible is clear from the sheriff’s reply. He says, “Yes, I’m branded as an idiot,” said the sheriff, “for not sending you all to jail where you belong.” He doesn’t just say “you” but “you all”.
The gulf between the peasants and the wealthy, well-connected farm families is made absolutely clear in that a few lines after the conversation about his illegitimate son, Bjorn and the sheriff begin to discuss “something that is worth spending words on”. That is a chance to buy a trawler from England, a steam ship that can catch as much fish “as all the seamen in fifty fishing stations in Iceland put together.”

Read Laxness.  Really read Laxness. Don’t just skim his words. Ask yourself how what Bjorn of Leirur did to the trusting Steinar and his daughter, Steina, any different than what the bankers recently did to Iceland? They were trusted. They held important positions. They had strong political connections. They betrayed the trust of the people just as Bjorn of Leirur did. They destroyed people’s home fields.
The Bailiff’s wife in Independent People says, “Whenever a poor man married and set-up as a crofter in the dales, she , too, would marry in the spirit and kiss his footsteps. She therefore lent a large tent for Bjartur’s wedding, so that coffee could be drunk in the shelter and a speech made.” But she didn’t say that she was using him to cover up the indecency of her son who got Rosa pregnant.
And just a paragraph or so later, the narrator says, “Meanwhile the women folks, sitting inside were holding a whispered discussion about Steinka of Gilteig….She had had a baby the week before, you see, and several of the women had been running to volunteer their services in the croft…for all are eager to help when somebody has an illegitimate baby, or at least during the first week, while nobody knows who the father is.”
Laxness tells us what a hundred is. He describes Steina spreading butter with her thumb. He tells us   many details of life at the time the books are about. He helps us envisage the past. That is part of his genius. His eye for detail. His understanding of his society. But he also describes Icelandic society in a way that helps make today in Iceland understandable. When we hear and read about people demonstrating, beating on drums, demanding justice, we only have to remind ourselves of the agent Bjorn of Leirur with his gold and silver coins, and we know why many people in Iceland are so angry.