INLReads: Background notes for Wendigo

Something I’ve always appreciated about people of Icelandic background’s is their ability to laugh at themselves. Sharp witted poetry that deflates egos and reveals less than stellar behaviours have a long history. Vanity and foolishness have always been frequent targets.
Story telling about community absurdities and individual idiosyncrasies are not exclusive to Icelandic society or culture. However, in my experience, such anecdotes, usually verbal, seem exceptionally common.
When the settlers came to New Iceland, they were a homogeneous group. Until they got onto ships to go to England or Scotland, many people had never met someone who was not Icelandic. The port cities in the UK were a great shock. Letters written about the experience are well known. The large horses, the stone buildings, the travel by train, everything, everything was foreign.
Quebec City must have been as strange to people who had spent their lives on isolated farms as some crazed fantasy. Always travelling, trusting to the agents you weren’t sure could be trusted, and sometimes were untrustworthy, by ship to England or Scotland, by train to the  next port, by ship to Amerika, by more ships along the Great Lakes, up rivers, into endless wilderness. With people dying on the way, dying on ships, dying in ports, dying on ships travelling westward, dying on rivers, on barges, on wilderness beaches, in lonely cabins.
In Iceland there were the trolls, the huldafolk, the ghosts, the witches and here, in the wilderness were the people they’d been warned about, the Indians, and with them came stories of Wendigo. There were violent, dangerous gods in the forests that were already terrifying, life threatening.
And Wendigo. Who was Wendigo? He was more than one. They roamed the forest. They were humanlike dogs, evil, practicing cannibalism. If a person ate human flesh, he became a Wendigo. They knew no limits but were driven by gluttony, greed and excess. As part of the transformation caused by eating human flesh, they grew in size and, like a troll, became large.
It is not hard to imagine in those early dark winters, huddled in crowded cabins, ill fed, hungry, surrounded by freezing temperatures, howling storms, people believing in Wendigo. A new country, new terrors. Even in a place called New Iceland, the integration has begun. Guttumor Guttormsson says in one of his essays that it was a joyous day when he got his first moccasins to replace his Icelandic shoes. Terror and comfort from a new culture.
The story, though, is not about Wendigo tearing anyone to shreds and eating him. It’s about the foolishness of the community in squabbling over petty issues instead of working together. The early religious conflicts come to mind but there were other conflicts as well. Perhaps the amount of community conflict that existed was because in Iceland people lived on isolated farms instead of in villages. Each farm was its own community. As one farm owner in Iceland said, “I’m Emperor here.”, comparing himself to Napoleon. If farm owners were self-important little Napoleans, it’s no wonder that they were notorious for being in constant conflict. Visitors to Iceland commented on the amount of conflict between and among the farmers.  Perhaps, it had to do with conditions further back in time with a society that could charge, arrest, convict but had no way of enforcing a sentence. That was left to whoever had reason to enforce it. Gunnar is not executed by a government executioner but is brought down by a vigilante posse.
When I went to university, I did not know the difference between a discussion and an argument. What I had experienced was argument. When people had different opinions, I was used to hearing adults arguing and the arguing often, especially if fueled by alcohol, turned to shouting and shouting to violence. Instead of reasoned discussion there was opinion, opinion often based on no facts. Instead of a sharing of opinion and information, there were entrenched positions which, if challenged, made the person with a different opinion, the enemy.  It took some time before I realized the difference and that people could, with good reason, hold opinions different from mine and that, if I knew my subject matter, I might get them to modify their positions and vice versa. I learned that I didn’t have to be “right” all the time and that there was nothing sacred about my opinions. I also learned that I could work with people who had many different opinions than me: religious, political, social. In a larger way, this was the same struggle that the community in a multi-ethnic society  was having to learn.
This story has as a protagonist a young boy who is, in a dishonest and cowardly fashion, chosen by the men in the community to seek out Wendigo, to steal his cache of furs, furs that the community hopes will relieve them of their poverty. The choice of a young boy allows for his naiveté, for his bravery, for his innocence, for his being able to honestly report on what it is that he has learned. Innocence often reveals foolishness.
It is a child who says the Emperor has no clothes.
The community, in spite of its poverty, retains its pretensions, its vanities and its petty conflicts. The sheep farmers, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, stubbornly don’t move to a better, drier place to raise sheep but build rafts. The settlers away from the village are filled with fears and transfer them onto an imaginary villain. Through all these adult fears and weaknesses, the young boy has to search until he reaches an understanding of the community.
The protagonist, Jon Litla (Little Jon), doesn’t find Wendigo or his furs but he does find truth.   (“At that time Jesus declared, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children”)
 

The Failed Brazilian Emigration

 Picking coffee beans in Brazil. (Wickipedia)
 It wasn’t just Icelanders who were enticed to Brazil.
Michael Ewanchuk, in his book, Pioneer Profiles, says this “In time immigration agents appeared in the villages and began to conduct a very intensive campaign to interest the people to settle in Brazil. These agents offered free transportation to Brazil and told the people that no medical examinations were needed.”
“In Brazil the European settlers had to adjust to the harsh tropical climate and life in the jungle .Those that were settling in the Parana area soon found out that the cost of transportation inland and the cost of land, food and supplies, was excessive. What they saved on fares crossing the ocean was soon spent on food and clothing – employment was hard to find. Soon letters reached the Ukrainian villages which showed that life in Brazil was untenable. They wrote back complaining: “All that we have been able to harvest is black beans and corn, and some vegetables. There is no wheat or rye grown here. We cannot get milled flour. All we are able to do is to grind the corn on a quern and bake corn bread. “
Prof. Joseph Oleskow wrote to the High Commissioner for Canada in 1896. In the letter he says, “In the meantime (settlers) leave the seaports of Hamburg, Bremen and Geneva (Italy) in every week several hundred families from “Western Ukraine” for Brazil.
“This very movement I have predicted, and I have in vain challenged the Canadian Government to help me in turning this flow from Brazil to Canada…the Brazilian interests are supported here with    considerable capital, nevertheless, I say once more, the little sum of say 800 pounds in my hands would suffice to lay the foundation for regular monthly expeditions of some 100 famiilies, agriculturists with necessary means to make a start on a homestead in Canada.”
Oleskow joined with the Hon. Clifford Sifton and federal immigration officials to begin the movement of thousands of Ukrainian settlers away from Brazil and to Canada.
The Ukrainian settlers, although it was now more than two decades after the first immigrants arrived in New Iceland, find themselves starting for one destination but changing for another. With the Icelanders it was Nova Scotia and the United States. For the Ukrainians, it was starting for Brazil and ending up in Canada.
In Michael Stashyn’s account, “Our neighbour drove us to Chorkiv, our nearest station, and from there we left by train for the German port of Hamburg.
“It was the first time that my parents rode on a train, and for the first time they saw an ocean liner….In Hamburg we met many Ukrainians who were not going to Brazil as we were, but to some kind of Canada. They started to convince my parents that we should come with them. “
Michael’s parents do change course. They board the ocean liner for Canada. Like the Icelanders before them, they head across the ocean, into the unknown. “On the fourteenth day, we disembarked and found ourselves in the port of Quebec City. There we boarded a train and headed west.”
Will Kristjanson says in his book , The Icelandic People in Manitoba, “About forty persons left for Brazil, 1863-1873. The precipitating factor was the disaster to the sheep industry, 1856-1860, and the hard winter of 1858-59, the second hardest in the century.”
“Einar Asmundsson, of Thingeyjarsysla, in the North, was a person widely read and well-informed. He had been reading much about Brazil and considered that country the most promising for Icelandic emigration…In 1860, Asmundsson promoted the founding of the Brazilian Emigration Association. Thirty-five persons reached Brazil and several  hundreds were prepared to go. However, transportation difficulties blocked this movement.”
The plans to move to Brazil were opposed by local officials and wealthy farmers. Even so, four men left for Brazil in 1863. Their job was to evaluate the possibility of Brazil as a home for Icelanders. By the beginning of 1865, about a 150 people had agreed to go. However, the plan fell through.  In 1873, a group of 500 had agreed to emigrate to Brazil. The Brazilian government, just as with the Ukrainians later, promised to pay the fare but that fare would be from Hamburg to Brazil. The Icelanders had to get from Iceland to Hamburg and were unable to do so. The Brazilian government, at one point, tried to rent a ship to sail to Iceland to collect the prospective immigrants but was unable to do so. Again the plan fell through. Eventually, only 34 people actually emigrated.
Even though the Ukrainian settlers who go to Brazil do so around fifteen years after the Icelanders, we can see from their experience the difficulties that the Icelandic emigrants must have faced.
Two countries distant from Canada, Iceland and Ukraine, where the lot of the common people is one of such hardship that people are willing to risk their lives venturing into the unknown. In both countries, the people are both caught up in medieval systems. There is hunger, injustice and lack of opportunity. They respond the same way: emigrate. Circumstance, randomness, misunderstanding, possibility, all result in these two disparate groups settling in the same area.
Their choice of settlement area, without any intention of doing so, makes them part of each others’ Canadian heritage, and gradually, through necessity, doing business, then some social events and, finally, intermarriage, their stories become inextricably entwined. Today, all across Canada, there are Ukrainian-Icelandic marriages. Yet, the two written histories have remained separate for no one has attempted to show how the two groups came to settle on the same land (not just nearby land but the same to such an extent that Ukrainians took up land abandoned by the early Icelandic settlers) and how the two communities learned to function together.

If the Brazilian immigrations had been successful, they may very well have ended up neighbours in Brazil. Instead, with the failure of the Brazilian ventures, they became neighbours in the wilderness of Manitoba.
(Sources: two books worth reading, if you can find copies. Michael Ewanchuk, Pioneer Profiles Ukrainian Settlers in Manitoba; W. Kristjanson, The Icelandic People in Manitoba A Manitoba Saga)
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   

Going Viking Maybe?

Guy Maddin made a film called My Winnipeg. Not your Winnipeg, My Winnipeg. Winnipeg from his point of view. None of this, Our Collective Winnipeg, the kind of boring, everybody agrees on Winnipeg and offends no one. Tough on his mom maybe. Might not be great to be one of his sibs since only Guy gets to tell the story. But, it is an eccentric act of genius, because it is his Winnipeg and no one else’s, except, of course, that all of us from Winnipeg, recognize ourselves.
That’s what I was thinking about as I stared out the window today at the relentless rain. Guy Maddin and his point of view and I was thinking about it because I was pondering the question about My Iceland and My Icelandic Canada. My eccentric point of view about my Icelandic heritage. My Icelandic Heritage has a sort of fuzzy edge to it. The fuzzy edge is made up of My Icelandic United States but if I got into that, it really would be a kind of surreal because I don’t really know much about Point Roberts or Boundary Bay or the shenanigans in Chicago.
This is where, on a rainy day, statements like, “I’m a proud Icelander,” lead. Especially when they force me to think about what it is I’m proud about. Once I’ve eaten the vinarterta and the rullupylsa and the plate is empty, what’s left?
I’m not proud of Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis. I know they looked great as Vikings, although Tony Curtis looked pretty wimpy. Kirk looked more like someone who might strike terror into the hearts of helpless English or Irish villagers who had no way of protecting themselves. Curtis looked more like the kind of guy who’d be filling up a sack with the local abbot’s silver while Kirk, baby, was sticking his sword into an abbot who wouldn’t know what to do with a sword even if he had one.
That’s the problem with Vikings. Viking means pirate. If someone says, let’s go Viking, he means, let’s get a bunch of the guys together and go steal, kill and rape. It’s interesting, in the many lectures I’ve attended over the years, the archeologists, anthropologists, historians, and others, when asked by audience members who are doing heavy breathing at the word Vikings, to tell them all about the Vikings, the archeologists, anthropologists, historians, and others, describe them as a bunch of young gangsters, criminals, juvenile delinquents. If there’d been motorcycles, they’d have been characters in the movie, The Wild One. Except Marlon Brando just wouldn’t have cut it as a Viking.
There are always some people who want to reach back to when their ancestors were pirates. The conveniently forget that there are about eight hundred years of their ancestors being sheep farmers who couldn’t defend themselves when some Turkish pirates turned up in 1627 and did the killing, raping and enslaving. Tending sheep doesn’t exactly turn out hard bitten commandos.
It’s true that in places in Europe, the Vikings settled down, had kids, planted crops, raised animals, produced beautiful artifacts. There is a whole academic industry that studies and writes about it. There are massive coffee table books showing stuff made by Vikings. There’s also an entire sub culture that creates a romanticized version of Viking life. In fact, not much is really known about Viking culture. It’s mostly deduced from stuff dug out of graves and reading the sagas. That doesn’t stop people from adding in their versions of idealized Viking life. If you can be Sigurd, warrior princess on weekends, it helps make selling shoes or being a barista bearable.
Think about what it must have been like after people had been killed, their houses burned down, and you sailed into the harbour in front of your Icelandic farm (there were no villages). You pull your boat onto the shore and said, proudly, “Hey, babe, look at all the good stuff that I managed to steal.”

The problem is that settling down in these various coastal areas in Europe, having kids, ploughing fields, raising sheep doesn’t produce fierce warriors so when the Barbary pirates appeared and killed, raped and pillaged, there wasn’t much opposition. They cleared out whole villages in Holland, Ireland, England, all along the coat. It was payback time. Bad karma being acted out. Where were Kirk and Tony when they were needed?
It’s fun to put on fake fur and a helmet and wave a sword around at Islindingadagurinn. Especially after an Icelandic beer or two. The Viking village on the hill in Gimli is great. The people who set up the village and populate it go to tremendous lengths to make it authentic. They make chain mail and cook meat on a spit over an open fire. They give demonstration battles. Except they’re rather clean, have good teeth and credit cards. They’re not going to suddenly start slaughtering the spectators. Thank goodness.
I admire the sagas but those were written long after the Viking age was over. I admire the sagas as pieces of literature. They are a major part of world literature. Thank goodness not all those vellum pages were cut up to make patterns for dresses. However, I can’t say that I admire the behaviour of most of the characters in the sagas. I wouldn’t have wanted most of them for neighbours.
So, when I say I’m proud of My Icelandic Heritage, Vikings don’t rank very high. They did when I was a little kid and I and my friends ran around the yard having sword fights but that was a while ago.

Old documents

Today, as I sorted through a box of loose pictures from my mother’s  house, I came across a rather beat up envelope. It just had my mother’s first name scrawled on the front. I opened it. Inside was a treasure. For years, I’ve searched for pictures of my grandmother’s plays. Once in awhile I’ve found a photograph. Here, at last, were a half dozen pictures of actors in costume, of Blanche in costume. 

Although she was married young and had four children, in spite of all the work that a wife and mother had to do in those days, no automatic washers, no dryers, no dishwashers, no electric stoves, she found time to write plays, act in them, direct them, produce them. My grandfather, Swanee, was a carpenter, and he built the sets for her. 

She was born in 1896, died in 1930. She didn’t have a lot of time. But she made good use of it. She wrote numerous plays. She corresponded with an Icelandic actor in Hollywood. She wrote music and had it produced in England. She also wrote poetry and short stories. 

In the envelope was her obituary. In Icelandic. I spent the entire day, it is now eleven p.m., translating what would be for a fluent reader of Icelandic, a few minutes work. Two lines I left out. The obit writer got poetic and completely defeated me. I don’t think my grandmother would have minded. She loved being on stage and, now, her grandson, eighty-two years later, is putting her back in the spotlight. 
She died before I was born. I grieve that. I wish I had known her. How much fun it would have been to have an amma who wrote plays and music and poetry, who dressed up in costumes, and acted. How exciting life would have been with her living just two blocks away on the same street. 

Her death was so painful that it was hidden away. No one talked about it. I’d never seen her obituary until today. I didn’t know until I was in my fifties that she had been a writer and that, all on my own, I’d followed the same path. Sorry we never met, amma. But here you are, centre stage once again.

That’s her far right, among the classy ladies of Gimli, 1920s style.



Mrs. Blanche Valgardsson
Born 21. March 1896
Died 2 May 1930
Mrs. Blanche Valgardsson, from Gimli, died in the General Hospital in Winnipeg. Because of her illness she had been moved there. After only a short time, she died. Before she died, she was constantly ill for a number of years.
Mrs. Valgardsson was the eldest child of Mr. and Mrs. William Herbert Bristow from Gimli. Mr. Bristow is English. He’s the son of Rev. W. J. Bristow who graduated from Balliol College, Oxford, and was the long time priest at Offenham, Worcestershire. His mother was Margaret Elizabeth Pruen Bristow.
Mr. Bristow’s wife is Gudrun Fridrikka Gottskaldsdottir. Her parents were Gottskalk Sigfusson  and Holmfridur Jonatansdottir, both of whom are long dead. Blanche married Sveinbjorn Valgardsson  . He was the son of Mr. and Mrs. Ketill Valgardsson of Gimli. Ketill came from Eyrarsveit in Snaefellsnessysla. Ketill’s father was Valgardur Jonsson, and  his mother Kristin Brynjolfsdottir Gunnlaugson of Bjarneyjar of Breidafjordur. Soffia, Ketill’s wife was from Laxardalur in Dalasysla. She was the daughter of John Sveinbjarnason.
Bjorn and Blanche were married on the 8th of Nov., 1913. Their children are Earl Sveinbjorn, Alfred Herbert, Kelly Allan Arthur, Forence Glady Gudrun.
Sveinbjorn was a carpenter but sometimes he went commercial fishing. The long illness of his wife was difficult but he did his utmost for her and dealt with her illness wonderfully well.
The struggle against death was long and the death of the young mother a great loss. Along with Bjorn, there are four children to mourn her loss.
Mrs. Valgardsson was highly artistic and talented and loved art of all kinds. She had been involved with drama for some time in Gimli. Her funeral took place from her home on 6 May. A large number of friends and relatives attended the funeral. She was laid to rest in the Gimli graveyard.
Sig. Olafsson.

Our Hockey Dreams

Photo: the Gimli PeeWees. They were champs. Their dream was to play as Bantams, then Midgets, then as a member of the Gimli Wolves. There were dreams of being like our local heroes. That’s me in the goalie pads. That’s where they put you when you can’t skate, stick handle or shoot. You just  need to get in the way of the puck. If anyone has a picture from the 50s of the Gimli Wolves in action, and  you send it to me, I’ll add it to this post.
How can you separate out growing up in an Icelandic Canadian town like Gimli and growing up in a small town in rural Manitoba?
Take, for instance, hockey.
Hockey for Icelandic Canadians, particularly for Icelandic Winnipegers, was big for a while because of the Falcons winning the first Olympic competition but then it died down. By the end of the forties and beginning of the fifties, no one talked about the Falcons. 
According to Red Magnusson–one of the best, if not the best and most dedicated of the hockey playes to come out of Gimli–the Gimli team was just called the Seniors until 1951 when they became the Gimli Wolves. 
What I heard about were the Gimli Wolves, the Teulon Tigers, the Riverton Lions. Our hot players were local boys, not the hired help and they were local heroes. We knew how many goals they scored, who was the best stick handler, whose slap shot would rip your head off.
The games were often noisy with a lot of yelling and screaming and pounding on the boards. We’d be on the North side of the rink where there was only room to stand. At the far end on this side, snow scraped off the ice reached as high as the top of the boards that edged the ice like a fence. You could stand up there for a great view but risked being hit by a wild shot on goal. 
We hungered for broken hockey sticks. When they were thrown over the boards, we scrambled for them, kept them as treasures. They were, to us, like broken gladiator swords, wielded by our heroes of the moment.
The noise of players hitting the boards, of hockey sticks clashing, of the fans yelling, of our pounding the broken sticks flat onto the boards, made a tremendous amount of noise because of the echo in the cavernous space. As we yelled and pounded, strings of frost dropped from the rafters.
The games were fast, the action moving back and forth, first around one goal and then, in seconds, around the other goal. Our triumph turned to fear in moments. The goalies guarded their creases with ferocity. 
Breakaways were often greeted with a moment’s stunned silence, then waves of yelling.
When a period was over, we streamed into the narrow, enclosed front of the rink to get warm and if we had twenty five cents, we got a hot dog plus a coke. To get an order taken, we had to cram into the crowd in front of the concession stand. There was no orderly line. We were an excited mob. The couple behind the counter were pulling wieners out of a pot of boiling water as fast as they could, slapping them on buns. We slathered mustard and green relish on them. Wolfed them down.
When the break was over, we went back to the north side of the rink. Only wimps stayed in the heated enclosed room that extended across the entire front of the rink. There was no real view there. The windows were covered with a thick wire mesh. These spectators were at the east end of the rink and couldn’t see the action at the far end. They were always craning their necks to try to see what was happening further down the ice. Somebody was always saying “What happened, what happened?” when the action was on the other side of the blue line.
On the south side of the rink there were wooden bleachers. People who sat there brought cushions to sit on and blankets to cover their laps and legs.  Grownups sat there in rows, their heads moving as if on a single string as the action moved up and down the ice. When there was a scramble in front of the net, people stood up, yelling and waving their arms.
We stood along the boards on the other side of the rink. There were no seats here. We were ready to jump back if a stick was swung high or a player was boarded in front of us. We kept warm by constantly moving up and down the alleyway made by the boards and the arched outside wall.
Here, also, we could crowd close to the team boxes and the penalty box.
Our players were lumpy heroes. Under their team stockings were leg pads, then their padded pants, their gloves, the jersey over their shoulder pads. No one wore a helmet.
When they stopped, their skates threw up waves of spray. When they dug in, their skates left holes in the ice.
Sometimes, when games were close, the RCMP had to be called to escort the visiting players to their vehicles. Sometimes it did no good and players and spectators mixed it up on the ice.
Nearly everyone worked for themselves in those days and businessmen could shut down the butcher shop or grocery store or barber shop and form a cavalcade to whatever out-of-town game was playing that night. Local farmers milked their cows early so they could get to the games.
There was no hockey in Iceland. Hockey was a Canadian game played by kids with Icelandic names but it was played all over the prairies, in towns like Winnipeg Beach and Petersfield and Clandeboye. And, yet, for me, those days and nights at the local rink are inextricably linked with Gimli and Icelandic, as much part of the mosaic created by Icelandic coffee made in a poki or by celebrating Islingdingadagurin.

Christmas Day in Gimli

(from my diary)

There were other magical days. Easter. Islindingadagurinn. The day school got out. Thanksgiving. Birthdays. But Christmas always had its own magic. Part of that were the songs. Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. Christmas Bells. Good King Wenceslas. Everyone has his or her own favorites. There aren’t a lot of rousing songs about Easter or Islindingadagurinn. I don’t remember a plethora of songs about school getting out. There might have been a tune or two about Thanksgiving but I don’t remember them offhand. There’s Happy Birthday but it’s brief and once it’s over, there aren’t any lively tunes about growing older.
Maybe the magic of Christmas is founded in its religious beginning. Maybe it’s founded on the mixture of pagan beliefs and Christian beliefs. Mistletoe and kissing and Christ being born. Mistletoe and kissing can lead to kids being born. No question about it. But I doubt if that had anything to do with Christ’s being born because his was to be a virgin birth.
When I was a kid there was nothing more important than the Christmas Eve service at the church. That’s because, ham that I am, I always got a few lines to say and a chance to put on a costume. I thought I always got a part because I was a brilliant actor. My mother said it was because I learned my lines. The church was always packed for the service. No empty pews at Christmas. We got small brown paper bags with candy and an orange. This was before the ToysRUs mentality took hold. A peppermint in one’s mouth with an orange in one’s pocket was a taste of heaven. That’s because nothing more was expected. TV hadn’t arrived to tell us about all the things we should want and make us unhappy because we didn’t have them.
Normally, after the service, we went home and opened our presents. Then Christmas morning there would be one present from Santa Clause.  We were very lucky children, my brother and I, because between my parents and my grandparents there was always a gift under the tree. The gifts were often something useful, like clothes we needed but sometimes there were a baseballs and bat, a bow and arrow, a football, not all at once but one for each year. There was always a book, usually one of the Hardy Boys series. Christmas wouldn’t have been Christmas without a book. I didn’t know then that it was an Icelandic tradition to give a book at Christmas.
There was the Christmas tree, of course. We took the truck into the country and idled down country roads until we saw something the right size and shape, then waded through snow and chopped it down.  My father set it up in the living room and my mother directed the decorating. A lot of the decorations were handmade, knitted or cut from tin can lids. There were some store bought decorations and a string of lights.
People try to make Christmas however they can. Valerie Kline, my friend for twenty years, was born in an internment camp in Uganda during the war. There were no Christmas trees so her father decided to make one. He found a narrow tree trunk, drilled holes all around it. Collected palm fronds and stuck them in the holes. The family made decorations and since in their native Germany and Hungary they lit candles on the tree, they collected candle stubs , set them on bits of tin and fastened them to the fronds. On Christmas Eve, they stood back to admire their tree as Valerie’s mother lit the candles. Then in one great whoosh the dry fronds went up in flames and Valerie’s dad, Gene, grabbed the tree and flung it through the door. It was as Valerie often said, a Kodak moment.
More important than the gifts was the company. If I had to forgo one or the other, I’d have done without the gifts. As I kneeled on the couch so I could watch out the front window through the darkness and the blowing snow for my grandparents, I vibrated with excitement. They came down by bus and walked from the bus stop to our house. “Here they are, here they are,” I’d shout. My grandmother always wore a Persian lamb coat and black boots with a fur fringe. My grandfather wore a heavy wool coat that reached his ankles. Then uncles and aunts and cousins and best friends started to appear until the house was bursting with conversation and laughter. The coats and parkas piled up my parents’ bed. The smell of the turkey roasting, the cranberries cooking, the vegetables boiling and baking, the pies, the cakes, the cookies swirled out of the kitchen into the living room. We were always a large group because Christmas was about sharing. Christmas was about friendship. Christmas was about caring. It also was about story telling or playing Rummoli for pennies or Snakes and Ladders.  Christmas was about storing up good memories for the future to help us through the difficult times that are always ahead.
There were always desserts afterward. My Irish mother learned to make vinarterta soon after she got married so we always had vinartera with the Christmas cake. There were calla lilies and snowballs and rosettes. I don’t ever remember a store bought cookie. There were pies, of course. What would Christmas dinner be without pies?
Even as a child I remember pausing at these times, in the midst of the laughter and conversation and food, and looking around the room at everyone, and being grateful that Christmas was like this and wishing that it could always be like this.
It couldn’t be, of course. People grow older. They move. They  marry and have their own Christmases with their own children and their inlaws. They die. How I long for it to be possible to relive some of those Christmases, for those same people to come tramping through the door in a swirl of cold air turning white around them.
Although I now live in Victoria instead of Gimli and although my grandparents and father  and mother and brother are gone, we still make Christmas. Our lives aren’t as tightly bound because we live in cities but on Christmas Eve, we gather at my house for dinner and conversation and gifts. My son and his family come from Bellingham, my daughter and her family from Brentwood, my nephew and his family from Sidney, my sister-in-law and my niece from Vic West. Sometimes , if we’re lucky,  friends and relatives join us. We just add another table.
In Victoria at Christmas it often rains rather than snows. Some flowers still bloom in protected corners. It doesn’t look like Christmas in Manitoba. But with the magic of Christmas, when my guests begin to arrive, many others arrive with them. They’re the guests of Christmases past, still alive in my mind, my grandparents, my brother, my uncles, my father, our good friends, the Kellers. They swoop in through the opened door in their heavy winter clothes with snow and cold air swirling around them, still laughing, shouting greetings, doling out kisses and hugs, a crowd of them and I greet them, everyone, and welcome them to my house for no Christmas is separate from those of the past and no one is forgotten.

Suffer the little children, Indriðason


With every book I read by Arnaldur Indriðason, I become a greater fan of his writing.

I read Voices some time ago but yesterday, beset by cold and snow in Gimli, Manitoba, I settled down to reread it. Well written books are worth rereading. The first read is for sheer pleasure. The second reading is for appreciating. This second read is to admire the craft of the novel. And Indriðason is certainly a master craftsman.

When I was in my teens and twenties, I was addicted to reading English murder mysteries. These were inexpensive Penguin paperbacks. They were, as I remember, brilliant, just in the way that many police/detective TV English shows are brilliant today.
Why were they brilliant? Because they never cheated. They never held back information and then suddenly provided it in the last few pages with an aha gottacha. The only person getting to play in a novel is the author and tricking the reader shows neither a good grasp of craft nor respect for the reader. An author who finishes a plot with an, “I tricked you, look at me, see how clever I am, I tricked you,” is an author who shouldn’t be published.

The Penguin mysteries were brilliant because they developed character. They might not have developed characters with the roundness of a Jane Austen but the major characters were developed in such a way as to make them human, understandable. They were usually flawed because we are all flawed. That’s the human condition. When we triumph, we don’t just triumph over circumstance but over our own weaknesses. Since these characters were human, we cared about them.

The minor characters, while flatter or even flat, were deftly drawn in a few lines, often unforgettably so. A sharp image, precise details of some characteristic created them so the reader could see them quite clearly.
Although many so-called genre novels have clichéd themes (crime does not pay), the best murder mysteries, went beyond that, explored some aspect of the human condition, left a reader not just puzzling over plot but thinking, afterwards, about the meaning of what had happened and how it related to him or her world.

In these top notch murder mysteries, setting was created in a way that no matter how exotic or distant, the reader could imagine what it was like to be in that location. This was done with preciseness in language. The language was sensory. Not sensual. Sensory. As a reader, I could taste, smell, hear, feel, see what was happening. Poor writing was general, vague, imprecise and didn’t open up the experience on the page so it could be entered.

Indriðason does all these things right in Voices. It´s no wonder it won the CWA Gold Dagger award.

Yrsa Sigurdardottir, in a lecture said that in a murder mystery, the worst has happened. The novel then reaches back through events to unravel why and how it has happened, who has done the worst.

That is true in Voices. It begins close to Christmas. A hotel employee who dresses up each year as Santa Clause has been murdered in the basement room in the hotel where he lives. None of the employees at the hotel seem to know anything about him. Although he has worked at the hotel for years, he is a cipher.

The police team that Indriðason has created is already on the case on page one. Elinborg, the female member of the team is already at the hotel. Sigurdur Oli, the junior officer arrives, then the main character, Erlendur, appears. Every one of these three has been created in such a way that makes them human, flawed, with weaknesses and strengths, with limitations, with prejudices. Erlendur is the roundest of the characters but each of the three has a life and the travails that go with it. By the end of the book, I feel that I know them well enough that I wish I really knew them. That is a great accomplishment on the author’s part.

The plot, even though I was reading the book for the second time, held me. It is detailed, complicated, logical. The behaviours of the suspects and public figures is clearly motivated. The hotel manager with his fear of a scandal affecting the hotel’s Christmas business and his lack of compassion for the dead doorman is very real. I can see him sweating, worrying, completely unaware of how perverted his are his values. The prostitute, Stina, who is introduced near the end of the book is unforgettable, not just for her recently implanted large breasts, but because of the reaction they get.

There is, to add to the delight of this book, a kind of dark humour that, to me, is particularly Icelandic, that runs through the entire narrative. When Erlendur meets Valgerdur, a biotechnician taking saliva samples, for the first time in years, he’s overwhelmingly interested in a woman and, out of practice, naturally reticent, he, with the help of his daughter, Eva, manages to screw up the potential relationship.

Indriðason is in such control of his material that he is able to keep a running joke about the heat in Erlendur´s hotel room working throughout the story. He also is able to keep numerous parallel stories—that of an abused child, for example—working throughout the narrative. It’s a bit like watching a juggler adding more and more objects that he can juggle and wondering just how many he can hold up at once.

Chekov said, If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.” Indriðason puts a poster on the wall at the very beginning of the novel and, at the very end of the novel, it’s importance is made clear. It is brilliantly done.  Indriðason knows his craft. He knows his Chekov. And, for those who study these things, he knows his Maupassant. Anyone wanting to learn to write mysteries, would well to study the lessons here.

Good book. You don’t need me to tell you that. It has won accolades here, there and everywhere. However, if you haven’t heard of Indriðason, or don’t think you are interested in murder mysteries, this is a reminder of why you should buy this to put under your Christmas tree as a gift for yourself. 

After the Christmas feast is over, and Boxing Day has come, shoo the children off to another room to play with their new toys, let those who will fight the madding crowds in the shopping centres do so, pour your favourite drink, get a fire going in the fireplace, put up your feet, and allow the author to draw you into the seamier side of Reykavik, the side the tourists don’t get to see.


Literate? Think so?

I’m illiterate.
That would make me feel really bad except that I know that you are illiterate. Misery loves company.
What’s that you say? You aren’t illiterate. Of course, you are.
The first time I realized I was illiterate was when I went to Iceland.  I was taken to a language party. The group met on a regular basis. I came in, was introduced to everyone, everyone spoke to me in English, then someone said, “Danish.” Everyone started speaking Danish. Then someone said “German.” And they all started speaking German.
They went through a number of languages before, to my great relief, they worked their way back to English.
What brought back this memory was that on my mother’s last night at the nursing home, I met Josie. At ninety, she can still move furniture. She spoke to me in Icelandic and I had to admit I was illiterate in Icelandic. “Ekki,” I said. 
That ekki really is ekki. Once, in desperation, at six a.m. in the pouring rain in Rejkavik, I managed to make a caretaker understand that I had the use of an apartment and I wanted him to let me in. I dredged up forgotten words from childhood. God knows what he heard.
Every-so-often this happens to me. I’m going along in a kind of unilingual haze, thinking I’m literate and then someone says something in another language or about another language. This happened when I was editor of Logberg-Heimskringla. Nelson wrote to point out that we’d spelled an Icelandic word incorrectly.
I had to write back and tell him that I’m illiterate in Icelandic.
I’m also illiterate in Norwegian, Danish, Dutch, Spanish, German and Finnish. I’m not just illiterate in Finnish. Confronted with it, my IQ drops to zero. Have you been to Finland? Have you tried to read their signs? They’re in Swedish and Finnish. Thank goodness I can make a guess at the Swedish. But Finnish makes me go back to grade one and the bottom of the class.
Of course, I also realized I was illiterate when I was in Russia. I knew vodka, sputnik and tsar. Try sidling up to an attractive woman in a bar and whispering those words in her ear. They didn’t make me literate. I could print out my name in Russian but with three words and my name, I wasn’t going to read Tolstoy in the original. I wasn’t going to have an intense discussion on the meaning of life. Or order a meal.
After realizing that I was illiterate when I was in various locations, I realized that literacy is determined by geography. It’s not a general state of being. I always thought I was literate because I could read, write and speak English. That didn’t help in Ukraine or Cuba..
If I were smarter, I’d have realized this principle when I was a teenager. A NATO pilot who only spoke French came into the Gimli bakery. He couldn’t make himself understood. Finally, I and a friend who’d taken some basic lessons in French managed to make out that he wanted six tarts. 
There were lessons there about the importance of being literate in many languages but I missed them. I was too focused on skating, girls, pool, girls, hockey, girls. If the girls had said that they wouldn’t go out with us unless with could talk to them in Polish, German, Ukrainian, Icelandic, English instead of grunting, it would have improved our educations immensely.
Most of the time, being illiterate in another language doesn’t matter, even when we are abroad, because we nearly always can find someone who is literate in English.
However, there can be problems in countries where the language is ostensibly English. When I first moved to the United States, we stopped at a restaurant in South Dakota. Not South Carolina. Just across the border from Manitoba. It still felt like home. I asked for a nip and chips. The waitress looked at my oddly and I realized she didn’t understand me.
“Hamburger,” I said.
She nodded, went away and brought back a bag of potato chips. “French fries,” I said. She gave me a wary smile. This was when the Cold War with Russia was still on. I was hoping she wasn’t going to call the FBI. That’s how they catch spies, at least in some movies. The spies can speak English but it’s not idiomatic.
Of course there was the screaming hilarity when we were teenagers and heard an English pilot say that he’d met a very nice local girl and he was going to knock her up.
We get so comfortable in the smallness of our local language that it is easy to forget that in most places, we’re illiterate. When I briefly took over as editor at Logberg-Heimskringla, my lack of literacy in Icelandic came roaring back like a tidal wave, like a raging forest fire, like a meteor shower.
Vinarterta and skyr do not a vocabulary make. Knowing a few scattered words did not help me catch the error in sumardúðir which should have been sumarbúðir.
There are, however, all sorts of people around Winnipeg and among the readers of LH who are literate in Icelandic. They are nearly all women. That´s partly because a lot of the older men have died. Some people say men die off first because they are constitutionally inferior to women. I say men are simply more adventurous, always rushing off ahead, looking for new frontiers. They just can’t help it. It’s the testosterone.
That´s not the whole explanation, though. Do you remember spelling competitions in grade school? The teachers called them spelling bees. I called them humiliate and torture the boys. One half of the class stood on one side of the room and the other half on the other side of the room. The teacher gave you a word. She didn’t even have the decency to whisper it in your ear. She said it out loud. If you spelled it wrong, you had to sit down. I never got sore feet from standing. The last person standing was the person who won the competition. The last person was always a girl.
If the teacher were a sadist, she’d put the boys on one side and the girls on the other. Then the slaughter would begin. It was like machine gunning the boys with double syllable words. Cat, hat, dog, and house were okay but the girls could spell words like Mississippi. It wasn’t fair. They sang that word out when they jumped rope. The problem with girls is that they did their homework and read the dictionary.
If the teacher said to one of the boys, “Why don’t you look up how to spell words in the dictionary?”, the boy would look puzzled and say, “Dictionary?”
For a long time I was illiterate in English. Comic books and newspaper comics and the Hardy Boys and Robin Hood got me over that. I got tired of waiting and hoping that someone would read me the coloured comics on Saturday mornings. I wanted to know what Tarzan was saying to the animals. 
It’s too bad there hadn’t been comic books in Icelandic. I’d have done whatever was necessary to learn to read them. I’d probably have learned Finnish if it meant being able to read comic books. And The Black Arrow and Robinson Crusoe.
That would have still left me illiterate in a lot of languages. My friend Valerie’s father was the only person I’ve ever known who was a polyglot. I think he knew sixteen languages. He could listen to German, say, and send it out as Morse code in English. He knew Swahili. He used to call me Bwana Makuba. Big chief. At least that’s what he said it meant. You never know, do you?
If I had to do it again, I’d do like those Icelandic farmers I keep reading about who taught themselves Danish, German, Latin, English during the long winter evenings. Most of them seem to have done it by reading the Bible. I’d probably choose something a little more light hearted but it would be pretty nice to travel and talk to people in their own language. Makes the argument I hear in Canada about how if a child learns more than one language it’ll fill up his brain and won’t leave room for him to learn to play computer games pretty lame.
   
 (This is why you should give some books to the kids in your family for Christmas. Books they want to read.)

The Great Feast at Thingvalla 1874

At Geyser, the famous water fountain has refused to perform even though a king waits expectantly. Finally, reluctantly, the king leaves because he has to return for the formal ceremonies that will take place at Thingvalla, that place where the early Icelandic parliaments were held. Here, there will be great celebrating. Many speeches will be made, many toasts drunk, many songs sung. Icelanders, famous for their choirs, will serenade the king. But the Icelanders, not quite knowing what to do with a king since none has come to Iceland before, and because they are intent on breaking free of Denmark after centuries of oppression, greet the king politely but not enthusiastically. They have little in the way of resources with which to entertain but they do their best. In Reykjavik, the banquets were made from food brought from Denmark. Here, on the great plain, most of the food is simple, Icelandic food. 
Bayard Taylor, with his party, leaves the geysers and rides to Thingvalla. The landscape is greatly decorated. A village of tents has sprung up. People have gathered from all over Iceland. Here the festivities with the King will be held.
Iceland lost its independence centuries before. Now, there was the possibility that they would regain that independence. In 1845, the Danish government had made some small concessions but, compared to the Faroes and other Danish colonies, Iceland was still treated badly.
Although the liberalization had not been much, it had been enough to create both hope and action for self-rule.
Taylor says, “The leader of the movement is Jon Sigurdsson, a name dear to the people of Iceland, although its bearer could not be present at this memorable anniversary. The Constitution which, as the King declared, he “brought with him,” is mainly due to the persistent claims and representations of Jon Sigurdsson at Copenhagen.”
Taylor summarizes the major clauses. There are seven parts.
The first part sets out the relationship; of the King and Danish Government with the Althing. Legislative power belongs to the King and the Althing. The King has the executive power. The judges have judicial power. The Governor is the most powerful person in the country and he is appointed by the King. The Althing only sits for six weeks and that once every two years.
The King has to approve any laws passed by the Althing.
In part two, the structure of the Althing is set out. There will be thirty deputies elected and six chosen by the King. If the government is dissolved, the King’s appointees continue to hold their positions. There’ll be an upper and lower house.
The third section lays out the legislative roles of the two houses. The regular Althing will meet on the “first work-day in July in Reykjavik. Each house can introduce and pass bills. The Althing has entire control of the finances of Iceland but any Danish appointees have to be paid first.
Section four describes the judiciaries’ powers.
Section five makes the Lutheran Church the state church but people have “liberty of conscience.”
Section six contains the details governing daily life. It describes the right to private property, poor-laws, elementary education, the freedom of the press, freedom of association, taxation,
The seventh section describes how the constitution shall be amended.
Royal power and Danish supremacy is guaranteed by the constitution. Still, it is a beginning. Icelanders have waited hundreds of years. They can wait a bit more.
Taylor say, “Yet, with all its illiberal and even despotic restrictions, the people accept the Constitution, for it is something. If nothing else, it is the beginning of that political education
which they have utterly lost for so many centuries, and which alone can finally qualify them to obtain their just demands.
“The great service which Jon Sigurdsson has rendered to Iceland is not so much in the gift of this Constitution as in the fact that he has broken the long apathy of the people, persuaded them to ask, and secured them a result which means courage for the future, if not satisfaction with the present. In this sense the list of August, 1874, is the opening of a new era in Iceland’s history.
 “I have rarely, if ever, been so profoundly interested in a race. Not Thingvalla, or Hekla, or the Geysers—not the desolate, fire-blackened mountains, the awful gloom of the dead lava plains, the bright lakes and majestic fiords—have repaid me for this journey, but the brief glimpse of a grand and true-hearted people, innocent children in their trust and their affections, almost more than men in their brave, unmurmmering endurance.”
(With notes and quotes from Egypt and Iceland in the year 1874, Bayard Taylor)

 

Bayard Taylor, with his party, leaves the geysers and rides to Thingvalla. The landscape is greatly decorated. A village of tents has sprung up. People have gathered from all over Iceland. Here the festivities with the King will be held.
Iceland lost its independence centuries before. Now, there was the possibility that they would regain that independence. In 1845, the Danish government had made some small concessions but, compared to the Faroes and other Danish colonies, Iceland was still treated badly.
Although the liberalization had not been much, it had been enough to create both hope and action for self-rule.
Taylor says, “The leader of the movement is Jon Sigurdsson, a name dear to the people of Iceland, although its bearer could not be present at this memorable anniversary. The Constitution which, as the King declared, he “brought with him,” is mainly due to the persistent claims and representations of Jon Sigurdsson at Copenhagen.”
Taylor summarizes the major clauses. There are seven parts.
The first part sets out the relationship; of the King and Danish Government with the Althing. Legislative power belongs to the King and the Althing. The King has the executive power. The judges have judicial power. The Governor is the most powerful person in the country and he is appointed by the King. The Althing only sits for six weeks and that once every two years.
The King has to approve any laws passed by the Althing.
In part two, the structure of the Althing is set out. There will be thirty deputies elected and six chosen by the King. If the government is dissolved, the King’s appointees continue to hold their positions. There’ll be an upper and lower house.
The third section lays out the legislative roles of the two houses. The regular Althing will meet on the “first work-day in July in Reykjavik. Each house can introduce and pass bills. The Althing has entire control of the finances of Iceland but any Danish appointees have to be paid first.
Section four describes the judiciaries’ powers.
Section five makes the Lutheran Church the state church but people have “liberty of conscience.”
Section six contains the details governing daily life. It describes the right to private property, poor-laws, elementary education, the freedom of the press, freedom of association, taxation,
The seventh section describes how the constitution shall be amended.
Royal power and Danish supremacy is guaranteed by the constitution. Still, it is a beginning. Icelanders have waited hundreds of years. They can wait a bit more.
Taylor say, “Yet, with all its illiberal and even despotic restrictions, the people accept the Constitution, for it is something. If nothing else, it is the beginning of that political education
which they have utterly lost for so many centuries, and which alone can finally qualify them to obtain their just demands.
“The great service which Jon Sigurdsson has rendered to Iceland is not so much in the gift of this Constitution as in the fact that he has broken the long apathy of the people, persuaded them to ask, and secured them a result which means courage for the future, if not satisfaction with the present. In this sense the list of August, 1874, is the opening of a new era in Iceland’s history.
 “I have rarely, if ever, been so profoundly interested in a race. Not Thingvalla, or Hekla, or the Geysers—not the desolate, fire-blackened mountains, the awful gloom of the dead lava plains, the bright lakes and majestic fiords—have repaid me for this journey, but the brief glimpse of a grand and true-hearted people, innocent children in their trust and their affections, almost more than men in their brave, unmurmmering endurance.”
(With notes and quotes from Egypt and Iceland in the year 1874, Bayard Taylor)

Yrsa’s pins and foxes

My Soul To Take (Harper, 15.99)

Yrsa Sigurdardóttir
There is pleasure in reading a well constructed murder mystery. The beginning punctuated by minor incidents and details that seem no more than background and setting but, by the end, are crucial to the solving of the mystery.
A well written novel doesn´t trick the reader by withholding information. Instead, the evidence is there in the story and, as the story unfolds, the reader, along with the detective, can fit the pieces of the puzzle together. The skill and talent of the author is in the creating of the puzzle, in the pacing of the information, in the creating of suspense. Done right and the book is a page turner, a book a reader doesn´t want to put down.
My Soul To Take by Yrsa Sigurdardóttir fits the bill.
Her novel begins with a crime being committed in the distant past as a little girl is lowered down a hole to her death. The novel then shifts into the present in which a current murder occurs. Then a second murder occurs in the present. The murder in the distant past is known to the reader but not to the lawyer/detective.  As the original story of the little girl threads its way through the present events, it give the novel a heart. By the time we reach the end of the novel we are prepared to weep along with Lara for a tragedy that has occurred many years before
Thora Gudmundsdöttir, the lawyer with an insatiable curiosity and a determination to know why and how things happen, is an interesting type of detective. Her life is complicated by her being a single mother with two children, an ex –husband, and a German boyfriend who doesn’t speak Icelandic. Her personal relationships add both a sense of pathos and hilarity. The children, with their natural self-involvement, are not the slightest bit interested in either their mother’s work as a lawyer or as a solver  of crimes. They are more concerned with having to listen to a father who thinks he’s a great Karaoke singer.
What makes this novel particularly Icelandic isn’t just the setting but also the use of Icelandic folk lore. The folk lore isn’t just background colour but an essential part of the story.
For example, the both Thora and the reader are mystified by the details of foxes and pins only to have their importance revealed little by little  until it is obvious that they are crucial to the unraveling of the mystery.
As a reader, I appreciate the flashes of humour created by the inclusion of minor characters such as the sex therapist who works at the resort where the murders take place. Yrsa even uses her boyfriend Mathew’s not knowing Icelandic as a plot element and a device for adding levity. Nothing is wasted in Yrsa’s novels for both the sex therapist and Mathew, Thora’s boyfriend, have a role to play in the plot.
The opening of the novel is heart wrenching but I didn’t let that keep me from reading the rest of the story. Thank goodness, for as a reader of murder mysteries, I was intrigued by how the author handled plot, setting and character and how, gradually, a complex puzzle was finally assembled. Yrsa, in her day job, is an engineer, and it is obvious that she is used to fitting complex structures together.
I’d add this My Soul To Keep to my list of books by Icelandic authors to put under the Christmas tree.
(If you are in Gimli, Manitoba, all of Yrsa’s novels can be found at Tergesent’s bookstore.)