What The Bear Said: review by John Johansen

What the Bear Said: Skald Tales of New Iceland

(from The Goose Issue 11 2012 page 98)


Turnstone, 2011 $19.00


In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—unlike the present— Iceland was one of the poorest countries in the world. The harshness of life in Iceland at that time beggars belief and is powerfully rendered in Halldor Laxness’ famous Icelandic novel, IndependentPeople.

As a result of this brutal poverty, over twenty percent of the population emigrated. The Interlake district of Manitoba was a particularlypopular destination for Icelandic immigrants, and Canadian novelist and short-story writer W.D.Valgardson is a product of this New Iceland. Most of Valgardson’s fiction since his debut in the early 1970s draws on his upbringing in the Icelandic communities of New Iceland. His latest work,

What the Bear Said, does this in spades, consisting of fourteen short stories explicitly modelled on the storytelling and Icelandic folktales he grew up hearing around his parents’kitchen table (“Preface”).

In the title story, Gusti hears a hungering bear speak to him—it’s “like ink being dropped into water…spreading and dissipating.” He feeds the bear and in return his daughter is saved in a blizzard by “a large brown arm” that “reached from the den and pulled her down.” “Ingrid of the Lake” is saved from drowning by a giant lake sturgeon. In return, she saves it from capture, then disappears. Over subsequent years two sturgeon are seen “sunning themselves in the shallows.” The protagonist of “Halldor Vitlaus,” Halldor Witless, thoughtlessly shoots a wolf for no reason and is afterwards haunted by wolves until he realizes that when “you do something wrong, it follows you around,” and walks out intoa blizzard to meet the ghost of his victim.

Spurned and jealous suitors send the ghost of a starving eighteenth century outlaw totorment Pall and his wife, Sigurbjorg. The ghost follows them to New Iceland, where they have pity on him, give him food and a pallet to sleep on, and finally add on a room for him to their house (“Loftur”). Kristin—the younger, less favoured sister—shows hospitality to strangers on a bitterly cold winter night and is rewarded with a gift of beautiful clothes: an “embroidered dress, a fur cloak with velvet lining, and fur-lined boots.” Her greedy mother, selfishly trying to replicate her daughter’s success, is paralyzed for her miserliness (“Gypsy Clothes”). A good woman endures hard and lonely treks to Winnipeg for medicine and supplies. Instead of succumbing to promises by the “devil’s handyman,” she rejectshis offers and in turn tricks him instead (“Quarantine”).

In the new world, the Icelanders come into contact with other peoples: first nations (“Quarantine”), Galicians, Russians, and Germans(“Gypsy Clothes”), and especially Ukrainians (“Shlandy”). But their world, in both Icelands, is full of other beings too. Like devils and Loftur’s ghost, they travel to Manitoba as stowaways, and most notably include trolls (“Sigga’s Prayer,” “The Troll’s Wife”) and invisible people with magicalpower, huldufolk, who live in an unseen parallel but utopian world (“Gypsy Clothes,” “The New World”). In Canada, in addition, they encounter the indigenous cannibalistic giant, “Windigo.”

Although the Icelanders are Lutheran and read the Bible, they also make offerings and pray to trolls (“Sigga’s Prayer”), and their ethical mettle is continually tested by devils and huldufolk. Their interaction with these beings, and with bears, sturgeon, and wolves, suggests both an intimate connection with and an ongoing negotiation of their place in the natural world where they struggle so hard to survive.

Although Valgardson’s book has some of the apparatus of a scholarly collection —preface, acknowledgements, glossary—what he offers here, to be clear, are not translations or even retellings of Icelandic folktales, but instead newstories that deploy themes and tropes of those tales. Just as they thus straddle the genres ofshort-story and folktale, so the stories themselves sometimes begin in Iceland and end in NewIceland (“Sigga’s Prayer,” “Loftur,” “Sidewalk of Gold,” “Freyja”). And many of the tales make itclear that poverty, hunger, cold, and disease afflicted Icelanders as much in the new as in theold Iceland—though in Manitoba no one was reduced to eating “softened fish bones” (“Whatthe Bear Said”)!

What is also clear—and remarkable—is that among the struggling farmers and fishermen who immigrated, and even in such grim circumstances, there were poets and singers(“What the Bear Said,” “Loftur,” “The Poet from Arnes,” “The New World”). Alberta’s Stephan G. Stephansson, one of the greatest poets in Icelandic, was also one of these, and Valgardson himself is perhaps their cultural and spiritual descendant.

JOHN JOHANSEN, who is a professor of English at the Augustana Campus of the University of Alberta in Camrose, where he teaches courses in medieval literature and on the English language.

Book review: The Rockey Mountain Poet

Viðar Hreinsson. Wakeful Nights. Benson Ranch, Inc., 2012, 607 pages.

In the 1870’s Icelanders began to emigrate. In Iceland times were difficult. Iceland was the poorest country in Europe and Europe was so poor that massive numbers of Europeans were on the move. They were immigrating to places such as Brazil but the greatest number had as their destination, Amerika. Amerika was not a specific geographic place but a direction, a place of rumour, myths, and letters.

In Iceland, society was still medieval. Although the Icelanders like to point out to everyone that they had the first parliament in history, they conveniently leave out that this annual representation of the chieftains where real power was distributed and enforced lasted a short time. Internal conflict led to Iceland being ruled by the Norwegian king and, when Norway was taken over by Denmark, Iceland was, too. For hundreds of years Iceland was a vassal state, its resources and people sold off to commercial interests.

Although some English travelers in the 1800s made the mistake of declaring that because on Icelandic farms everyone slept in one room, ate in one room, worked in the fields or fished from the same boat, that everyone was equal. Nothing could have been further from the truth.

What they did not take into account was who had the key to the food storehouse, who decided what and how much each person got to eat, what work they did, how many hours they worked, whether they would be employed or, if they were a tenant farmer (share cropper), whether their lease would be renewed. Only one percent of Iceland’s land is usable (not arable, for that assumes that it can be cultivated) and that was for pasture. Wealth was in sheep and milk cows and, for the larger farmers who had land on the sea shore, boats.

Stephan G Stephansson grew up in that society. He was “born in 1853, the population…roughly 60,000)”. It’s capital city was a village. There were no cities. People lived in little isolated worlds on farms in houses made of turf and rock and some wood from Denmark or driftwood. Wood was so precious that some houses used whale bones for rafters.

There were no crops except hay for no grain would ripen.

Stephan’s family was too poor to send him for a formal academic education. In 1873, he came to North America with some people for whom he had been working. His life was different from many of the immigrants right from the beginning because they did not go to Nova Scotia or Kinmount, Ont., or to New Iceland in what was to become Manitoba. He went to Wisconsin and began life as a farmer. He moved a number of times, settling, finally, in Alberta in the Markerville area.

His story is no different from many others except for one thing. In spite of his lack of formal education, he became a poet of great renown. He became known as the poet of the Rocky Mountains. His work was published in Canada, the United States and Iceland. However, he wrote in Icelandic and so, even though he took his material from daily life in North America, his audience was restricted to those who could read Icelandic. Today, as the Icelandic North American population continues to intermarry and disperse, there is the danger that Stephan G will be forgotten.

That is why Viðar Hreinsson´s new book, Wakeful Nights, published by Benson Ranch Inc., is particularly important.

Stephan G Stephansson was not just a poet, not just an excellent poet, but a man with a clear vision of what was right and wrong in society.  He was the conscience of society. He wrote about social issues, spared no one´s vanity or self-importance. His unwavering beliefs about social justice and religious matters brought him accolades but also enemies. His opposition to WWI resulted in a Manitoba MLA who also was of Icelandic background, trying to have him charged with treason.

The book begins with 65 pages of description of life in Iceland. I, personally, would have liked this section to be longer, more detailed, but that is because I’ve done a great deal of research into the 1800s in Iceland. For most readers this first part of the book provides a good historical perspective and solid base from which to understand the impetus for Stephan’s beliefs and actions.

The journey west which follows is well described. It has enough detail to keep the reader focused on what the trip was like rather than on some romanticized version.

The remainder of the book centres on the conflicts in which Stephan found himself embroiled. We are taken into the division of the community between Unitarianism and Lutheranism. Today, the remains of that battle can be seen in the capital of New Iceland, Gimli, Manitoba, with the Lutheran church on Third Avenue and the Unitarian church on Second Avenue and the gap between them like a vast crevasse on an Icelandic glacier.

“Over the years, Winnipeg had become the home of an increasing number of Icelanders in North America. They established newspapers, first Leifur, that lasted only a few years, then Heimskringla (1886) and finally Lögberg (1888).  The latter two papers became a spiritual and worldly battlefield between various groups of Icelanders. Lögberg was liberal in politics but conservative in religious matters, while Heimskringla was conservative in politics but liberal in religion.”

“Stephan examined social issues closely and developed a fascination with Felix Adler’s ethical movement. Adler, a German Jew whose family immigrated to America in 1857, had studied on both sides of the Atlantic and had read the works of Emerson and Kant. In 1876 he established an ethical movement, the Society for Ethical Culture, among radical intellectuals.” “Stephan with a group of farmers, established a society of liberal Icelanders who could accept neither the doctrines of the church nor the church’s declaration that religion was the fortress of culture and progress.”

Translations of Stephan´s poems appear throughout the book. The author does his best to provide the reader with translations of Stephan’s poetry but given the intricate forms that simply won’t work in English, settles for prosy translations that give the reader the meaning of what is being said. Creating translations of Icelandic poetry that capture the quality of Stephan´s work seems like an insurmountable problem. It is a problem that has already and will continue to keep English speaking readers from appreciating the genius that is declared in Iceland for Stephan’s work.

The book plays close attention to Stephan’s family life, the tragic death of one of his sons, the struggle to prosper at farming, his relationship with his wife and children. This helps to make him real, not a caricature of the embattled and battling poet. When he is honoured by being asked to visit Iceland and he tours the country to widespread adulation, Viðar describes Stephan as being worn and small, not the physical giant that some expected. The contrast between Stephan´s struggle to succeed as a farmer in difficult times and his success as a poet brings the reader close to the man whose search for truth in a world constrained by religious and secular dogmatism, makes him human.

I have found nothing to criticize about Wakeful Nights. There are a few typos in the text but nothing to distract the reader. I’m only grateful that the book has been written and published. For me, it has revealed and explained many things about my own ethnic community that I have not understood.

For many in the Icelandic North American community, the simple mention of the conflicts Stephan had with ministers, editors, members of the Winnipeg elite, will be enough for they will already know the background to the struggle. For readers outside the Icelandic North American culture, though, such references may hold no meaning, particularly those to do with the church. It would have been helpful to have had a glossary that explained each of those references but it would have made a large book even larger. One of the joys of Viðar’s writing is that it is easy to read. To have included more background detail in the text would have bogged down the story, taken away attention from the poet. Perhaps Wakeful Nights will inspire others to extract references and expound on them.

It would be wonderful if Wakeful Nights would help to establish a permanent place in Canadian literature for Stephan’s poetry. At the very least, this biography has brought us closer to knowing a remarkable man whose work bridged three countries.

(Wakeful Nights can be purchased from Tergesen’s bookstore in Gimli, from Jim Anderson http://www.abebooks.com/home/jimandersonbooks, directly from Benson Ranch Inc, 251018 Tower Ridge Estates, Calgary, AB, T3Z 2M2 or from Amazon. Local bookstores will order it. Copies will be available at the next INL convention in Seattle.)