A Perplexing Mystery


The Silence of the Sea
Yrsa Sigurdardottir
Hodder, paperback, 15.99
One of the great strengths of Yrsa’s murder mysteries is the existence of a protagonist in Thora Gudsmundsdottir who is so well drawn that the reader feels that he knows her. Thora appears in a number of Yrsa’s novels. In many less well written novels, the main character remains static, there is no development of the character as time is static. In Yrsa’s novels Thora’s character is developed, not just through her actions (in this novel, she is offered a bribe and turns it down) but through her personal life. Readers of her mysteries have followed the Thora’s family events, with her son getting his girlfriend pregnant when he is just sixteen. The couple moves in with Thora. The grandson is born. We also follow Thora’s relationship with her ex-husband and her developing relationship with her boyfriend, Mathew. The complications of Thora’s life round out her character, make it easy to empathize with her and involve the reader emotionally. This is true of all the Thora novels but when they are all read, the effect of character development is much greater.

No murder mystery will work if there isn’t both conflict and suspense. In The Silence of the Sea a group of hastily thrown together individuals are to take a very expensive yacht back to Iceland because the owner has lost much of his money in the Icelandic banking crises. The boat has been repossessed. The trip should, except for the often foul weather between Europe and Iceland, be quite uneventful. However, once the trip begins, events begin that place the characters’ lives in danger. A group of strangers trapped on a yacht far from land creates the potential for conflict and suspense as to the outcome. There are all the classic conflicts: person against person, person against the environment plus internal conflict.

Yrsa’s plots are intricate. She involves a lot of people in the narrative. A good mystery is one that provides all the clues necessary for the reader to resolve the crime and identify the criminal but done in such a way that there is no anti-climax with the reader figuring out the solution before the end of the novel. The Silence of the Sea and Yrsa’s other books will often draw readers back to do a second reading so that they can mark the pages where there have been clues they’ve missed. A well written mystery is a bit like a complex puzzle with all the pieces finally being put together to create a final picture. There cannot be any gaps in the picture. All the pieces have to fit. Edgar Alan Poe, the originator of the mystery, said something like in a good story there needs to be everything that is needed but not a word that is not needed. Now, that’s a tough demand.

Another characteristic of a well written mystery is the effective use of setting. Both the narrator’s and the protagonist’s credibility are at stake if there are mistakes the details of the setting. When I was teaching creative writing, I called these clincher details. These are the details that have to pass the test of the most knowledgeable reader, not the dumbest, most ignorant. I found it interesting in the Acknowledgements that Yrsa says “Special thanks are due to Michael Sheeham for explaining various points in relation to yachts and sea voyages.; Arnar Haukur Aevarsson, first mate, for sharing his knowledge of telecommunications at sea, steering systems and other aspects of navigation; and finally Kristjan B. Thorlacius, advocate to the Supreme Court, for information on the legal side of missing persons’ cases.”

The Silence of the Sea meets all these requirements. An engaging protagonist, conflict, suspense, an interesting setting both micro and macro and a riddle that left me saying “Oh!” at the end. “That’s what happened.”

Buy Silence of the Sea. The greatest compliment one can give a mystery novel is to say it is a page turner and it certainly is that.

Victoria Cribb’s translation is excellent.

Yrsa’s Someone To Watch Over Me


Yrsa Sigurdardottir
Someone to Watch Over Me
Hodder and Stoughton, 15.99
Trans. B Philip Roughton
I’ve had lunch and supper with Yrsa. I was impressed. Not just by her writing but because not only is she a prolific writer but she is also a civil engineer, a grandmother and the author of acclaimed children’s books. I didn’t ask but I expect that like Wonder Women she leaps over buildings in one bound. I’m biased because I like murder mysteries and I particularly like Icelandic murder mysteries. I’ve got a bit of a crush on her main character, the lawyer, Thora Gudmundsdottir. That’s in spite of the fact that she has a German boyfriend, Matthew, who has moved in with her. She also has a two children: ten-year-old Soley and nineteen-year-old Gylfi: Gylfi’s girlfriend Sigga; and their son, Orri, now two and a half.” Gylfi got Sigga pregnant when he was sixteen. As the story begins, Thora’s parents appear. They’re dimwits about money and have got themselves in a terrible bind. They want to move into Thora’s garage. Hmmm, as much as I like Thora, I think I’ll leave her to Matthew.

One of the great strengths of Yrsa’s mysteries about Thora is that her main character is besieged by life. She worries that her parents moving in may cause Matthew to move out. She has to deal with Bella, the most obnoxious secretary in Iceland. Business isn’t always brisk and Thora and her partner scramble for work. This is the opposite of one of my favorite detectives when I was a youth: Nero Wolf. He was astute, calm, intellectual and raised orchids. While I will never lose my affection for Nero Wolf mysteries, I now much prefer Thora’s tangled life and her struggle to keep it under control while she sorts out the chaotic lives of the people who come to her for help.
Although Iceland is a society in which there isn’t a lot of mayhem, there has been a financial disaster brought on by bankers thinking they could ride the wave of speculation that was going on worldwide. Iceland was the first country to crash. There were international implications and complications but those most affected were ordinary people. The currency plunged in value. People lost their homes, their jobs, their savings. Yrsa sets the novel amidst the chaos of the financial crises. She brings the society to life.

Iceland, like all societies, has its psychopaths, its mentally challenged, its physically incapable, and its degenerate. It has its honest, honorable, loving, socially responsible people. The novel brings us into contact with the worst but also, in some ways, with the best. One of the best is Grimheidur, the mother of a man, Jakob, with Down’s Syndrome who has been convicted of setting a fire that killed five people. She fiercely believes in her son’s innocence.

Thora begins the process of collecting information that might be used to establish that Jakob is innocent. Her investigation brings her into contact with people she normally would not meet. She has to deal with, as in real life, people whose response is governed by their own self-interest. She learns about the tragedy of a young woman who can only blink her eyes.

“Hi.” He extended his hand. “I assume you’re Thora.” She nodded and he sat down at the tiny table that barely accommodated the two cups of coffee Thora had ordered, assuming the man would turn up on time. Now her cup was empty and the other one had stopped steaming.” The book is full of little scenes like this filled with what I called clincher details when I was teaching Creative Writing. These details give the narrator authenticity of voice. They allow the reader to suspend disbelief and enter the narrative.
I ridiculously stayed up until 1:30 in the morning reading Someone To Watch Over Me. I slept in the next morning and staggered into the kitchen in a disheveled state to make coffee.

If I have any qualms about the book it is simply that there are so many characters I found as I approached the end that I had to go back and look up just who they were. Yrsa constructs her plots well so her characters all had an important dramatic function but I did lose track of Margeir, the radio announcer, for example, in the last few chapters and had to flip back to remind myself. It’s really just a quibble when a book is 475 pages.

If you like a good plot, suspense, conflict, good characterization, setting, enjoyable writing, then buy Yrsa’s latest effort. Philip Roughton does a fine job of translation.



When the Icelandic immigrants came to Canada, they left a country where the soil was only suitable for grazing. Even that grazing land was only about one percent of the total land because the rest of the country was covered in mountains, lava deserts, lava fields and glaciers. To make matters worse, during many years, because of cold weather, the grass didn’t grow. That meant there was no food for sheep or dairy cows and with the die off of cattle, starvation was inevitable. The only alternative food was fish and in particularly cold years , the harbours filled with ice so that inshore fishing with open boats was not possible. There were no other sources of food.

Visitors to Iceland commented on the fact that farm land could be much improved with drainage. However, the return on drainage, given that it had to be dug by hand and because of the land ownership and rental system, was questionable.

There were attempts to grow grain but those failed. In 1772, Governor Thodal planted barley. It grew well but before it could be harvested, a storm destroyed the crop. Governor Finsen tried to grow oats but it was never warm enough for oats to ripen. In the Faroes, the farmers were able to grow and harvest oats.

At the end of the 1700s, the Danish government established model farms in Húnavatn. The farm managers tried to grow oats, barley, and rye. When walls were built to protect the grain from the cold wind, the grain nearly ripened. We think of Quinoe as a new discovery but in 1875 Burton mentions the possibility of it being grown in Iceland because it is grown in the Peruvian Andes at altitudes and temperatures where no other grain can grow.

Hr. Haldorsen introduced the potato to Iceland and by the time that Burton is writing Ultima Thule, the potato is grown all over Iceland. It is small but satisfactory, he says. Burton suggests that people grow turnips. Radishes are grown but are ‘hard, coarse, and woody.” Spinach is a success.

In the north-west the Stranda Sýsla has tried to grow various kales. Broccoli, turnip-cabbage, red cabbage, cauliflower. Lettuces are common; beets both red and yellow, carrots, onions, garlic, and shallots, chevril, black mustard, watercress, horse radish and parsley.

Ultima Thule was published in 1875 so Burton‘s comments are relevant to the experience of our immigrant ancestors. His observations are not that the growing of these various food plants was widespread but, rather, that they were experimented with. The attempted growing of food plants is reported by other travelers at earlier times but those experiments were usually associated with the bishoprics where there was the influence of clerics from Europe.

Therefore, when the Icelanders boarded ships to Ameríka, their wooden traveling chests were not filled with agricultural implements unless it was the short blade from a scythe. Their only crop was hay and their agricultural experience was limited to manuring a home field, cutting, raking and stacking the grass. They brought no seeds, nor garden implements, no ploughs. They came singularly unprepared for farming.

In New Iceland and as they moved Westward toward Brandon, then Argyle, further to Regina and Swift Current, they learned to evaluate land, but often the lessons were costly both in resources and in lives. Graveyards and family stories testify to that cost.
Many Icelanders began their journey westward from New Iceland shortly after they arrived in 1875. In the meantime, across the Rockies much had been happening during the 1800s.

On Vancouver Island, the Hudson Bay Company established a number of farms in Victoria as far as Colwood. Settlers were arriving and they wanted to have their own farms. One of the first independent farms was bought by a Captain Cooper in 1851. It’s interesting that as the land was cleared, it wasn’t just farmed but sheep and cattle were grazed. That meant when the Icelanders arrived, there was already a precedent and experience in grazing animals locally.

The first gold rush that brought American miners and others north was the Fraser Canyon gold rush of 1857. This rush was mostly over in three years but prospectors kept finding new gold areas. Most miners by necessity and by government decree entered the goldfields through Victoria. Business boomed. Then in 1896 to 1899 the Kondike goldrush began. A hundred thousand hopeful gold seekers headed north.
Cattle ranching developed to feed the early gold seekers but spread beyond that goal as ranchers sought markets for their cattle. In 1876, the year the large group of Icelanders arrived in New Iceland, Thaddeur Sarper started a cattle drive to Salt Lake City. His goal was to put his cattle into rail cars and ship them to Chicago. Instead, seeing an opportunity closer at hand, he shipped the cattle to San Francisco.

The ranchers also started fruit farming. Between 1864 and 1880 one rancher planted a huge orchard. In the meantime, on Salt Spring Island, apples had been growing since 1860. The first Salt Spring Island Fall Fair was held in 1896. By 1900 there were 80 official farms.

The immigrants had left an Iceland plagued by severe weather that brought many of them to the brink of starvation. Their journey had taken some of them to Nova Scotia where poor conditions drove them away. They traveled to Kinmount where tragedy beset them and the land was not suitable for grazing or growing grain. They traveled on to New Iceland to face a dreadful winter and disease. Westward, always westward, looking for good land, for opportunity. When those immigrants who made it to the Coast stepped off a train in Vancouver, after a long and arduous journey, they were greeted with flower gardens, fruit trees, vegetable gardens, wild berries in abundance. They were greeted with cornucopia.

When I was at the Saanich Fair this past weekend, I thought of those Icelanders who came to Vancouver Island in the late 1800s. I gazed at the abundance of vegetables, fruit, and flowers, and when I came across a display of local produce in a basket, I thought Cornucopia, they were greeted by Cornucopia. To me that basket of fresh produce symbolized this new world they had struggled so long and hard to reach. Of course, sadness, hardship, disappointment did not end. Those are all part of life. Tragedy can occur anywhere but for most, the West Coast provided opportunity.

Cornucopia! As I studied the basket on display with its blue ribbon, I thought of those immigrants as I stood there at the Saanich Fair.

(Material for this article from numerous sources including Burton, Ultima Thule. Lutz, Interlude or Industry? Ranching in British Columbia, 1859-1885, British Columbia Historical News, Summer 1980, Vol. 13, No. 4. Sivertz, The Sivertz Family, Book 2, Elinborg. Wickipdia.)

Oblivion by Indridason


I’m a great fan of Analdur Indridason’s writing. I’ve read all his books that have been translated into English and I eagerly look forward to the next one. I bought Oblivion and, although I usually go to bed about ten o’clock, I stayed up until one thirty a.m. following Erlendur and Marion. For those of you who don’t know, Marion is an older detective, a mentor to Erlendur. In previous books, I’ve been intrigued by Marion and his role in Erlendur’s life and career so I’m happy to say that since this book takes place when Erlendur is just starting out as a detective, the reader learns more about Marion’s life.

It is tricky to write narratives that fill in a story that has already been developed. I’ve followed, fascinated, with Erlendur’s obsession about missing persons, especially those who are lost in Iceland’s dangerous landscape of glaciers, lava deserts, raging rivers, boiling mud and water. I last saw Erlendur on the edge of freezing to death, being snowed under in a reprise of the death of his brother when they were young. I, like I’m sure many others, wanted to send an email to the author saying, “No, no. Don’t let him go.”

Erlendur’s life is complicated. His marriage has broken up. His ex hates him. His son and daughter in the later books are disasters; his daughter is an addict who refuses to be rescued. In Oblivion we get a glimpse of the early years after Erlendur has left his wife. From a distance, he silently watches his daughter on a playground. Not much is said but the passage is full of regret and guilt. It shows Indridason’s ability to communicate emotion tersely so that it never becomes melodrama.

The novel, since this is a murder mystery, begins with a death, a body in what will become known in reality as the Blue Lagoon, now a major attraction for tourists. However, when the story takes place the shores are barren and the woman who goes to bathe in the waters to soothe her skin condition is alone when she sees a shoe rising out of the water. Disgusted that someone would throw a shoe into the water, she goes to retrieve it only to find it attached to a body.

For the next 345 pages we follow Erlendur and Marion Briem as they gradually fit together the puzzle of the victim’s death. To add to the story, Indidason folds in the story of Dagbjðrt, an eighteen year old who, decades before, had disappeared without a trace. Erlendur had been fascinated with her inexplicable disappearance and, now, with Marion’s encouragement, he begins to look at this cold case.

Indridason is expert at fitting together complex puzzles but his novels are made up of much more than tricky plots. He has a genius for creating landscape and mood. Even those readers who have not been to Iceland get to experience the harshness of the landscape, the bitterness of the weather, and the moodiness of the skies. The sense of daily life in and around Reykjavik is captured with place names, short descriptions, the names of food. It is all very bleak, bleaker than I’ve experienced but then I’ve always been there in summer. That bleakness is as much Erlendur’s as it is the landscape’s.

In more than this novel, Indridason explores the relationship of the American military and the Icelanders. The British occupied Iceland to keep it from being taken over by the Germans during WWII. A year later, the British were replaced by the Americans. Relationships were uneasy. Iceland has a small population, at the time of the war, around one hundred and twenty thousand with forty thousand of those living in the capital city, Reykjavik. They were overwhelmed by tens of thousands of soldiers, sailors and airmen. Conflict was inevitable. Icelanders were poor. There were serious restrictions on what they could import. The Americans were well supplied with consumer goods: cigarettes, beer, meat, clothes. A black market developed.

Indridason does an excellent job of creating the conflict between the occupying Americans and the Icelanders.

When I stay up until one thirty in the morning to read a book, it has to be very good. At the same time, I felt with Oblivion that as a reader, I was ahead of Erlendur and Marion with regard to the solution to the mysteries. Part of the problem may be that my devotion to Indridason’s novels comes more from his development of Erlendur and less from the plot. In this book, the two plots are more important than the main character and his mentor. As far as the plot goes, I was disappointed with the appearance of Master Sergeant Roberts. It was a bit like having a shoot out in a Western movie and solving it by having the cavalry appear . However, that is a quibble brought about because when I read an Indridason novel, I expect it to be perfect. It won’t stop me from re-reading Oblivion and reveling in the descriptions, details, clever moves, interesting interactions among the characters.

Victoria Cribb has done an excellent job of translating the novel.

I highly recommend all the Erlendur books. However, before you read this one, if you haven’t read some of the earlier novels, I’d recommend you buy a couple and get to know Erlendur so you can appreciate these new details about his life.

Book reviews: Fires of the Earth and Island On Fire


Fires of the Earth
The Laki Eruption 1783-84
By the Rev. Jón Steingrimsson (trans. by Keneva Kunz)

As I read Fires of the Earth, the translation of Jón´s account of the Laki eruption and its aftermath, I thought Keneva Kunze´s translation easy to read, although I know that given Jon´s religious position and the times, that the original must have presented serious problems to a translator. This book is only ninety-five pages. It attempts nothing beyond sharing the observations of Jón Steingrimsson in English..

Many North American Icelandic readers are unlikely to recognize Jón by his name but they would know who he was the moment his Fire Sermon was mentioned. We all have images of him defiantly preaching in his church as lava from Laki flowed toward it. Before this climactic moment, at least two other churches had been destroyed so everyone knew that the house of God alone was not enough to bring the calamity of the lava to a halt.
“on the fifth Sunday after Trinity…I proceeded to the church, along with all of those people then in the Siða area who could manage to do so. I was filled with sorrow at the thought that this might well be the last service to be held in the church, as the terror which now threatened and approached ever nearer appeared likely to destroy it as it had the other two.

“As we approached, the clouds of hot vapours and fog coming from the fire farther down the river channel were so thick that the church could hardly be seen, or its outline could only be hazily seen…Claps of thunder were followed by such great flashes of lightning, in series after series, that they lit up the inside of the church and the bells echoed the sound, while the earth tremors continued unabated.“

He makes his sermon longer than usual, keeping everyone in the church. When he, at last, finishes his sermon, he and others went to see how close the lava was to them. They discovered that it had not advanced at all. “The rivers Holsá and Fjaðará poured over the dams which the new lava had made them, and with great torrents and splashing smothered the fire”.

Jón´s chronicle of this time doesn´t stop with the eruption but goes on to describe the aftermath. Not many were killed by the eruption. The dying came because the feed for the sheep and cattle had been destroyed. To add to the misery, the animals suffer from some terrible disease, from rain that poisons everything and burns the leaves of plants and the skin of people and animals. Jón´s observations are detailed, his analysis intelligent. His bravery unquestioned.

Iceland had a population of around fifty thousand people at the time of the eruption. Ten thousand died. That is one in every five. Jón reports on the desperation of people dying of hunger, dying from eating the flesh of the animals poisoned by the water and grass. The effects on the animals are grotesque.

Jón names the farms that are destroyed, names how much each was worth before the eruption. These were prosperous farms. The owners were wealthy. After the eruption they became paupers. For people who don´t know Icelandic history, the term pauper isn´t terrifying. For those who do know, the word encapsulates forced removal, being sold to the person who will take the least amount from the sysla to keep them, to the loss of all rights until the debt is paid.

Jón begins by describing the years of plenty before the eruption. Times were good. They were so good that people became greedy, uncaring, vain, proud. The abuse of alcohol became wide spread. By the end of 1784, they had all been chastised. Being reduced to eating your leather clothes does that to people.

It is a shame that Fires of the Earth is out of print. It is a book that everyone of Icelandic background should read in order to understand their Icelandic ancestors and their current Icelandic relatives.

island on fire

In conjunction with Fires of the Earth, I read Island on Fire (Pegasus Books) by Alexandra Witze & Jeff Kanipe. The authors make good use of their ability to look back in time and to use modern research to create a context for the Laki eruption.

The authors are able to educate the reader by naming and explaining various eruptions around the world with their impact.

The book is packed with interesting facts. For example, while I had heard of Krakatau, I’d never heard of disaster in Cameroon at Lake Nyos. There, volcanic carbon dioxide “slithered down the valley bottoms and suffocated at least 1,700 people in a single night.” It is because of gases like this that the authorities in Iceland keep warning people to stay well away from Barðabunga.

The book begins with a description of the eruption of Heimaey in 1973. It is a well known eruption because the struggle to save the town and harbour were filmed. The authors make an interesting link between the people who struggled against the lava at Heimaey, using water to divert its flow and the observations Jón made about the effects of water on lava in 1783. Jón´s fire sermon and the stopping of the lava from Laki stopped before it reached him is known by every Icelandic person, young and old. Therefore, it wouldn´t be surprising if the firemen who decided to try to direct the lava flow got their idea from Jón.

Island On Fire goes on to plate tectonics and Alfred Wegener and explains about how Wegener’s theories were ignored until Harry Hess of Princeton revived them in 1962. They touch on Hawaii and then back to Iceland and the mid-Atlantic rift where many of us have stood with one foot in Europe and one foot in America. We get brief descriptions of Hekla , Katla and Eyjafjallajökull and end with Grimsvötn.

The authors tell us that Jón records cases of “Painful cramps contracted the tendons, particularly at the back of the knee, and there was painful swelling in the hands and feet, as well as the neck and head. Hair fell out. Teeth became loose…the victim suffered putrid sores inside and outside the neck and throat”. The authors, writing from today’s perspective, are able to say that these effects were “probably due to fluorine poisoning.”

.In Chapter Six, “The Big Chill Laki’s global fallout”, we begin with Benjamin Franklin in France, suffering an unpleasant, foggy winter. He thought it might have something to do with the eruption in Iceland. It is noted that other scholars also noticed a connection between the winter weather and the eruption of Laki. From there we travel in the present  to Denver, Colorado and visit the National Ice Core Laboratory. There the authors get to see an ice core with the volcanic dust from Laki.

The authors treat us to a visit to the craters of Laki and we learn that to travel over the sharp lava, you need to let the air out of your tires. From there to the graves of Jón and his wife, Thórunn, and in spite of the book jacket saying that the Laki eruption has been forgotten, the authors admit that “The memory of the Fire Mass runs deep even here (Klaustur).“

Chapter Nine is about how worried we should or shouldn´t be, although I can´t imagine what good worrying would do. If Yellowstone blows up, we´re all done. In the final chapter, the authors return to Heimaey and end by telling us the obvious. There´s no spiritual figure out there who is going to keep volcanoes from exploding.

In spite of my grumpiness about some aspects of the book (I felt, at times, that it had taken its narrative strategy from TV specials or was hoping to become one),I‘d still recommend it for the general reader. It‘s well worth the price. However, if you can find a copy of Fires of the Earth read that, too, so you get a sense of the both the time and the terror.

The Sinking of Iceland´s Góðafoss, 1944


On November 23, the Icelanders of Victoria club showed the Icelandic film, Árásin á Góðafoss. The Góðafoss was an Eimskip ship that was torpedoed and sunk during 1944 by a German Uboat.

If Western Icelanders want to understand their Icelandic cousins, they need to know historical events like these. Although, only twenty-four people were killed in the attack, it is important to remember that Iceland’s population at the time was around 120,000. Because of the small population, nearly everyone in Iceland was related . The loss was a shock to the entire nation.

german sub
The Góðafoss was a cargo and passenger ship. Iceland, in spite its occupation by Allied forces–British, Canadian and American–was neutral. It had no army, navy or air force. It had declared war on no one. Once the occupation took place, in spite of assurances from the military, control of Icelandic affairs was largely by the occupiers.

There was no need for them to point a gun, or drop a bomb. Along with having no way of defending its territorial integrity, Iceland was dependent on imports of oil and coal. Without oil the fishing fleet could not have operated. Without coal, the Icelanders would have suffered from the cold. They were no longer living in huts made of turf and lava. Geothermal energy was not yet fully developed. They were also heavily dependent on imports for other necessities. Their only market for their fish was England.

The Góðafoss was described as a steam merchant of one thousand, five hundred and forty-two tons. It was build in nineteen twenty one. The owner was Eimskipafélag Islands. Western Icelanders had a particular interest in the Eimskip ships, not just because family and friends owned them and worked on them but because money had been raised in Canada and the USA to help establish the company.

The ship was carrying forty-four people plus survivors from an oil tanker that had been torpedoed. It was also carrying twelve hundred and forty tons of cargo. It had traveled with a convoy from New York to Loch Ewe, Scotland. From there, it led a convoy toward Iceland.

Bad weather caused the convoy to break up and, after holding its place during the night, the Góðafoss and the oil tanker Shirvan continued toward Reykjavik. First, the Shirvan was torpedoed. It exploded and its cargo caught on fire. The captain of Góðafoss, Sigurður Gíslason, ignored standard military orders to ignore survivors.  He stopped to pick up the sailors from the tanker. This gave the German submarine captain, Fritz Hein, of U-300 an opportunity to attack the Góðafoss.After the torpedo struck, it only took seven minutes for the Góðafoss to sink.

During those seven minutes, there were attempts to get lifeboats and rafts into the water. However, because of the explosion, it was only with great difficulty that two lifeboats and one raft were released. One lifeboat that fell into the water was upside down.
Although there were many people in the sea, the navy made no attempt to rescue them. They even set off depth charges close to them that may have killed some of those who had survived the sinking.

An interesting note in the film was that the twenty-three year old submarine captain was ordered back to his base where he faced a court martial for sinking a ship from a neutral country. He was absolved of the charge because the Góðafoss was traveling in a military convoy and so was partially responsible for its fate.

The movie is in two parts, the first ending with the sinking of the Góðafoss. The second part is mostly interviews with survivors, including two German sailors who talked about their role in the sinking. One said that he was only seventeen when he joined the German submarine corp.

The first part of the movie is put together with Icelandic, Allied and German historical clips, with sections on the search for the wreck of the Góðafoss linking them . The film does an excellent job of showing something of what life was like in Reykjavik during the war. There is also a good depiction of what life was like for German submariners.

The second half of the film grips the heartstrings for it shows the outcomes for various people aboard the Góðafoss. There is the terrible fate of the  people who survived the explosion and clung to the overturned lifeboat until they lost consciousness and slipped into the ocean. The two women who were still on the hull when it was bumped during the rescue effort and one of them was knocked into the water and disappeared.

Such deaths are always tragic but the most tragic story of all has to be that of Dr. Sigrún Briem and her husband Dr. Friðgeir Ólason. They were returning to Iceland with their three childrenÆ Óli, 7, Sverrir, 2, and a baby, Sigrún. Sigrún and Friðgeir were returning to Iceland after completing their medical studies at Harvard. All were lost.
Ellen Ingibjörg Wagle Downey had married an American serviceman and was returning to Iceland with her three year old son, William. They both died. Ellen´s husband was fighting at the Battle of the Bulge but received permission to go to Iceland to be with Ellen´s family for a short time.

There were survivors. Somehow, miraculously, among the wreckage, some lived. One was Áslaug Sigurðardóttir. She is among those interviewed.

The story of the master of the ship, Sigurður Gislason, he who stood on the deck as the ship sank but was cast up by the rushing water instead of being drawn down, is, in itself, fascinating. He is interviewed.

And, finally, as it should, the film tells us the fate of the U-300 and its crew.

No one wins in war. The armies destroy each other but what they destroy more is the civilian population. In working on a different article about Iceland in 1944, I came across a quote from an American senior officer who said to an Icelander something like, “You are very fortunate that we got here first because if the Germans had got here first, we’d have rooted them out without worrying about the people of Iceland.” It is a brutal but straightforward statement. Today, we see it in many parts of the world. The combatants war against each other but the greatest casualties are the innocent civilians.

If your club hasn’t shown this film, ask for it to be shown. It’s nice to go around grunting like a Viking and all that with all the horror and tragedy washed away by time but if you really want to know about Iceland and Icelanders, it is more recent history that needs to be observed.

The film has an English voice over when Icelanders and Germans are being interviewed.

Icelandic Migration to Salt Lake City

When I was at the INL convention in Seattle, I heard Prof. Fred E. Woods give a talk on the emigration of Icelanders to Utah in the 1800s. I was fascinated because I had read Laxness’s novel Paradise Reclaimed in which an Icelandic farmer starts out on a journey to Denmark but ends up in Utah. He then returns to his farm in Iceland only to find it in ruins.

In his talk for the Richard and Margret Beck Trust on September 21st, Prof. Woods said people know about Steinar of Hlidar and his journey but they don’t know about the people who went to Utah and remained.

It is Prof. Woods plan to collect all the information possible about the people who stayed and to that end he has been gathering letters, diaries, photographs, articles both in North America and in Iceland. In Utah, he has been borrowing material, copying it and returning it to the owners. His photographs showed what were family treasure troves. He emphasized that Mormon culture encouraged the keeping of diaries. Mormon beliefs included the idea that everyone in the human race was connected, that family was the primary building block of society and, so, the keeping of family histories has been encouraged.

In Iceland, he is working with Kári Bjarnason, director of the library in Vestmannaeyjar. The connection is important because more than half of the emigrants came from Vestmannaeyar. Dr. Woods became interested in the migration of Icelandic Mormons in 1999. Although he has no Icelandic background, he began to work with the Icelandic Association of Utah.

In emigration there are always push pull factors. For example, emigration from Iceland to North America was nearly impossible because there was no regular transport to England and Scotland which, in turn, would allow emigrants to board ships for North America. Sailing ships only came to Iceland from Denmark during the summer months. The difficulty of reaching North America was such that it was surprising that as many took a chance on emigrating as they did. At the same time, conditions in Iceland, always harsh, had been deteriorating with cold weather, volcanic eruptions and no opportunities since Iceland was still rural and the small amount of grazing land was owned by wealthier farmers or by the church. Prof. Woods, in his lecture, emphasized the pull factor in the appearance of Mormon converts who spread both knowledge of and belief in the Mormon faith.

As with all religious movements, this one had to start with someone who was converted and who returned to spread the word of both religion and opportunity. That one person, Gudmunder Gudmundsson had moved to Denmark to become a goldsmith. He and a childhood friend who was in Denmark, Þórarinn Hafliðason, became the first Mormon missionaries to proselytize in Iceland. Prof. Wood mentioned, a number of times, how through his research he’s been able to document the truth of the early missionary’s accounts of their experience in Iceland. They were met with a great deal of hostility which isn’t surprising. Iceland’s state religion was Lutheranism. Rooted in Catholicism and, before that, paganism, in which religious and secular power were inextricably linked, the preaching of a new religion with new loyalties and ideas—Luther wanted to graft new branches on the church tree; Mormonism thought the tree dead and wanted to grow a new one—threatened the age-old order. Also, Iceland was a homogeneous country with a tiny population so that new lines of authority were a threat in a way that they wouldn’t be in a country with a large population.

Part of Mormon tradition is the persecution of its proselytizers. Evidence of such persecution is dramatized in Paradise Reclaimed. The Mormon bishop is treated badly. Icelandic documents confirm officialdom was hostile. In spite of that hostility and the tremendous difficulty of travel, a few people emigrated anyway. From the material Prof. Woods presented, I would be inclined to believe that the small number of people who left for Utah in spite of local conditions in Iceland was the result of a variety of conditions. In the 1850s, little was known of America, the beliefs preached by the Mormons was very different from Icelandic Lutheranism, and Iceland’s small population shared a history and culture built on personal family ties. By the 1870s, when conditions had deteriorated even more, the migration of twenty percent of the population for economic reasons to North America also was met with tremendous hostility by those who stayed behind. That hostility didn’t stop people from emigrating. However, the push effect had become much greater as economic conditions had deteriorated and the pull factor had become greater with the possibility of taking ships to England and Scotland and from there to Quebec.

The Mormon migration, because it involved such small numbers (only 16 Icelanders emigrated to Utah between 1855-60), and because there had been such hostility toward those who left, was largely forgotten. Ultimately, slightly less than four hundred Icelanders converted and moved to Utah. Although the descendants of the Mormon emigrants kept up their Icelandic traditions and treasured their family histories, and in spite of the fact that a group moved to Alberta, I heard nothing of them in New Iceland. This part of the emigration story had been forgotten. It was only with the advent of the internet and, particularly, Facebook, that I began to hear from individuals wanting to know if we were related because we shared the same last name

I welcome and applaud Prof. Woods research and publications about these “lost” Icelanders. Because he is making his materials available on the internet, knowledge about this part of our history is now available. Prof. Woods material can be accessed at http://rsc.byu.edu/archived/fire-ice-story-icelandic-latter-day-saints-home-and-abroad/appendix-icelandic-immigrants. Or you can simply Google Icelandic immigration Utah.
Prof. Woods is an entertaining and informative lecturer. His talk was well attended.

Our Ancestral Loggers


For this prairie boy who grew up in the mixed poplar, spruce, birch forests of the Interlake of Manitoba, the trees of British Columbia will never lose their overwhelming majesty.

There are, of course, the forests of the past, the old growth stumps, stumps so wide, that imagining the trees that grew from them seems impossible. There are still a couple of trees in Goldstream Park that existed around the time that Columbus came to America. There are the old photographs of loggers in front of and on top of tree trunks so large that they dwarf everything else.

You seldom see trees that huge anymore but even in my yard, in my neighbours’ yards are massive trees, the kind of trees that tower over everything, great Douglas Firs in which Douglas Fir Squirrels gambol. They cast down vast numbers of pine cones onto my deck, both the trees and the squirrels, layers of pollen and needles.

The trees are so large, so overwhelming, so majestic, that they dominate the neighbourhood. They seem indestructible. Therefore, it was a surprise when a neighbour came by and said that one of the firs on his property had rot in it that made it dangerous. It if toppled in a storm, it would take out my house. The tree was going to have to come down. Getting permission to fell  a tree in Victoria is not easy. You have to have it inspected and diagnosed. Someone has to pronounce it seriously ill, dangerous, and unsaveable. You need to get a permit. Only then do you contract an urban forester.

With houses in every direction, you can’t cut down a tree like you would in the forest. No yelling timber and letting it fall. The urban foresters arrive, in this case, five of them. They bring a very large chipper to turn the branches into chips. They bring chain saws. They wear yellow helmets. One of them, the main man, as it were, puts a lot of gear onto a belt, a handsaw, a chainsaw, a bag with rope coiled inside. He wears spiked boots. He has ropes tied to him that he wraps around the tree.

He leans back against his ropes, digs in his spiked boots and starts climbing the tree. He comes to the first branches, and these branches are not twigs, but thick, long, heavy and dangerous. He draws up his chain saw, pulls the start cord, cuts away the first branch, then the second, moves around the tree so he can cut branches that are out of reach.

He works his way up, denuding the trunk. Below, his assistants drag away the branches, push them into the chipper. The chipper is noisy, scary, powerful and as I watch, I keep hoping no one puts his (or her, there is a woman on the crew), arm in too far. A human body would be reduced to a smear of blood in seconds. Brrrrrrrrrrrrrrrhhhhhh. It’s a harsh, threatening sound as the branches are reduced to small wooden bits.

The climber keeps moving up, branches keep falling. He finds branches that are too dangerous to cut away directly so he leans out sawing them further out the branch, sometimes with his handsaw, sometimes with his chain saw. Having done that, he pulls back, digs in his spikes to get a good purchase, starts up his chain saw, cuts away the stub. He works his way up until there is just a crown of branches at the top. He cuts it off, shoves it to the side and it spirals down. The tree is not majestic anymore but a bent line against the sky.

Years ago, at my previous house, I had to have two very large Lombardy Poplar trees cut down because they were interfering with the drainage tiles and starting to break up the paving in the lane. The logger I hired was Australian. He explained what he was going to do and he mentioned that topping the trees could be dangerous. Sometimes, he said, the tree whips back and forth and the logger can be thrown over the top. His rope and spiked boots do him no good then. They work to keep him from falling, not flying through the air. With the first poplar there was no problem but when he topped the second, the tree began to swing wildly and he had to hang with all his strength until it stopped moving. This fir tree remains stable after its crown is cut off and cast down.

This logger, leaning back on his ropes at the top of the tree, is aware he has an audience. He ties a rope from his bag around the trunk, he knows his knots, he needs to know his knots for his life depends on them, and he pulls a trick I haven’t seen since I last attended All Sooke Day where local loggers competed with each other at logging skills. He kicks away from the tree trunk and rides the rope down to the ground. The first time I saw this, my heart stopped. This time, knowing what he was going to do, I just admired his skill and showmanship.

The crew took a much needed break, then the logger went back up the tree trunk until he got close to the top where he started cutting the trunk off a section at a time. He worked smoothly, sawing the trunk in one direction, then the other, pushing the trunk over, away from himself so the sections of wood tumbled down to be dragged away by the crew and cut into stove wood lengths. He worked his way down until about twelve feet of trunk were left. This stub was cut down from the bottom.

Chain saws were roaring, the chipper was roaring, the crew was raking and hauling and then it was done and where there had been a majestic tree, there was now a stump and a pile of wood. All done in a tight space among houses, in the urban forest.

As I watched the loggers work, I wondered what the Icelanders who came to the West Coast in the 1880s thought. How different a world to which they had to adapt. Someone like Kristjan Benediktsson (Benson) from Hrafnabjorg. He first lived in Winnipeg, Selkirk and New Iceland. Then he went to Seattle for a winter. His family joined him in Bellingham. According to Icelanders of the Pacific Coast “in a few years he had cleared the land of trees”.  I’d like to have a detailed diary describing how he did that.

Helgi Thorsteinsson emigrated in 1887. He went to Victoria and then Point Roberts in 1894, according to Icelanders of the Pacific Coast. He first took 40 acres, then added 20 acres more. “All the land was covered in thick forest. Now most of the land is cleared and cultivated”.

Coming from Iceland, a land with hardly any trees and those few that did exist were of no great size, there was much to learn. This is a double bitted axe. This is a cross cut saw. This is how you cut down a tree that may be a hundred feet tall and that will crush everything in its path when it does fall. In Iceland wood was so precious a commodity that there was elaborate rules over the ownership of driftwood. Here, in this West Coast world, there was wood everywhere. No houses of turf and rock. These massive trees could be turned into lumber and shingles.

Time and again, descriptions of the West Coast Icelanders say the land was cleared of thick forest, that fine wooden homes were built.

So much to learn in such a strange world. Yet, learn they did. Time and again, their short biographies say they built a fine house. What an accomplishment! As I watched the five people taking down the neighbour’s fir tree, cutting it up, I thought I could see the ghosts of our Icelandic countrymen working at what, in Iceland, must have seemed unimaginable. I remember reading a translated letter that was sent back to Iceland. The writer said, I can’t explain to you what things are like here. Beyond explaining, this forest world, filled with trees and wild beasts none of the Icelandic pioneers had ever known.

Learning to cut down trees, mill them, build with their wood. Well done Páll from Mýrdalur, Eiríkur Anderson from Vesturhóp, Hinrik Eiríksson and all those others, and the wives and children who worked with them. Hard were the times and hard the work but triumph and success, like the triumph and success of the logger I watched the other day, can be counted in work well done, adaptions made, lessons learned. For an afternoon, you were with me, there on my deck as I watched a logger work his magic.


June 17: the king’s visit


“Have you heard what they are saying?” Fusi asked. He was cutting grass.

“No, I haven’t time for gossip,” Bergir replied.

“The king is coming to Iceland.”

“The king? What king?”

“The king of Denmark. He’s bringing us a constitution.”

“I wish he’d bring me a better blade for my scythe.”

“Do you know what a king looks like?”

“No. We’ll find out when he comes, won’t we?”

And so they did. It is 1874. A king is coming to Iceland. It is the first time such a thing has happened. Christian IX is coming to present the Icelanders with a constitution. This is the culmination of years of work by Jon Sigurdsson and his followers.

This is no small occasion. By the time five Americans, including Bayard Taylor and Samuel Kneeland arrive on the yacht, Albion, there are one German, two French, one Swedish, one Norwegian and one Danish frigate in the harbour. Frigates are warships, mounting a lot of cannon. Closer to shore there are twenty smaller sailing ships.

Iceland is a world of dull colors, dark browns and blacks, greys. People are poor and brightly coloured European cloth is expensive. Houses are small and dimly lit. There is little in the way of pomp and ceremony. There are no castles. The houses of the wealthy are described as good quality farm houses in England or Scotland.


In anticipation of the arrival of the Danish king, flags have been raised on all the larger buildings. A new dock is being got ready and workmen are building a crimson canopy over it. This is where the king will come ashore. It wouldn’t be dignified for him to be carried ashore and he hardly can be expected to wade ashore.


Although the rest of the country in 1874 is still isolated with some people never having seen a foreigner, Reykjavik is used to having sailors and traders come to stay for short periods of time. Now, a “few officers and sailors from the foreign men-of-war are mixed with the crowd.”


Half an hour after the Albion arrives, the foreign frigates are all in a flutter of brilliant colors. People crowd the beach. The masts of the king’s ship make their appearance above the low western head-land. Then French, German and Swedish officers come on deck in full uniform, boatswains and gunners take their stations, and—it begins to rain. It will continue to rain for the king’s entire visit. The Icelandic weather is no respecter of royalty.


The king’s ship appears from between the islands.

The foreign frigates in recognition of his arrival fire their cannons. Some frigates carry twenty-eight guns. It is no wonder that Bayard Taylor says “flash, smoke and thunder follows in rapid succession from the five hulls, the rocky shores send back their echoes and the whole harbor rings.” The Icelanders “standing in a dark line in front of the houses, silent and motionless” will never have seen or heard anything like this extravagant greeting.


This cannon greeting is replied to by the king’s ship. To add to the noise the sailors on the foreign frigates cheer loudly as the king’s ship passes between them.


The king and the prince and their party are rowed to shore. Here, there is a royal pier that “slopes down to a platform, between a double row of Danish flags hung

with green garlands.” The king’s party and the greeting party stand on the platform. Speeches of welcome are made and replied to. However, in 1874 there are no microphones, no loudspeakers, so no one more than thirty feet away can hear what is being said. Those close enough to hear, cheer from time to time, but the two thousand people who can’t hear what is being said, stand silent. The welcoming takes ten minutes. When it is over, the Governor leads the way up the pier. He is followed by the king and prince. Although there is resentment toward Denmark because of trade restrictions that have caused a lot of hardship and favored a few well connected Icelanders at the expense of the many, the crowd is polite and the King and prince look very cheerful and friendly.


What follows is as close to a parade as the Icelanders have ever experienced. The Governor, all decked out in his finest, the King and Prince in impressive uniforms, then important officials, the “the bishop in velvet and satin, a snowy Elizabethan ruff, and a high hat, the clergyman,” and the members of the official Icelandic committee. These are described by Taylor as being strong, wind burned men who look like farmers. They are wearing heavy brown coats and Taylor notes that the white gloves they have been given don’t go together with their clothes. The parade has about forty people in it. When they have passed, the curious crowd falls in behind them and follows them to the Governor’s residence.


When they arrive at the Governor’s house, the door opens and Madame Finsen, the Governor’s wife, appears, dressed in a simple black silk, without any ornaments. She descends the steps of the first garden terrace, curtsies at the right moment to the royal guest, a little less deeply to the Prince, and accompanies them to the door. Taylor is impressed by Madam Finsen. It is not often that someone, even a Governor’s wife, has the king drop by to visit. She handles the greeting admirably.


The curious crowd waits and watches. The Bishop, members of the official committee, and other officials wait at the bottom of the garden, until summoned by a chamberlain in a red coat, when they are led inside. The crowd has seen enough already to talk about for years to come. The Icelanders have now seen what a king looks like, a prince is added as a bonus, and vanity and self-importance are on display in the garden. The word poppinjays comes to mind, or a Halloween costume ball but my sympathies are with the sturdy farmers who have been decked out in white gloves. Were the gloves a way of identifying them as being part of the official greeting party or were the gloves because there might have been the risk that they would touch the king or prince with those rough farmer’s hands?



The next day at eight o’clock, a gun from the King’s frigate booms. Lines of linked flags are run up to the peak of the masts and yard-arms. Taylor says that “the gleam and sparkle of the linked flags…is something glorious to behold.” On the hills, long lines of people on horses are still only specs but they reveal that people are coming. All transportation is by horse, riding horses, pack horses, spare horses and soon Reykjavik will be crowded with the small Icelandic horses.


This day is a busy one. There will be a commemorative service at the Cathedral, an evening banquet in a hall of the university and, in the evening, a festival on the hill of Austurvelli. The hill is a mile from town.


At the banquet, the king mingles with the guests. When dinner is announced “the King gives his arm to Madame Finssen, the band blows its trumpets, and the guests march into the large hall of the University, which is decorated with flags, pyramids of rifles, stars made of swords, and other warlike ornament.”


The evening is Danish. The flags, the rifles, the swords are symbols of Danish power. They have an army. Iceland does not. Everything about the dinner is Danish. According to Taylor, the silver plate and porcelain, with the royal arms, the wine glasses, cakes and bonbons—everything except the snipe and salad, are Danish. There is duck and venison, green peas, truffles, but the rarest thing for the Icelanders are the black Hamburg grapes which come with the dessert. Few Icelanders would ever have seen grapes, never mind tasted them.


After the banquet, the king and his party and the dignitaries walk to the hill nearly a mile away, where there are flags, tents, and two thousand people. An area large enough to accommodate five thousand people has been cleared but Taylor says that only two thousand people have come to celebrate in the wind and the rain. It may be the weather that has kept people away, or the expense and difficulty of traveling to Reykjavik on horseback but Taylor is one of five Americans who have come to see Iceland free itself from a monarchy and he interprets the small turnout as an expression of Icelanders dislike of the monarchy and their desire for a republic.


Iceland in 1874 is poor. The population has been repeatedly devastated by bad weather, epidemics, and oppressive political and business practices. The Icelanders do not have storerooms of gold. What they have is their singing. The singing in the cathedral was impressive. Now, there is singing before the formal program begins. Between the presentations, the admirable male choir of Reykjavik sings.


The king now leaves for the geysers. The Great Geyser is one of the wonders of the world. His party requires 180 horses. The Americans also go to the geysers. The king waits at the geysers for three days but there is no eruption. The geysers are as stubborn as any Icelander.

Having been disappointed at the geysers, the king and his party return to Thingvella.


When the Americans arrive at Thingvella around eight o’clock on Thursday evening, the wild valley had undergone a complete transformation since they left it three days before. Both Taylor and Samuel Kneeland describe the valley. The steep green slopes along the foot of the Allmannagja are dotted with little tents ; four large pavilions, with several smaller one’s, have been erected along the bank of the river ; on the Mount of the Law a flagstaff is planted, from which floats the ancient banner of Iceland, a white falcon in a blue field ; while on the opposite side, towards the Axar cataract, on a mound, there is a decorated shelter with the standards of the nations represented at the Festival. On the right floats the colors of Norway, England and the United States; on the left those of Denmark, Sweden, and the German Empire. Taylor says groups of people are scattered all over the valley, or on the rocky, grass-topped heights; there are flags everywhere, smoke rises from camp-fires. Instead of the usual silence of Thingvella, there is shouting, people greeting each other, and singing, always singing.


Taylor describes the King’s arrival in such a way that it makes me wish I could go back in time and be at Thingvella for this moment. Oh, to have a movie camera as all this takes place. The natural setting is spectacular. A group of twelve Icelandic bonder, or farmers, selected for their appearance ride forward to meet His Majesty at the farm of Skyrcot. It is described as a little oasis in the lava-field, about a mile distant. They escort the king to the site of the festivities. Just before they get to their destination, the farmers split into two groups with six on each side of the path.


The Chairman of the Committee, Fredriksson, makes a short speech, welcoming the king. The crowd which has gathered cheer so loudly that some of the horses become frightened. Gov. Finssen is thrown off his horse. The King, who is an accomplished rider, sits firmly, patting his horse on the neck. “Then twenty-four girls come forward, scattering the native flowers of Iceland—thyme, anemone, saxifrage, and geranium—in the Royal path, while the choir, posted on the lava rocks, strike up one of their solemn, soul-stirring chants.” The Royal camp is pitched, as before, on the little hill in front of the church, but there is now quite a village of

tents around it.


What an incredible scene, the great chasm, the horses, the tents, the farmers on their horses, the king and his party, twenty-four beautiful young women in their traditional Icelandic costumes spreading flowers before the King.


The next day there is a light but steady rain. Everyone, except the Icelanders, goes to the area where the official ceremonies are to take place, wearing waterproof coats. Having read this I immediately think of Bjartur of Summerhouses in Independent People when he says “I’ve been wet all my life.”


A bridge of planks has been built across the river. After crossing it, the King stops to listen to a formal speech given by Herr Thomssen, of Bessastaðrin the name of the People of Iceland because it is Iceland’s thousandth anniversary. This speech, Burton says, has, as all the other speeches made by Icelanders, two components: an expression of loyalty to the King while, at the same time, wishing to have their own government.


The King replies briefly. There are cheers. The band plays the Danish national anthem and everyone walks to the mound. At the official site, there are a bunch of formal greetings and well wishes read out from abroad. When those are done, the King spends half an hour listening to people who want to talk to him. Although Burton, Kneeland and the other Americans are strongly Republican, Burton says that the King’s manner “as it has been from first to last, is admirable—never lacking in true dignity, yet thoroughly simple, friendly, and familiar.”


With the formal ceremonies over, the choir goes to the door of the large pavilion. There they sing a new song written by Jochumsson. It is superbly sung. When the song is over, the Americans are ushered into the pavilion. They sit with the other foreign guests.


The banquet in Reykjavik was Danish. The decorations were Danish. The food was brought from Denmark, much of it tinned. However, this breakfast is Icelandic. It is “salmon, mayonnaise of fish, cold mutton, and excellent Rejkiavik bread, with claret, sherry, and finally champagne. It is, in fact, rather a dinner than a breakfast, or served as such for the Royal party.”


With this meal over, the King and his party–remember he needed 108 horses so this is no small group–get ready to ride back to Reykjavik. It is raining heavily. It began to rain when the King arrived and it is still raining. At one o’clock the King and his retinue are in their saddles but there is one more spectacular moment coming.


The choir goes ahead of the King to the Allmannagja. “There, under the lava walls of the tremendous cleft, sing a parting song. One by one the cavalcade disappears around the corner of the sharp crest, and Thingvalla is left to the people of Iceland.”


Think on that, the long line of horses, the royal figures, the choir, the cliffs, the rising voices, the steady rain. What a dramatic moment. All this has occurred because of Jon Sigurdsson and his followers. This is what it was like. It wasn’t abstract. It was horses, rain, people, food, camp fires, tents, speeches, songs, cheering.


It is here that Steinar of Hlidar brought his magical horse to give to the king. Even though he was not important enough to be invited to the festivities, it is here that he comes and all this is what he sees and hears.


Samuel Kneeland, in his book, An American In Iceland, sums up what he has seen by saying, “Jon Sigurdsson has done something important, even heroic, for Iceland. He hasn’t been Joan of Arc. He hasn’t led the Icelanders in armed rebellion. He’s done something much more important. He’s convinced the Icelandic people that their situation is not hopeless. Centuries of oppression have made it seem impossible that there can be a better way of being governed. Jon Sigurdsson has convinced people that there is a better way and it is achievable. Iceland has no army. It has no resources to raise an army and equip it. It must depend on persuasion. It must move gradually toward independence.”

And so, it came to pass and when we celebrate June 17, we should remember these events, these images. We are fortunate that Samuel Kneeland and Bayard Taylor left us books about these events. If you want full descriptions of their adventures in Iceland, you can read Kneeland’s, An American in Iceland, and Taylor’s Egypt and Iceland in the Year 1874. All factual material has been taken from their books.




Laxness and the Holdomor


Chapter 9

When I was a kid, my father took us to Seven Sister’s Falls. There’s the hydro dam, the river, islands, we went for a hike, had a picnic lunch, but what I remembered most about that trip was that because it had rained heavily the previous two days, there was a lot of erosion on the trail on which we walked. My father, never one to miss a chance at educating us, stooped down, signaled with his finger for us to squat beside him to study something on the ground. It was a fragment of pottery.

“Aboriginal,” he said. He picked it up, turned it over in his hand, then gave it to us to hold. He told us not to move. Where there was one piece of broken pottery, there would be more. We squatted there, studying the eroded trail and quickly found half-a-dozen pieces. Before we were finished looking we had pockets full of shards. “Black Duck pottery,” he explained. “This was a major trading spot. Lots went on here.”

When we got home, we managed to fit some of the pieces together. We Crazy Glued them together and I wished that we had searched for more, enough that we could actually see what the pot had looked like. Later, when I had my driver’s license, I went back and added to my stash of shards, always trying to get enough to see the vessel’s shape and the pattern that had been cut into the clay.

In my investigations, I also found ten stone arrowheads. I mounted those in a shallow box.

When I’d bring the pieces home, my father would nod and smile but always ask, “What do they tell you? What information do they contain?” What information do things contain? What can we learn about native culture from the fragments left behind? Objects aren’t just objects, he’d say. They contain large amounts of information. He taught me the same about writing. If you put a brass ring or a gold ring in your poem what story does it tell? Any time I showed him a story, a poem or an article, he always hi-lighted the objects. Beside them he’d add “Connotation? What is the story of this object?”

I used this advice in looking for stories for my book. A large, circular stone on a farm, something I hadn’t seen before, turned out to have been used for grinding grain. It now sat on the ground, nearly hidden by grass and weeds but, after asking, discovered it had been so precious that the original farmer carried it on his back for thirty miles. Not all at once but because it was so heavy, a little at time. It meant his wife could grind their grain without their having to go all the way to town and pay to have the grain ground.

A straight handled scythe nearly hidden in the corner of an unused barn had a blade brought from Bukovina, had been carried by foot, by train, by ship, by train again, by wagon, to sixty acres of bush in the Interlake. It’s handle was made from local ash. A pole cut from birch with a handmade chisel head lay in a shed on what had been an Icelandic farm close to the lake. The chisel head had been pounded into shape by a blacksmith’s hammer. The blows of the hammer could be seen in the metal. Winter fishing, before motors, before automatic drills, required men to chisel through four feet or more of ice. When the Icelanders came to the Interlake, they had no experience fishing through the ice. They had fished the ocean for cod. Everything had to be learned, everything had to be imagined and made. The owner of the chisel had taken a dog sled of frozen fish to Gimli, traded them to a blacksmith who fashioned the heads of three different kinds of chisels, then took his dog sled along the lake, around cracks and pressure ridges.

My father was right. Every object, no matter how humble, had a story. Kings and Queens, the rich, the one percent, kept gold, diamonds, precious jewels, art by famous artists. The people of the Interlake, at one time the second poorest area in Canada next to Newfoundland, found different items precious.

Dmytro brought out a squirrel skin and put it on the table. I picked it up. The skin was like parchment.

“It is a reminder,” he said. “When we get too proud, we bring it out. When the children used to complain about not having something, we’d bring it out.”

I put the squirrel skin back on the table. Dmytro picked it up in his left hand and gently stroked it with his right.

“When my great grandparents came, there was no help in desperate times. English people could get welfare but if you were an alien and you asked for the five dollars a month, you would be deported. Your children were crying with hunger but you did not dare ask for help because you would be shipped back to Ukraine. Cows and horses could feed themselves on grass. Why not Ukrianians?”

He ran his hand gently over the fur.

“Every time I see a squirrel, I say thank you,” he said. “When there was nothing, my great grandfather borrowed a twenty-two single shot. He managed to buy some bullets. He’d heard that the store would buy squirrel skins. He’d been in the army and was a good shot. He and his brother shot squirrels all winter. They ate the squirrels and sold the furs. The price of squirrel skins went up all that winter. They paid for groceries and lamp oil and shoes.”

“Did they show Laxness this squirrel skin?” I asked.

“No,” Dmytro said, “it was Natalie’s family who had Laxness as a guest. They showed him something else.”

Dmytro took away the squirrel skin and when he returned, he was carrying a baseball bat. I thought I would hear a story about how popular baseball had been locally. I’d seen pictures of the local teams. They had a league and walked or rode in wagons from village to village. Schools had baseball diamonds. Teams played baseball at community picnics.

Dmytro laid the baseball bat on the table.  It lay there, it’s wood gray with age.

“These were special baseball bats,” Natalie said. “The rich people in Winnipeg gave them to the special police they hired to beat the strikers in Winnipeg.”

I had been going to pick up the bat but I stopped, withdrew my hand, and clenched my fingers. The bat suddenly felt that it might have been made of poison oak.

“During the war, there was a shortage of men to work in the factories. Swift Meatpacking advertised for men. Peter walked to Winnipeg. It was a hard job but it meant regular money. When the soldiers came back, they thought they would be heroes. They had lived through hell in the trenches. The war was over. The war factories were shutting down. There was lots of unemployment. The soldiers said it was the fault of the aliens, the bohunks, the Bolsheviks. They marched to the Swift plant and demanded that the aliens be fired. They attacked businesses run by Europeans. They smashed their equipment. They burnt the piano and the books from the socialist office.” She stopped and took a deep breath. The baseball bat lay like a dark stain on the table. It had been passed down four generations.

Valdi had sat silent. Now, he looked up from the bat and said, “You will need to read lots about this. It is not just a Winnipeg story. It affected everybody.” He shook himself like he was awakening. “The strike was between the English workers and the English rich people who owned businesses. The English workers rebelled at being paid badly, treated badly. Inflation had suddenly gone crazy and people were seeing everything they made being stolen at the cash register. Goods up forty, fifty, sixty percent.”

“Like now,” Natalie said. “I wanted to make stuffed peppers. Peppers used to be ninety-eight cents a pound. Now, they are three dollars and ninety-eight cents. A chocolate bar is the same price but is twenty-five percent smaller.”

“The rich English in Silver Heights controlled everything. Thirty thousand people went on strike. Telephone operators. Electricians. The police didn’t go on strike but they wouldn’t sign an agreement saying they wouldn’t so they were fired. The rich panicked. They hired eighteen hundred thugs and gave them baseball bats like this. They attacked men and women. The Mounties were on horses. You want a raise? You want better working conditions? You want to be treated with respect? We will give you a lesson with these baseball bats.,” Dmytro said. “The mounties had guns. They shot and killed two men. We know who they work for.”

Natalie had been listening, watching him, her face concerned. Now, she added, “Peter was downtown. He’d gone to see what was going on. But he had to be careful. If the veterans noticed he was an alien, they would hit him and threaten him. They’d make him get on his knees and crawl and pledge allegiance to the Queen. Suddenly, the mounties attacked and the special police who weren’t police at all but criminals, many hired from Minneapolis. They attacked the protestors, hitting them with baseball bats. They drove people into sidestreets and trapped them there so they couldn’t escape. Then they beat them. Broken bones, broken heads. One attacked Peter. My great grandfather wasn’t big but he was strong. He got this baseball bat away from this special constable and used it on him. The others saw him with a bat and thought he was one of them. He gave them a surprise. He broke some of their heads before he got away.”

“You think there is much difference between those rich English in Winnipeg and the oligarchs in Russia today? Did you watch the Olympics in Sochi?” I said I did and Natalie, said, “Did you see the Cossacks beating the women in Pussy Riot? Do you think rich people in Winnipeg in nineteen nineteen and Russia today are any different? Oligarchs yesterday were no different than oligarchs today.”

I was staring at the baseball bat. If it had turned into a rattlesnake and raised its head to strike, I wouldn’t have been surprised.

“Did they show Laxness this baseball bat?” I asked.

“Yes,” Natalie said. “They gave it to him to hold. They described the peaceful strikers, no violence. The strikers even arranged for bread and milk to continue to be delivered. They asked the police to remain on duty. They told him about the two men shot and killed. Twenty-eight more wounded. Why? Because they didn’t come to Canada to work fourteen and sixteen hour days for not enough money to live on.”

“And us aliens,” Dmytro said, and it was like he spit out the word, “the capitalist owners hated us, the strikers hated us, the soldiers hated us. The railways wanted us so the owners could get rich but they wanted us to make them rich in silence. No complaining. Many who protested against the way they were treated were deported.”

“Like the Chinese,” Valdi added. “Except for them, it was worse.”

“Yes,” Dmytro said with a bitter smile. “It is good we have the Chinese. It’s always good to know you were not treated the worst.”

We were sitting in the Romanyuk’s kitchen under a picture of Natalie’s great great grandmother. Her photograph had been taken at the railway station in Selkirk, Manitoba. She is standing with two other women, a young man and two children. There is a stack of trunks, bags and bedrolls. The women are wearing babushkas, blouses with wide sleeves, long, dark skirts but it is impossible to say what color they are because the picture is in black and white. One of the women is wearing a long, embroidered vest. They are all laughing.

After Dmytro’s statement about the Chinese, we were silent. It was like a barrier had gone up, no one could talk about the baseball bat on the table anymore. Dmytro stood up, took the bat and said, “Years later it was used for baseball. When they hit the ball, they pretended it was the head of a special constable.”

As he went to put the bat away, I asked about the picture of Domka. I could see why the photographer would have taken her picture. She was young, beautiful, laughing, exotic. Natalie said it had been published in a newspaper and someone had given Domka a copy. It had been passed down the family along with the story that her great great grandmother, when she was in her eighties, had said when they looked at the picture, “This was the last time I laughed for many years.” Domka had not yet gone by boat to Gimli, not yet walked through the agony of black clouds of mosquitoes, not waded through swamps and hiked over gravel ridges to a dugout with a roof made of saplings and bulrushes.

Years later when Laxness and Valdi’s father had stumbled through the door of Domka and Peter’s house, there was a door to stumble through, whitewashed walls, a stove, benches for sitting and sleeping on, a shanty barn for the stock, chickens, a garden that was in the process of being drowned by days of relentless rain.

“This Laxness was unhappy that his clothes were ruined with mud. He said he didn’t mind being wet. In Iceland, he was always wet,” Natalie said.

“Clothes were very important to him. He would spend money on expensive clothes even if he then had nothing to eat,” I said.

“He was fortunate,” Dmytro added as he came back into the room, “because the hens were laying. They were able to give him two eggs for his breakfast and the end of a loaf of bread. A few years before he would have got some rabbit bones to suck on.”

“He was going to be a big shot in the movies,” Natalie said. “Rich in Hollywood. Did he become rich in Hollywood?”

“No,” I answered. “Many Icelanders went to Hollywood. Everybody wanted to be a movie star. Most became carpenters or chauffeurs or unemployed. It was dream city.”

“Ukrainians, too. Broken dream city,”Dmytro said and I thought about my own dreams, dreams I didn’t talk about, dreams beyond getting a better teaching job, dreams of writing successful novels, having them turned into movies, making enough money to live on, being a star instead of a high school teacher who was publishing stories and articles in magazines that didn’t pay anything except two copies of the magazine. You can’t eat magazines, not even with lots of catsup my wife, Jasmine, had said. She thought we should spend all our spare time dancing. You work all the time, she said. The ant and the grasshopper, she said, don’t make a happy couple.

“Why did he come here?” Natalie asked.

“No one knows for sure,” I answered. “Maye he thought he could borrow money from these immigrants who had come to the land of plenty. He borrowed money everywhere. He didn’t think of it as a loan to be paid back. It was an investment in his talent. His job was to write and it was up to others to support him.”

“It was a strange place to come for money,” Dmytro said, shaking his head. “Everyone here was poor. Many farmers lived in shacks. They raised their crops. The fishermen lived in shacks. They caught fish. When my father was a boy, the fishermen used to come with sacks of frozen fish in winter. They wanted to trade for anything the farmers had. Cream, butter, eggs, vegetables, meat. He remembered them coming to the door. Frost on their beards and moustaches. Wrapped in coats and scarves, coming with a horse and sleigh. He remembered them saying to his mother, ‘Missus, you want to trade for fish?’ Sometimes my father had a quarter of a deer to trade. They sometimes had scurvy because they didn’t know to eat vegetables.”

We all fell silent again. We sipped our coffee and tea. I helped myself to another piece of poppy seed cake with white icing. I wondered if Natalie might offer to give me a slice to take home. My ex-wife would never have made a poppy seed cake. It would mean she was being exploited. I had negotiated some things with her, if you do this, I’ll do that. It proved to be too aggravating. It was easier for me to do t hem myself. I hadn’t made poppy seed cake but I knew how to make chocolate cake and bundt cake. Jasmine had not objection to eating t hem after I’d made them. As she chowed down on a third slice of bundt cake, she didn’t say, see you’ve just allowed yourself to be exploited. However, I think when she went to bed at night and while she was lying in the dark, she added up all her points for the day to see if she’d won. After a while I began to feel exploited, and I was less interested in watching her dance in her harem pants. Who would have thought bundt cake could get in the way of sex?

“The Winnipeg General Strike,” Valdi said. It was like we had tried to put away the topic with the baseball bat. Left to ourselves, we would probably have talked about hockey or farming.

“War isn’t bad for everybody,” Dmytro said. “Poor people’s husbands and sons get the front line. They get killed. The smart guys, the connected guys, the guys with friends in Ottawa don’t get killed. They make lots of money. In Winnipeg, the factory owners loved the war. They never wanted it to stop. They got rich on government contracts. The government helped them get rich. They passed a law against pay raises but not against raising the price of what they made. More and more profits as they raised prices with no more expenses. Good Anglicans who went to church every Sunday.”

“Now, the same kind of people move their factories to other countries where there are no laws protecting their workers. It is the same thing over again. Fourteen, sixteen hour days, dangerous working conditions, starvation wages. The next time you go shopping for clothes look to see where they are made. If you ask one of these company executives, will he tell the truth, will he say, our factory is in Bangladesh or Vietnam because that is where we can abuse workers the most?”

“The Bible says the poor will always be with us,” Valdi interjected. “It should say that the one percent who exploits them is always with us. The one percent in Iceland were hogging all the good land, making deals with the Danish authorities, betraying their fellow Icelanders, charging outrageous interest on mortgages. If someone managed to buy a small farm, he had to have sheep or milk cows. The rich farmer who sold him the farm leased him the animals and charged big interest, maybe sixteen percent. The rich farmers took care of each other. They made the law so they stayed in control. They beggared the people and then they punished them for being beggars.”

“Thomas, you need to read lots about this,” Dmytro said. “The Russian Revolution was over in 1917. Two years later when the workers in Winnipeg said they wanted raises and better working conditions, the rich people who controlled the government in Winnipeg screamed Bolsheviks. Bolsheviks, what Bolsheviks? They were just ordinary people, firemen, policemen, telephone operators, electricians, steel workers. They wanted to be properly paid.” He slapped the palm of his hand onto the table.

“Dmytro, maybe you shouldn’t talk about this anymore. You have to watch your blood pressure.” Natalie turned to me and said, “Have another piece of cake, Thomas.” She said it as if it were Toe-mass and I liked that. It made me feel that my boring name had a slightly exotic aura to it. “We are not bankrupt yet. Even if the one percent are stealing most of the money. We can afford another piece. You are too thin. You need a wife to keep an eye on you.”

“I am not such a bad cook,” I said, “but I would like to know how to make hollopchi. I don’t like deli hollopchi.” Cooking was my defence against being dependent. I’d seen too many of my friends get married because they didn’t know how to cook or do much of anything else. They needed to go from Mom to Wife. One of the Phys Ed teachers had split from his wife, had moved into a one room apartment and discovered that he didn’t know  how to do anything but heat food in the microwave. He lasted two months, then crawled back home defeated, humiliated, rumpled, hungry, prepared to put up with a bossy, demanding, snarky wife who know how to cook a roast and how to sort laundry.

“I will show you,” Natalie promised. “It just takes patience rolling the cabbage leaves. I put my cabbage in the freezer to wilt the leaves. It’s easier than boiling.”

“Did Laxness eat the hollopchi Domka gave  him?”

“He must have,” Natalie replied. “It’s not like there was a menu.”

“Never mind hollopchi,” Dmytro said impatiently. He wanted to talk about the Winnipeg General Strike, not hollopchi.

“You can come tomorrow, Thomas. I am making hollopchi. You can learn.”

“The police refused to say that they would not strike so they were all fired. There was no violence. The rich people panicked. They kept screaming Bolsheviks,” Dmytro said.

“Were there any Bolsheviks? I asked.

“A few,” Dmytro answered. “Not enough to fill up a Mennonite van.” He rubbed his jaw with the knuckle of his index finger. He named the Bolsheviks and with each name he held up a finger. “Paul Krat, Popowich, Shatulsky, Ferley, the Narodowtsy group. Robochy Narod was their paper. You see today, even though we are all Slavs, the Russians and Ukrainians do not get along so good. We came to Canada to escape the Czar. We were happy to see him deposed. That did not make us happy to see the Russians take over. Hysterical English rich people who knew no history! They thought Russians and Ukrainians were the same.” Dmytro looked disgusted. He added, “The Mounties arrested ten leaders and took them to Stony Mountain penitentiary. Not many people supported Popowich, Naviziwski or Lototski but when they dressed up as tourists and took the train to Gimli and hid out on the farms, a lot of people thought it was a good joke.”

“I need to check that I have enough rice,” Natalie said, trying to change the conversation. Dmytro’s face had become red. “If not, you will have to bring me some, Thomas.” She got up and went to the cupboard and took out what was left of a twenty-five pound sack. “There’s enough for tomorrow but, Dmytro, we  have to buy another sack next time at Costco.”

“Hollopchi! We are talking about history. Can you only think about cabbage rolls?” Dmytro asked.

“At supper time tomorrow, if I serve you history for supper, you will not be very happy.”

“Do you know that Laxness became a Communist?” I asked. “Hard core. Laxness made speeches supporting communism and he traveled to Moscow many times. My research says that he became a communist because of Upton Sinclair, the American writer.”

Natalie was looking through her cupboard, taking out utensils she would need the next day. She stopped and faced us with one hand on her hip. “Yes, your Laxness gave up praying with the black maggots. It was good because after the strike the black maggots were against unions. Maybe Domka and Peter helped him with that. Dmytro, I can’t reach the roasting pans. You have to take them down.”

Dmytro got up and reached own three blue roasting pans and put them on the cupboard. “I have done this all my life,” Natalie said, “this making hollopchi. Ever since I was before going to school. I like doing it. I hope I can make hollopchi after I’m dead.”

“There were lots of Icelandic communists in the Interlake,” Valdi said. I turned to look at him. My grandfather had mentioned a woman who often stood at the well and handed out communist literature but he’d never said anything about there being lots of Icelandic communists in the Interlake. I knew there were enough communists in Iceland for there to be an organization. “Laxness wasn’t alone in loving communism.”

“He made lots of speeches about how wonderful communism was,” I replied. “Lots of ideals and propaganda about a worker’s paradise in Russia but he refused to look at what was happening right in front of him. Even when his friend Vera Hertzsch was arrested when he was in her apartment in Moscow, he refused to see what was happening. He wanted his books published and his getting published made him choose to be blind.”

“It is a disease that hasn’t been cured,” Valdi replied. “What do you think the CEOs of our Canadian companies in Russia refuse to see?”

“Our people fled from the Czar,” Dmytro said. “They cheered when he was defeated. Why not? They thought now Ukraine will be free. Instead, everything turned into a personality cult. The Russians didn’t understand democracy. They still don’t. They make oligarchs today. They think Putin is the new Czar. They do not understand freedom. Everyone celebrated their new freedom when the Czar was deposed and then Stalin made the Holmodor.”

Natalie turned sharply toward him. “Do not say that word in this house.”

“What will one call it? Eight million Ukrainians deliberately starved to death. This was their freedom. And on the news recently, the newscasters who have never heard anything about this genocide talk about Russia invading Ukraine as if it was going to be a friendly visit.”

Valdi looked at his watch. “Tom, I think we need to be going. At the nursing home they’ll be sure I’ve become lost again. They don’t like their residents getting lost. They don’t want them dying outside of God’s Waiting Room. They worry about being sued by the relatives.”