Book review: I know how I got this way

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One of the joys of being a writer and editor is the unexpected pieces of writing that drift in from the mail slot. One of these, sent by Jim Anderson, the proprietor of Jim Anderson Books, his business that buys and sells books and ephemera and collections of papers to do with the Icelandic North American community (or Iceland), is I know how I got this way by Janet LeBlancq.

This 32 page collection of reminiscences of “growing up in Manitoba with Icelandic grandparents, Amma and Afi is set in Ashern. The oral tradition is an ancient one in the Atlantic island home of her ancestors, passing on the history, trying to stay awake while men, women and children knitted through the long winter nights, sweaters, socks and mittens, to trade with the Danish ships that came, carrying the necessities the barren rock couldn’t provide.”

Janet says, “Amma and Afi’s homestead came complete with a two car garage and a morgue. My Afi was a funeral director; he and my Mom’s brother, Uncle Lawrence, operated a family business, burying everyone in the Interlake region of Manitoba.” Neil Bardal might have disputed the claim of burying “everyone in the Interlake region” but since the stories are anecdotes told from the perspective of a young girl, the claim is quite justified.

In one story, “The Backyard’s Burning”, (Our backyard funeral home burned to the ground in the winter of 1961.), she says it was fortunate that “the house was saved and that the fire hadn’t happened a week earlier. It had been a very busy time and the morgue had housed several bodies awaiting burial. The day of the fire, the morgue was empty. Could have been a crematorium!” If it had been me living at Afi and Amma’s and there had been as many as three bodies at a time in the funeral parlour, I, too, would have figured we were doing it all.

I am absolutely delighted that Jim managed to find two copies of this booklet (one for him, one to be shared by me and JO). It is publications like this, made up of honest, heartfelt stories, full of details that if they weren’t written down, would be forgotten in the hurly burly of life.

The author captures a feeling for the time, right after WWII ended. In her first story, she begins by saying “My parents met in Montreal in 1945 on V-E Day. My Mom was 35, a career woman, my Dad, a 41 year old miner. They got married in 1946. My Amma refused to travel from Manitoba to the wedding; she didn’t approve of my Mother marrying a Frenchman, and so far from the Icelandic connections. After I was born in 1947, she finally did visit us in Montreal and, 25 years later I would travel from Montreal to say my last farewell to Amma in a Winnipeg hospital.”

“On Saturdays my chores included washing that hearse; it was a beauty – 1929 Packard, black of course, with a red velvet interior and mahogany runner bars set in the floor….It was actually fun to wash and polish that beautiful car and I dreamed of the day I would be big enough to drive it.”

In “Church Revisited”, the narrator says, “In the beginning we went to church every Sunday because my Amma made us go….Our congregation was a reflection of our town, there being an equal number of Icelandic and German members. Germans sat on the right side of the church, Icelanders on the left.”

Some of the stories like “The Two of Diamonds” are about schoolhouse rivalries. “Raiders of the Edible Orbs” recounts a raid on an orchard for apples. After having read both stories, I sat and thought about, with a great deal of pleasure, similar incidents when I was about the same age as the narrator. “Anyone who has ever raided an orchard will tell you, nighttime raids are best.” The object of the raid, Mrs. Schartz’s apple trees “was only a block down the lane but we used such careful sneaking up techniques that it took us 20 minutes just to reach her orchard gate!” In my case during a raid in Gimli, our target was the crabapple tree of the local dentist. We would probably have worn Viking helmets on our raids if they’d been available but plastic Viking helmets were still far in the future.

In “Broken Hockey Sticks”, the narrator begins by saying that “It seemed that the boys had all the fun. They knew how to build the rafts, and they could get the teenage boys to help—and everyone knows that when you’re a 10 year old girl, the only teenagers that will talk to you are the ones who have to because they’re neighbours or family.” She goes on describe a summer where the girls far outshine the boys in a battle of the sexes that the boys aren’t even aware is happening.

It is on page 28 in “My Driving Career” that I found the only description I’ve ever seen of how driver’s tests were conducted in rural Manitoba when I was kid. The author, born in 1947, is eight years younger than me. However, rural Manitoba didn’t change much from 1939 to 1947. The towns were small, isolated, everyone knew everyone else. There were few, if any, secrets.

She started steering a car when she was three. She started driving a car as soon as possible. “When I was fifteen, Lloyd Barnes called my Mom and said, “We better give her a license.” And he did. My “test” was to drive Mom’s car to Lloyd’s cafe on Main Street, answer a skill testing question, “”When were you born?”), and sign my name. Then Lloyd sent me on an errand in the car; my safe return clinched the test.”

I know how I got this way
is short, it’s made of folded sheets stapled together, it was published by Dragonfly Publishing Arts, Hornby Island, B.C. V0R 1ZO in 1995. I think two things should happen. Logberg-Heimskringla could do worse than call Hornby to see if Janet LeBlancq is still there and, if she is, get permission to run some of the stories. If that happens, then maybe Dragonfly Publishing or Janet herself could run off a hundred copies in the expectation that many LH readers would identify strongly, as I did, with the stories and want to purchase a copy.

Janet, thanks, because of you, I’ve had a pleasant evening reliving my childhood in rural Manitoba.

The Persimmon Tree

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Interesting idea, culture.

We defend it, promote it, sometimes have riots over it, pass laws about, even go to war over it.

Our culture is, of course, superior to everyone else’s. Even though, in truth, most ethnic groups that have been in Canada any length of time usually know very little about the culture of the country they came from, often don’t speak the language except for a few pet words, know no more of their history than what they see in movies or see in travel brochures. That’s not to criticize anyone. It’s a normal process to become like the culture of the country in which you live. The past is past. And memories of the past are often not even accurate.

When I lived in Southern Missouri for four years, I lived in a world that had little connection to Gimli, Manitoba or Winnipeg or even Manitoba. It was for me and my family an exotic place filled with both pleasures and dangers.

There was no vinarterta but there were pecan pies. The pecans were grown locally and the pie makers usually shelled their own nuts.Pecans and pecan trees and pecan tree rustling were a big part of local lore.

We had watermelon picnics. Big watermelons. Huge watermelons. One cent a pound if I remember correctly. We stopped one afternoon at a zinc lined tank that held water, ice and watermelons and bought a watermelon that was sixty pounds. In Manitoba, my mother bought pieces of watermelon and divided it up amongst us. With sixty pounds of watermelon and four people there was no need to skimp and since the temperature was over a hundred and the humidity so high it felt like we were breathing water and sweat ran down our legs into our sandals, when we got home we dug right in. We knew it would be sweet because the farmer in overalls and a wide brimmed hat had a little device he had plunged into the watermelon and taken out a plug so we could taste it. No chance of getting a watermelon that tasted like a cucumber.

We were invited to parties where we all took turns cranking the handle to make home-made ice cream to eat with a variety of home baked cakes.

We arrived one hot, humid evening, having pulled a trailer all the way from Winnipeg. It took us three days and two nights and we were so tired we just threw blankets on the floor of our rented house and fell asleep.

We woke to the sound of a Manitoba blizzard racing through the hydro wires and the knocking of a lady neighbour with a apple pie she had made for us. Turned out there was no wind, it was as hot and humid as ever, with the heavy sweet smell of Rose of Sharon that grew as a hedge along the back lane. The intense humming were cicadas, millions of them in the grass, in the trees, hard bodied insects, the males of which were “singing” to attract a mate.

Mrs. Berry, she who brought us a pie, gave me a piece of local culture, immediately. She said that the caragana hedge that ran along the sidewalk needed to be cleaned out. The house had been empty for a number of months and paper and plastic and leaves had been caught at ground level. I’ll do that as soon as I can, I said and she replied, not with your hands, which was exactly what I would have done. Use a rake or a long stick. Rattle snakes like to lie in places like that. She also added that when we got up in the morning, I was to check that there were no snakes on the patio before I let the children out onto it. And to keep the screen door shut. Otherwise, we might have an unwelcome visitor. Snake lore. Sort of like knowing not to leave food on the picnic table at the fish camp on Lake Winnipeg. Otherwise, you might have a large, black unwelcome visitor. Lake Winnipeg bear lore.

We’d had to find Missouri on a map. We didn’t know anything about its history. Had to learn from the locals that it had been a border state in the civil war, that the city had been burned to the ground by union soldiers enraged by bushwhackers ambushing some of their compatriots. We had to learn that every family in town knew what side their great grandparents had supported, South or North.

We had to learn that even though it was the 1970s, this was a sundowner city. What’s that? I asked. “Blacks are okay in city limits during the day. Not after sundown,“ I was told. I was shocked but then I thought about how native people in Manitoba have often been treated.

There were small things. The most popular drink was Cherry Coke. I’d never heard of it. And I couldn’t ask for potato chips if I wanted French fries.

Although it sounds like stereotyping, there were dogs, coons, guns and mules. And coal towns where miners and their families lived until strip mining ripped out all the coal and left great gaping gashes in the land. Then, with no work, people moved and since most of the buildings were made of brick, the buildings sat in the Missouri heat until at least one town we regularly visited was bought by a single person who turned it into a furniture shopping mecca.

In the Icelandic Canadian community of Manitoba, poverty and the role of the fishing industry, the large American companies who exploited the fishermen, are all part of our culture. In Missouri it was the companies who came to strip away the coal, then leave wreckage behind.

There were, we found, talented musical instrument makers, local musicians and just as we often read and write about Riverton and the various groups who began there, there was local music.

There were revival meeting, especially in the spring. Hellfire and damnation preachers scaring the not-so-wicked into repenting and becoming reborn—at least for a few weeks.

There were the slow drawls and women in the local stores calling me “Honey”. There were wild persimmon trees. That’s what caused me to write this reminiscence. In Manitoba we searched out wild plums, raspberries, wild strawberries whose smell was the sweetest smell of summer, saskatoons and chokecherries.
persimmon tree Japan

In Missouri in the fall heat we saw trees covered in fruit that looked like small yellow tomatoes and when we asked were told these were persimmon trees. We did not know what to do with them so we left them on the trees. I regret not having asked because persimmons are eaten raw, are also cooked and used in baking. They are part of the local cooking and history and culture.

Today, these many years later, I ate a persimmon I’d bought at the local Chinese store. It was sweet, delicious and it made me think about my four years in a culture I loved but barely got to know. I canoed on one of the Ozark rivers, I taught for free in the basement of a bar in Kansas City, Mo., I saw a water moccasin on the road, I ate more pecan pie than is good for anyone’s blood sugar, I learned to shoot a pistol (badly) and I traveled through the night to a barn in the middle of nowhere to eat the best fried chicken I’ve ever eaten.

Most of these are small things. They are only connected by place. But that is the way culture is. It is a way of life much of which is governed by the landscape, by local resources, by history. It contains with it the good and the bad created by time and circumstance. The locals live it from the day they are born and they know a thousand thousand things. Those of us who come to it later never fully know the complexities of local culture but we can still be intrigued, interested, and do our best to understand.

Book Review: Historical Images of New Iceland Settlements

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Ben Holyk’s new book of historic photographs arrived today. It is called “Historical Images Lake Winnipeg New Iceland Settlements”. It covers more communities than usual: Arborg, Poplarfield, Fisher branch, Geysir, Gimli, Hecla Island, Hnausa, Ledwyn, Riverton, Winnipeg Beach. As well, it has a section on Lake Winnipeg Boats and Fishing. It is 376 pages and is crammed with pictures, many of which I have not previously seen.

I have read a fair amount about New Iceland, its people and places, the boats of Lake Winnipeg, the buildings, the farms but I’ve had to imagine what they looked like. Now, I have images for many of those people and places.

I’m happy to have a picture of the S.S.Colville, the ship that brought Icelanders to New Iceland but also a picture of an oxen team that was used in Arborg.

Pictures of Ragnheidur and Oscar Einarsson on their wedding day in 1914 and Sveinbjorg and Nikulas Halldorson provide a good idea of how people dressed. Dr. J. P. Palsson and his wife Sigudur in 1910, are fashion plates and one cannot help but wonder how their clothes were kept clean. No automatic washing machines. As far as I know, tubs and scrub boards and, if you could afford it, hired help were required to keep a person presentable.

Logging camps had bad reputations for the way they treated the men who worked for them. The work was hard, the pay low, the isolation complete and accommodation? Well, the picture of the logging camp north of Arborg provides a good idea of how loggers lived.

Wood, in the early days, was used for heating and cooking plus fueling the steam ships. It created a cordwood economy. It’s hard to imagine the amount of wood needed to fuel the local houses and the houses and businesses of Winnipeg. A sense of that can be seen in the picture of Chapil’s horse team hauling logs to the Arborg railway station, 1940.

One of the surprises in the book is provided by the pictures of Fisher Branch. There’s a general view taken in 1907 and a picture of the St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Church that was built in 1913. The Fisher Branch Creamery’s fleet of delivery vehicles is impressive. I count six nice looking cars. The Ukrainian Farmer’s Co-op store with its employees outside (I count 34) gives a sense of a thriving community. Trains arrived in 1914 and continued until 1980.

Geysir has always had a reputation many times its actually size. My impression of it has been of a dance hall (picture included), a church and a graveyard but Ben’s pictures show pictures of quite elaborate churches, St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic church (1913), Immaculate Conception RC church (1912) and Geysir Evangelical Lutheran Church (1928). There are pictures of the Geysir school, the students and staff, the men’s baseball team (baseball, when I was a boy in the 1940s was taken quite seriously), a threshing outfit and a rather amazing picture of J.K.B. Jonson hauling hay from Fisher Bay for Baldi Halldorson.

Gimli, as usual, takes up a good part of the book, mostly because people came there On holidays and took pictures. I see that at least one of them is credited to my great aunt Stina Johnson but others that I believe she took, are not. The picture of a Manitoba steam side paddler docking at Gimli in the 1910s gives me an image of what life was like in the 1910s that I never expected. My great grandfather’s store at the corner of Main & Centre in 1905 is displayed. It’s an often used photo and will be familiar to many. There’s a picture of the H.P. Tergesen house in 1906 when it sat on open land waiting for the town to be built around it. I was happy to see a picture of the Lutheran church with its spire. There’s a picture of “Beaver House, the Lake View hotel and Lyric Theatre taken sometime in the 1900s.

There are some fine pictures of campers’ cottages. I just wish that the locations were included. Many of the early cottages have been torn down and replaced with permanent houses. I was pleased to see a picture of Bjarnason’s grocery and dry goods store because no one except me seems to remember it. There’s a picture of the original Johnson Memorial Hospital that opened in January 28, 1939, just a few months too late for me to be born there. I’ve always regretted that and thought my mother could have waited or they could have finished the hospital sooner.

Hecla has been a storied place mostly because it is an island. Before the bridge was built from the mainland, access was by boat or ferry (picture included) and, during break up and freeze up, the people were isolated and left on their own to survive as best they could. As harsh as conditions were in the beginning, the local people built Hecla’s first school in 1890 and there is a picture of it.

What are amazing are the pictures of Reynistaour and the Tomasson Boarding house. There’s a picture of the Sigurgeirsson log house that served as a store and post office. There are pictures of a cat bringing logs from the north on five sleighs.

Hnausa often gets short shrift in articles about New Iceland. That is unfortunate because it played a major role in the prosperity of the early settlement. It was “a prosperous community, having a school postal office, store, saw mill, community hall, and a gas station.” It was here that “a trading and shipping centre was founded by Stefan and Johannes Sigurdson in 1890.”

Since I’ve read Glenn Sigurdson’s manuscript about his family’s role in the fishing industry, I know about the house and store that Stefan Sigurdsson built. However, I’d never seen a picture of them. Fortunately, there is such a picture and it fills me with amazement for who would think such elaborate and large buildings would be built in a small community on the shore of Lake Winnipeg?

Most people have forgotten, if they ever knew, but Hnausa held its own Islendingadagurinn in competition with Gimli. There are pictures of the celebration at Hnausa Park in 1932 and of the Fjallkona. There’s an excellent picture of winter freighting with a list of the men in the picture. Some are sitting on top of a sleigh of fish boxes and others lined up in front. There’s even a picture of their mobile home being pulled by two horses.

If Hnausa has been ignored in articles about New Iceland, Ledwyn has been cast into outer darkness. It’s wonderful that Ben has included Ledwyn. While there are Andersons and Arnasons among the pictures of the first settlers of Ledwyn, most of them are of Andrushankos, Bachynskis, Bonkowskis, Dziadykewiczs, Furgalas. These people don’t fit into the normal myth of New Iceland. However, they were every bit as much a part of New Iceland as the Icelanders. There are pictures of the catholic churches, of the Zinkowski store, of the Polish Hall, the community hall (where I had wonderful, memorable times) of the Ledwyn Band. There is a picture of school students that were taught by Peter and Mary Onysko. In 1961, Peter was the principal at Riverton and I was in my first year of teaching.

Riverton was supposed to be the capital of New Iceland but bad weather meant the barges carrying the settlers were cut loose and drifted to shore at Willow Point. Settlers moved north to settle along the lake shore. I found Ben’s description of the settlement of what was called Lundi, then Icelandic River and, finally, Riverton, unclear. I know the story, or at least some of it, but if I didn’t, I’d be confused.

It’s good that he adds in the Ukrainian settlers, the Hungarians, and the Mennonites but the local aboriginal people get short shrift even though they were very much part of the community. There are many pictures including some early ones of the bridges that joined the two sides of Riverton.

The Sigurdsson and Thorvaldson store gives a good example of prairie buildings. There are pictures of farm houses that became well known such as Bakka, Straumnee, Akri, Loni and Unaland. There’s a fine picture of Gunnsteinn Eyjolfsson’s threshing outfit at Unaland and a number of pictures of the freight trains that travelled over the lake in winter.

Riverton has always been known for its music and it is great that there is a picture of the Whiskey Jacks with an amazingly young group of musicians including my friend, Dennis Olson. There is a little bit of everything from Riverton Game & Fish Target Practise (people did shoot their dinner) and the Reggie Leach Night at the Riverton Hall (Reggie is called the Riverton Rifle but his rifle was his hockey stick and his bullet the puck).

I’ve never thought of Winnipeg Beach as being part of New Iceland but it was a big part of our life during the summer. We lived in anticipation of our parents taking us there for the day. It was the Coney Island of New Iceland, even of Manitoba.

Speculators saw a chance to make a lot of money selling lots at Winnipeg Beach for cottages. Therefore, the railway got pushed through to Winnipeg Beach. There’s a picture from 1903 with sailboats and tourists. The railway brought people by the thousands to ride on the ferris wheel, the roller coaster, to dance at the dance palace, to stay at the Empress Hotel. To buy lots and build cottages. The CPR wasn’t missing any tricks when it came to making a buck.

The astounding thing about these pictures and those in the book on the history of Winnipeg Beach is the contrast between the well to do who came to the Beach and the ordinary local people who were struggling to make a dollar. The Dance palace was one of the largest in Western Canada at 14,000 sq. ft. The picture that shows the boardwalk that fronted the beach and the shops where visitors could play games of chance makes clear just how fashionably dressed the visitors were.

I’m very pleased that Ben included the last section on Lake Winnipeg for while it was not a community in the sense of the towns and villages, it was still a community. It was spread all over the lake but it had its own identity. There are welcome pictures of the various freight boats plus pictures of how skiffs were towed out to the fishing grounds by the freighters. There are some pictures of the fishermen. However, the Lake Winnipeg fishery was large and has gone on for generations. It really deserves a book of its own.

This book would have benefited from an editor going over it for small details. There’s the occasional world spelled incorrectly and, in places, I thought some minor points were incorrect or, at least, confusing. However, this is not a book of text. It’s a book of pictures. It is a book that once bought, should be kept and if any corrections or additions are needed, the owner can put them in by hand. I wish this book had been published when my father was still alive. I’d have looked it over with him and added numerous notes in the margins about the places and people he knew. He spent a life time on Lake Winnipeg and in New Iceland and this book would have stirred many memories and stories.

If you grew up in New Iceland, this is a must book for your book shelf. It’s a book to share with friends and family. It can be ordered from Ben W. Holyk, Box 1316, Stonewall, MB R0C A20 for 39.95 plus shipping. His web page is BLAKK.com, email: blkholyk@mts.net.

The Things We Care About

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Strange, the things we care about. Some people care about the fate of the timber wolf or the prairie gopher or the red legged wombat. Others care about historic events, are fixated on Napoleon and the battle of Waterloo. Others are passionate about Mediterranean frescoes. There’s no accounting for taste.

Me, I care about Iceland. If someone asked me why, I’d have a difficult time explaining the reason.

My mother was born of northern Irish parents. That makes me half Irish. And the family tree goes back to Scotland. If family lore is accurate, two brothers came with Cromwell. One stayed, one went back to Scotland and disappeared in the fog and heather. The one who stayed is an ancestor of mine.

My father, in spite of his Icelandic name, was a quarter English. One of his grandfathers was a Bristow. There are in and around Oxford, lots of graves with stones that say Bristow.

So, that leaves me three eighths Icelandic. That’s not much to hang a passion on. Of course, there’s genetic folding in. Icelanders have a lot of Celtic background. The people who settled Iceland weren’t just Norwegians or Danes. However, that strengthens the Irish background, not the Norwegian.

A big part of that involvement in things Icelandic came from growing up in Gimli, Manitoba. Gimli was the centre for Icelandic immigration to Canada in the 1870s on. A lot of people came, stayed for a while among people who spoke the same language, who were relatives and friends, then moved on to places with better land and more opportunities. However, a core remained in Gimli and the neighbouring villages of New Iceland. There was Hnausa, Arnes, Ness, Riverton, Arborg, and, although it fell slightly outside the New Iceland boundary, Lundar. To the south there was Selkirk and, of course, Winnipeg, with its concentration in the West End that was known affectionately as Gooli town.

In the 1940s Gimli was still very Icelandic. People spoke the language at home and in conducting business. Church services were in Icelandic. However, my mother didn’t speak Icelandic so my father didn’t speak it at home and when I was an adult, I was surprised when I heard him talk to someone in Icelandic. So, it wasn’t the language that made me interested in all things Icelandic. It’s not like I knew the secret code. I couldn’t smugly talk to some of my friends and classmates in a language others couldn’t understand. I did learn pig latin but it didn’t make me identify with pigs or latin.

The defining event in Gimli every year was Islendingadagurinn, the annual Icelandic Celebration. There were official events. A woman was chosen Fjallkona, the Maid of the Mountains, dressed in regal robes, laid a wreath at the foot of a memorial cairn that, at that time, was across the street from our house. An elegant car would turn up, there’d be a bit of a cortege behind. The Maid would be led to the cairn, people from the cars would descend and gather. The Maid would dedicate the wreath to the pioneers, get back in her car and go to the Gimli Park. There, she would be led to a stage where she would preside over a toast to Iceland, a toast to Canada, numerous speeches, many of which were in Icelandic and were listened to raptly by an older crowd.

We’d have run the two blocks to the park to watch the formalities, then leave for the far corner of the park to compete in foot races in hope of winning enough for a hot dog and coke. From a kid’s perspective, the day was mostly about hotdogs slathered in mustard and relish. In the evening, we’d go with our parents to the park pavilion to watch adults dance to old time music. The Icelandic part of the day was eating Icelandic pancakes, prune tort, donuts, pickled lamb flank on brown bread.

There were a lot of Icelandic flags. Mostly, however, we hung around our parents’ house because relatives dropped by from far and near. There was a lot of eating, drinking and talking. The talking sometimes went on all night.

The town was very Lutheran and, at one time, services were in Icelandic. However, I don’t remember that. I’d have been at the Sunday School which was in English. We did have some ministers from Iceland. I don’t remember that having any effect on us.

When I was in grade three, Icelandic lessons were offered after school or on Saturdays. However, the first thing we were told was that in order to learn Icelandic you had to be exceptionally intelligent. I didn’t have any reason to believe I was exceptionally intelligent so I didn’t go back.

There was the Sunrise Lutheran camp. I went there a couple of summers. The only thing Icelandic I remember about it is the sago pudding. Icelanders consumed a lot of sago pudding. Someone said it was frog’s eggs and, after that, none of us would eat it.

There was, of course, the visible existence that the town was Icelandic. There was Tergesen’s general store with a drugstore and soda bar on the south side. Nowadays, it is mostly clothes, many of which are Icelandic and a bookstore. It’s the one place where you can go to get books by Icelanders and Icelandic North American writers.

There was Bjarnason’s store that was a mainstay of the town. It was half grocery store and half dry goods. There was Arnason’s dairy bar. Arnason’s had a dairy and delivered milk that was so rich that, in winter, the milk froze, popped the cardboard lids off and the cylinder that rose up was pure cream. We ate it. You could hear Icelandic being spoken in any of those places.

I don’t remember Gimli as being particularly Icelandic. I never heard of rotted shark or brenevin, nothing of Iceland’s history except that, at one time, there were Vikings there and not much was made of that. I never heard rimur, no toneless, tuneless chanting of rhymed verses. I don’t remember anyone quoting Havamal to me to get me to behave myself.

I was a voracious reader but I read the Hardy Boys and Robin Hood, not the sagas.

When I went to university, I met some students my age who were from the West End of Winnipeg. I don’t remember them talking Icelandic or any discussions we had being about Icelandic subjects. However, a process began to draw us into the Icelandic community. There were coffees at Walter Lindal’s and, if I remember correctly, I found myself discussing the Icelandic Canadian Magazine. Somehow, I got involved in the local Icelandic club. There may have been meetings at Will Kristjanson’s. Caroline Gunnarson became part of my life. These were stalwarts, promoters of all things Icelandic. Walter and Will both wrote important books about the Icelandic communities. Caroline was an editor.

Somewhere in there was Professor Besseson, the head of the Icelandic department at the University of Manitoba. He was offering a non-credit course in the evenings. It was the sagas in translation. My wife and I took it. The Icelandic department and the Icelandic library had begun to play their part.

Terry and Lorna Tergesen drew me into creating a literary event at the Icelandic Celebration.

And there is where it all starts to break down. You see, my Gimli experience wasn’t all that Icelandic. I loved perogis fried with onions and served with sour cream, hollopchi baked in tomato sauce, bowls of bright red borscht made with beets straight from the garden, turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes, pickerel fillets, sweet and sour pickerel, Cantonese food from Sam Toy’s café.

I loved going to Ukrainian weddings and dancing the polka and the butterfly. Add to that, the airport two miles from town with air force personnel from all over Canada and, eventually, from all over the world meant I was used to hearing French being spoken in Olsen’s bakery or Bjarnason’s general store.

There were, of course, Icelandic elements. Local women knitted sweaters made from Icelandic wool. There was Betel, the Icelandic old folk’s home. Tergesen’s store was an anchor for all things Icelandic. There were women who, on special occasions, wore the Icelandic dresses that women wore during the time of immigration. There were a lot of Icelandic books around because Icelanders are great readers and writers. However, if any of my classmates could read Icelandic, I didn’t know about it.

But the Gimli experience was skating and hockey, curling, eating pickerel fillets, stuffed whitefish, smoked goldeye, not cod, fresh or dried, although some people did still make hardfish. We didn’t practice glima, Icelandic wrestling. Instead, we played soccer on snow covered fields. We hunted rabbits and deer, geese and ducks. Some of us had trap lines for rabbits and muskrats.

In Iceland, the Little Ice Age put an end to growing grain because the fall in temperature meant that grain would not ripen. Icelanders did not farm. They grazed sheep and milk cows.

In Gimli the settlers had to become farmers and fresh water fishermen. Farmers broke land, learned to plow, to seed, to harvest grain, rye, oats, wheat, barley. I grew up with my father fishing through four to six feet of ice with nets created for Lake Winnipeg.

In Iceland there were no forests. Gimli was surrounded by forests. Wood in Iceland was rare and expensive. In Gimli, we built with wood, heated our houses with wood, cooked our food with wood. One of my childhood tasks was throwing stove wood into the basement in the fall. We lived in a wood economy.

In Iceland there was a homogeneous population. In one of the travel books I’ve read, an Icelandic farmer says to a visiting Englishman that he is the only foreigner he’s ever seen in his lifetime and he expects that he will never see another. In Gimli, we dealt with “foreigners” every day. My mother and her parents were foreigners, so were all the Ukrainians, Germans, and Poles. There were the summer cottagers, many originally from the UK but many Jewish immigrants from Europe. There were the local aboriginals.

There were few “real” Icelanders, that is Icelanders who came from Iceland during the time that I was a child. There were a couple of ministers and a fellow called Ragnar.

The only person I knew who went to Iceland to visit was my great aunt, Stina. She was going to come back and tell us about all the bishops and poets and rich farmers who were our ancestors. When she came back, she never said a word about her trip. Our ancestors were indentured servants, farm laborers and, in some cases, had children out of wedlock or were married numerous times because their wives died in childbirth. Her dream of a past filled with prestige and glory died like the grass in a cold Icelandic summer. We can’t claim to be related to Snorri Sturluson or any Viking heroes.

Stina’s belief in a golden past when our ancestors weren’t poverty stricken share croppers or indentured servants wasn’t so strange. A characteristic of Icelanders is an abiding belief in a glorious, golden past during the Viking age.

The fact that hundreds upon hundreds of years of poverty, of domination first by Norway, then Denmark, makes no difference. Icelanders, in their heart of hearts, know that not too long ago their ancestors were raiding and pillaging, driving their foes before them, risking everything on endurance, bravery and good luck. Never mind all those hundreds of years of sheep farmers.

Maybe that’s one of the reasons I like Icelanders. They are, on the surface, restrained. So much so that there are discussions and speeches about whether or not Icelanders actually have a sense of humour. However, scratch the surface or have a couple of drinks with them and a romantic streak is revealed. They don’t see themselves as bus drivers, fishermen, dentists, caretakers, stock brokers. No siree, beneath those daily facades, they are Vikings. That suit, white coat, overalls, covers up a Viking heart ready on a moment’s notice to row a longship into the North Sea in search of wealth and fame.

Even those of us who have only three eighths Icelandic blood share those distant dreams and memories. That belief in a golden age survived centuries of oppression, dire poverty, devastating epidemics, starvation, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, fjords filled with ice. Generation after generation said, well, things are pretty bad right now but there was a time when we ruled the seas, when we were honored guests at the king’s table, when no one spun greater stories than us.

That attitude served us well during the time of emigration. Faced with starvation and oppression people emigrated to North America. In the early years New World hardship replaced Old World hardship. People went hungry, died from everything it was possible to die from, struggled to survive, sometimes failed, but they still had those memories of the ancient past to comfort them.

Maybe part of my interest in all things Icelandic is that I’m linked to this difficult past. We celebrate and honour the people who died and those who survived the trip from Iceland to the New World, who survived Kinmount, who survived the cold and poor food and small pox at New Iceland. Hardship and overcoming it shapes people, determines what they believe, how they behave, creates an identity separate from those who did not share the experience.

So, who am I? Where did I come from? How can anyone know who they are without knowing their past? Without kings and queens, without wealth, without great cathedrals or mansions, Icelanders chose to determine their worth on their behaviour.

Cattle die and kinsmen die,
thyself too soon must die,
but one thing never, I ween, will die, —
fair fame of one who has earned. –from Havamal

Not everyone lived by the advice in Havamal. Not everyone lived like a proud Viking warrior but there, in the background, was an understanding of what behaviour should be like. The sagas, those replacements for the great cathedrals, the castles, the elegance of Europe, gave everyone a history of the golden age.

Much of this was lost by the time a fourth generation, that’s me, appeared. There was intermarriage, the desire to integrate so that better jobs, greater opportunities existed. Yet, there was enough retained to hold firm to an identity. The Icelandic Department at the University of Manitoba was funded, the Icelandic library, for a time, the Jon Bjarnason Academy, the Icelandic Canadian magazine, the newspapers, Logberg and Heimskringla, the various clubs that were formed, the INL. A lot of it is based on nostalgia for a past that is romanticized, not just that distant Viking past but the past of immigration, but it doesn’t matter. What immigrant past isn’t romanticized and idealized?

With the internet, publications and documents that before were hidden away in distant libraries have become available at little or no cost. It is possible, today, to read about what life was like for our great grandparents and great great grandparents, to read back, to the times beyond them, to know ourselves.

Maybe that’s why I identify with Iceland and Icelanders. The dream of a golden age infuses everything, is always there, Gunnar and Njal and dozens of other characters, so that while I’m caught up in the mundane, cutting the grass, washing dishes, buying groceries, there is the world beyond that, the world of bravery, excitement, daring, strength, adventure. It rises closer to the surface during the Thorrablots, the INL conference, the club events, the Icelandic Celebration, the Beck lectures, August the Deuce, Icelandic summer camp, the Snorri program.

What causes me to identify with Icelanders and Iceland is not just a personal question. It is a critical question for the continuing relationship between people of Icelandic descent in North America and the people of Iceland. Canada is a multi-cultural society. Intermarriage is the norm. History appears to have been abandoned by the educational system. I’m three eighths Icelandic. My children are three sixteenth. My grandchildren are three thirty seconds. How will we infuse them with a belief in the Golden Age, make them proud of their Icelandic history, make them feel it is their history?

Immigration

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When our Icelandic ancestors were faced with starving to death or risking their lives immigrating to North America, they had little idea of what they were getting into. An entire continent covered in endless forest. Just the size of North America was beyond comprehension. In place of valleys and mountains, there were days of traveling through dense forest. Winter, in Iceland, could be bitter, but not with the temperatures of the prairies.

The immigration agents came. There were brochures. There even may have been some letters from people who left early. But nothing prepared them for what was to come. The Canadian government was not soliciting immigrants for the benefit of the immigrants. They wanted immigrants to produce goods and order goods that would be transported on the railways. Politicians and businessmen wanted immigrants because they could make money on them.

There were no preparatory classes. No one said “We want immigrants to come to Canada. How can we help assure that they are successful?” No one bothered to look at the country of origin, learn about the immigrants and create a program to prepare them for what they would face. It would have taken very little to provide classes. Those could have been held in the harbours as the emigrants waited for their ships or they could have been held on the ships that went from Iceland to Scotland and from Scotland to Montreal.

How intelligent did someone have to be to look at Iceland and say, “No trees. They live in rock and sod huts. We’d better have a class on cutting down trees, preparing the logs for building, chinking the logs. Using an axe. There are no large wild animals in Iceland. We’d better teach them to use rifles and shotguns and how to hunt and trap. How to fish. The kinds of nets to use. The best way to clear land. The preparation of Canadian food. All of this, and more, could have been done on board the ships.

Local natives could have been hired for next to nothing to instruct the settlers how to best prepare for a winter in Canada.

The result was that the situation of the Icelanders became so desperate that they had to have help for internal relocation. They were the only group to receive such help. That help came from the sheer good luck of having Lord Dufferin as a powerful friend in Ottawa. Even with that help, there were desperate times.
What help and advice there was had to come from the Icelandic agents who helped recruit them. However, they did not have the resources to arrange for teachers on the ships who would over a period of two weeks or more teach the immigrants the basic skills they would need. The government and the railways had all the resources necessary.

The callous treatment of the immigrants wasn’t because the government didn’t have any money. They were spending millions on building railways. Graft was rife. To make matters worse the government, unless they were completely incompetent, knew that the immigrants were highly vulnerable. Many Icelanders didn’t speak English. They didn’t understand the Canadian legal system. They were dealing with corporations that cheated them on prices while providing poor equipment and food. All this could have been remedied by providing someone to represent them in business matters.

We often talk about the hardship of our pioneer ancestors but hardship can often be alleviated and alleviated at minimal cost. The hardship of the immigrants was, in large part, caused by dishonesty, corruption and callousness. Immigrants were seen as an opportunity for exploitation.

I’d add racism for many times I’ve heard about how Icelanders were not treated as equals by the British population in Winnipeg. Most people know the story of the Falcons and their struggle to be treated as equals in hockey. Or Icelanders killed at work sites simply being dismissed as Icelanders rather than as individuals.

Except, if you read Barry Broadfoot, you discover that even though the government preferred English, Irish and Scots settlers, they didn’t treat them any better. The immigration brochure at the top of this article makes no bones about how British subjects were preferred. Yet, the clerks and bakers and bookbinders from London, England who believed the propaganda about the glories of Canada and found themselves in sod huts on the prairies, miles from help and support, faced with trying to clear and break land, received less help than the Icelanders. The casualties were high. Suicide was common. Disease widespread. Despair everywhere.

And the agents that hung around the train terminals were no more honest with the English settlers than the Icelandic. Many cheated and stole at every opportunity.

Some decisions made by the government were just acts of gross stupidity. When people emigrated, they needed mutual support, they needed neighbours nearby. They couldn’t get that on 160 acres. The breaking of the land into quarter sections and, to make matters worse, often making intervening sections unavailable, isolated the settlers, deprived them of family, friends and community. How smart do you have to be to say this is not in the best interest of the settlers? We should organize the land in ways that made it easier for people to support each other. Instead, the land was divided up in a way that would maximize profit for the railways and the government.

However, the politicians and powerful businessmen, particularly those on the railways, weren’t interested in the welfare of the settlers, the Icelandic ones, the English ones, the German ones, none of them. Fortunes were being made by people closely connected with the power brokers in Ottawa. Your people and mine were cannon fodder. That they survived and, finally, prospered, is a miracle that needs to be recorded, honored, remembered.

When I look at old newspapers and magazines from Winnipeg and see advertisements for Icelandic businesses, I am amazed. The fishermen and farmers carved a living out of forest and lake and the Icelandic businessmen elbowed their way onto the streets of Winnipeg and made a living in a hostile environment.

To deny the callousness, the corruption, the exploitation, the dishonesty that existed is to take away credit from our people.

Putting food on the table, establishing a business, getting an education, making a place in society wasn’t made easy. It wasn’t just the land and the weather that our people had to overcome.

But people like my great grandfather, coming to Canada with nothing, created a dairy, bought a farm, partnered in a general store. I don’t think the establishment reached out a helping hand. For that, he needed the Icelandic community.

I think as we celebrate Islendingadagurinn, we need to pause and look around at what we have accomplished, as a community, in Canada, in the USA, and say, “The lives we lead, our place in society, was built on sacrifice and hardship, bravery and determination. We need to stop at the pioneer graveyards and say, “Bless you. Bless you.”

Levis and Me

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The California gold rush of 1853 was too early for the Icelanders to participate. It also was on the wrong side of the North American continent. Passage to and from Iceland was still by sailing ships. It was unreliable, dangerous and expensive. Nearly twenty years were to pass before the wave of Icelandic emigration would bring Icelanders to Canada and, from there, to the United States.

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Twenty years earlier than the Icelandic immigration, Levi Strauss, a young German immigrant, crossed from New York to San Francisco . Responding to demand created by miners who needed tough clothing, he first used tough canvas that was supposed to be for tents and wagon covers.

In 1873, while Icelanders were making their way to places like Kinmount, Ontario, Levi Strauss began to use the pocket stitch design and co-patented the process that allowed rivets to be put into Levi pants.

It’s the 150th anniversary for Levi Strauss because the company received its patent on the rivet’s procedure on May 20, 1873.

By 1953, blue jeans were in style in Gimli, Manitoba and no blue jean was more coveted than Levi’s. They were the jeans I longed for, hungered for, wished for. Tight (I was skinny as a rail in those days), with a leather belt and cowboy boots, there were no pants that made me feel better. Of course, that was for daily wear. For dressing up, yes, we dressed up in those days, for dances and parties, we needed drapes, as wide at the knee as possible, as narrow at the cuff as possible. But those were for special occasions. Levis were for school, sports, work, and we didn’t pre-stress them. They got stressed because we lived in them.

The girls, of course, treated their jeans differently. They were known to struggle into them, get into a bathtub of hot water, then get out so the jeans would shrink to fit their body. That made the boys want to take them off but since they were shrink-wrapped fit there wasn’t much chance of that happening. Put on like that they were as close to a chastity belt as you could get. How the girls did actually get out of them at the end of the day, I have never been able to figure out.

There were other brands of jeans, I’m sure, but, if so, I don’t remember their names. It was the stiff denim, the boot cut, the studs, the stitched pockets that made a boy feel like a man and, even though there were no cowboys anywhere in sight, we tucked our thumbs into our belts and leaned against whatever happened to be handy. Oh, for that 22 inch waist once again, that sense that a pair of Levis made you look good, feel good and anything was possible.

Icelandic lambs, 1862

icelandic sheep

Am I the only person from the Icelandic community in Manitoba who grew up knowing so little about our Icelandic heritage?

I knew about the Icelandic Celebration, except we called it Islendingadagurinn and were proud that it sounded so foreign and exotic.

I visited Grandma Bristow with my mother. They played cards. I got to look at stereoscopic pictures. I got to eat ponnukokur. However, I didn’t get to hear them talk Icelandic because my mother was an Irish girl from the city.In spite of her married name Grandma Bristow had come from Iceland.

Outside of someone having an Icelandic sweater, I don’t remember much about Iceland in Gimli. There was the Lutheran church but by the time I was going, the services were in English and the posters on the bulletin board were about raising money for Africa.

People had Icelandic names: Ejyolfson, Sigurdsson, Bjarnason, Narfason. Nobody was called –dottir.
When I read about farmers in Iceland getting together and discussing the sagas in great detail, I’m quite amazed. I didn’t hear about the sagas until I took a course on the sagas in translation with Haraldur Besesson. By that time I was in university.

Most of our childhood life was about Gimli. Hockey, playing baseball, soccer, football, riding our bicycles, going swimming at the dock, going skating on the lake or at the rink, prairie blizzards, deer, moose, pickerel, white fish. Icelandic only appeared in grade three when lessons were offered after school. I went a couple of times. My dad talked a little Icelandic in the barber shop. When we went for coffee at the relatives, they sometimes talked in Icelandic but not everyone could speak it so they usually stuck to English.

I don’t remember any Icelandic holidays. No bursting day. Although my mother did make cream puffs.

I don’t remember any Icelandic history. We didn’t know any Canadian history, never mind Icelandic.

Maybe it was because Gimli was more cosmopolitan than most small towns. From the time the trains arrived, I think in 1906, there were summer cottagers. They brought their city manners and behaviours with them. Then there was the airbase. We all knew airmen. The local girls married airmen. A lot of people got jobs at the airbase. We mixed with people from all across Canada and, later, from other countries.

Maybe I’m just making excuses for my own ignorance but it wasn’t until I took an interest in 19th C Iceland and began to do a lot of research that I started to learn about what life was like for my great great grandparents and my great grandparents in Iceland. The few things I’d heard when a few people were bragging about being descended from Icelanders turned out to nonsense. No, Iceland was not a democracy. No, everyone wasn’t equal. No, they didn’t just eat lichen in times of starvation. Etc.

That’s why it’s a joy to read a book such as Faroe and Iceland by A. J. Symington. It’s not a deep or profound book, it’s not crammed with statistics, but his descriptions and anecdotes are clear. As he and his companions travel through the Icelandic wilderness, he says

“We saw numerous farms as we passed along, each consisting of a group of irregular hillocks, with the windows hid deep in the grassy turf like portholes, and generally turned inwards so as to be sheltered from the roaring blasts of winter. We met ponies trudging along conveying lambs from one farm to the next. It was curious to see the little animals looking out of square crate-like boxes, made of spars of wood, slung in the manner of panniers on a donkey, and to hear them bleat: reminding one of the old nursery rhyme “young lambs to sell!”

That anecdote is worth the book. Isn’t a fine picture of how lambs were moved in a country without roads or wheeled vehicles. I’ve not come across such a description anywhere else.

I like to think of my great great grandparents riding with lambs in cages on either side of an Icelandic horse. It isn’t a Gimli scene. It is a purely Icelandic scene. What scene could be more romantic than Icelandic horses in a line threading their way through the wilderness, carrying crates with lambs?

The Good Neighbour

dempseyflowers

This is my father in his garden at Frog Point, Humbug Bay, Manitoba. It is north of Hecla, nearly at Pine Dock.The government launched a plan at one point to see if people could grow gardens in these northern communities along the lake. They should just have gone to my father’s fish camp and taken a look. he didn’t need any grant.

Last summer, after being in Manitoba for three and a half months, when I returned to Victoria, I found an azalea and a rhododendron dead. It had been a dry summer. They were beautiful plants, valued parts of the garden that fronts my house. I have no lawn. Just a garden of mixed shrubs and flowers. Also, when I left for Manitoba, my fig tree was covered in new figs. When I came back, the figs had dried up and fallen off the tree.

Perhaps it is vanity but Victoria, given its climate, is a city of garden proud people. Plants of all kinds flourish here. When I first moved to Victoria in the early seventies, I was amazed to discover trees and flowers that we’d had in southern Missouri. The climate allows extravagances such as the palm tree in Playfair Park. People grow palms simply because they can. More spectacular, though, are the tulip trees, astounding fountains of flowers. The rhodos at the University of Victoria are breath taking.

Not to garden seems churlish. Only the blackest of thumbs couldn’t make something grow.

I come from a family with two stellar gardeners. My father, surprisingly, a rough, tough commercial fisherman, loved to garden. At his fish camp along the west shore of Lake Winnipeg, he grew masses of flowers, rows of vegetables. The soil that lay over the limestone had been undisturbed for eons and he had all the fish offal he could possibly use for fertilizer. My Irish grandmother was the other gardener but while she grew some flowers, her heart’s desire was vegetables. Her city garden, created under difficult circumstances, flourished, was laden with string beans, peas, was packed with carrots, beets, parsnips, potatoes. Her side yard provided plums from wild plum trees she’d brought from the forests around Gimli. Rhubarb and strawberries flourished.

That is why, too busy editing and writing, too busy going to Manitoba for Islendingadagurinns and ice festivals and holidays, I’ve left my garden untended, unweeded, unwatered. In spite of that the Grape Hyacinth have provided a wonderful display among a mass of white flowers the name of which I do not know. The daffodils look like they are on steroids. The rhodos, after looking limp last fall, are bursting with large red blooms. However, they all show the signs of stress from last summer.

I swore before I left this year, I’d have an automatic irrigation system in place. Those who don’t know me won’t understand what a brave and foolish statement that was. Mechanical systems defeat me. Fortunately, there live across the street a couple who are exceptional gardeners. Someone recently said to them, “If I were getting married, I’d want to get married on your lawn.” You only need a glimpse at their “lawn” to understand why.

When I mentioned to David that I was going to put in a micro watering system, he took me around his yard to show me how such a system worked. Then I went off, with his advice, to buy the component parts. Knowing nothing, when a salesman sold me the wrong plastic tubing, I bought it. It put me back a day and after trying to make the tubing work, David went with me to HD and we were told, oops, sorry, wrong tubing. And, no, we don’t have any of the right tubing but if you drive to Rona in Langford (this is quite a distance) they have some. End of day one.

Today, I left early for Rona, found the correct tubing, plus some more bits and pieces sold separately and after having watched what David did yesterday, went to tackle putting the system in place. Fortunately, my neighbour saw me and came over. And, for the next four hours, did most of the work required to get the system in place and working. We both got soaked. It was chilly. Didn’t matter.

I’m a bit thunderstruck. I’ve always been lucky with my neighbours but help for two days in a row getting in an irrigation system is beyond anything I’ve ever experienced outside of small town Manitoba. This is, after all, the big city.
Good neighbours make a community. If there are more people here who are like my neighbours across the street, I really have moved not just into a house, but into a community.

The Arborg Thorrablot

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It was cold.  Not a little cold. The kind of cold that if your car breaks down on the highway, fifteen minutes later you’ve become an ice sculpture.

There was drifting snow swirling across the highway. The only evidence of life were four ravens on the white wasteland. Four ravens waiting for us to turn into ice sculptures. I could hear them muttering “We’ll start with their eyes. That’s the tastiest part.”

Three Ravens in snow

There was snow, snow all the way to the horizon. Snow drifts you could sink into up to your waist.

However, Arborg was having a Thorrablot and being there was worth any risk. Arborg knows how to put on a Thorrablot to die for.

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Our MC for the evening.

Avery Simundsson was the Master of Ceremonies and she kept the evening organized and under control. I’d recommend  her as an MC for Thorrablot’s everywhere.

The highlight of a Thorrablot is always the food. The greatest compliment I heard was “This is just like a really good Lundar dinner.” No greater praise has any meal ever received. People left the buffet table with towering plates of hungikjot, roast beef, mashed turnip and potatoes, peas, cole slaw, green salad, gravy. The desserts glowed like jewels but since I have celiac disease I couldn’t eat any of the slices and pies. Instead, I helped myself to skyr. There was the biggest bowl skyr I’ve ever seen. With a platter of fruit beside it to assuage one’s conscience. I told Helga Malis who was sitting beside me as I gorged myself, the fresh pineapple, melon, strawberries, and grapes had negative calories so I shouldn’t put on any weight.

Our table was the Gimli table. People from the different communities gather at their own tables. It’s an ancient instinct, totally tribal. However, there was visiting among the tribes and visiting is second only to food. I was the only male at our table so I modestly claimed the other members of the table as my harem.  It was that kind of evening. Oh to be a teenager again. Me and ten beautiful women.

If you don’t go to Thorrablots, you won’t understand the importance of the visiting. I got to see Birna and PJ from the Icelandic department. Birna is the chair. Peter is a professor in the department. I got to see David Thomasson. His dad and my dad were good friends. They’re both now fishing on the big lake up yonder. Atli and Þruður were there. This will be one of their last events before Atli retires and they go back to Iceland after nine years among us. We all think the Icelandic government should just appoint him Consul General for Life. I met some Facebook friends, particularly Joel Fridfinnson. He promised to take us for a tour of the heritage property at Riverton. I look forward to it.

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Rosalind and Einar Vigfusson

I got to talk to talk to the well-known carver, Einar Vigfusson. He  has been to Iceland five times to teach wood carving. I also got to talk to the translator, Borga Jakobson.

There was a program, the kind of program that it is worth travelling through the Arctic Chill to hear and see.

Pall Bjornsson and  his wife came from Iceland to join us in celebrating our survival of the winter. (Except, of course, the day after, a blizzard hit. I returned to Victoria that next day, not to escape six feet of snow and temperatures that would make a polar bear happy but because I had business to attend to.)

Pall gave a speech and slide show about the Legacy of Jon Sigurdson. He had an interesting talk on Jon. He showed us a picture of stacked up books written about this father of Icelandic independence. It is just slightly shorter than the Alps. He talked about Jon’s life after death. There is a museum about Jon, an annual celebration in his honour (for which Western Icelanders, that’s us, can take the credit), a statue in Reykjavik and a duplicate in Winnipeg, numerous commemorative plates with his picture on them, a gay bar named after him, pictures on Icelandic currency. He’s more alive now that he’s dead than he was when he was alive. No one has reported seeing him in Laundromats but like Elvis and Diana, or, more accurately, they, like him, have vigorous lives after death.

Atli gave a farewell speech. But I’ll talk about that separately because what Atli has to say to us takes some telling.

The amazing Rosiland Vigfusson, although she no longer trains and conducts a children’s Icelandic choir, organized a choir to sing for us. They only had a chance to practice five times and, in spite of that, entertained us admirably.

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The choir

David Gislason, poet, translator, singer, introduced each of the songs. Havð er svo glatt (Jonas Hallgrimsson); Minni Íslands (Bövar Jakobsson, text, music Rosalind Vigfusson); The Wayfarer (Stefán G. Stefánsson); Vas við hofið (Hákon Aðalsteinsson, music Rosalind Vigfusson); Nú er su stund (traditional).

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The women singing to the men

The highlight of the evening, though, was when the men got up to sing Fasturlandins Freyja  to the women and then the women got up to sing Táp og fjör og friskir menn to the men. (The spelling may not be exact as I’m in Victoria reading David’s handwritten notes. I hope I got it right and that the last two words of the women’s song shouldn’t read frisky men.)

There was music after the event but hardly anyone danced. That’s partly our age. I think, though, it  might be our Lutheranism lurking in the background. When I was a teenager, the church elders lived in fear of our having sex because it might lead to dancing. Instead, we did what Icelanders love to do, visit, talk, discuss genealogy, discover cousins of various sorts, renew acquaintances. Have a second helping of skyr.

By the time we left the hall, the cold had come down like iron. However, the wind had dropped. The snow ghosts had stopped scurrying across the highway. The road was good but there were icy patches. I drove very carefully. The ravens had given up hope of a meal of frozen eyeballs and had retreated to wherever ravens go at night.

It was a Thorrablot to remember.

 

 

 

The Bard of Riverton

 

In 1961-62 I lived in Riverton, Manitoba. It was a memorable year. The one thing I didn’t do was meet Guttormur. I regret that. I was already writing. Already wanted to be a published author. I knew of his poem “The Winnipeg Icelander” but really didn’t know anything about the author. Part of that is being busy in my first job teaching high school, being young, being recently married. It’s a time of life when one’s focus is more inward than outward.

An opportunity missed. Guttormur was born in 1878. He died in 1966. He was born in New Iceland and his interests and concerns in his poetry was largely about the settlers. These are the people he knew. He was in a different situation from Stephen G. Stephenson, the Alberta poet who was born in Iceland and didn’t come to Canada until his late teens.

I always regarded Riverton as a bit wild. It was something of a frontier town. For a long time it was the end of the road. Here is where the horse and cat trains left for their hard journeys north along Lake Winnipeg. This was their first civilized stop on the way back. The Riverton Hotel was famous (notorious) for the hard drinking and fighting that went on there.

Surprisingly, or maybe not, it turned out highly intelligent, successful students. My classes were memorable for the abilities of the students. For in the frontier -roughness was a culture that valued learning and literature. It was a place where the bar room brawler could also talk  knowledgeably about the sagas or quote verses from Havamal.

It was a place where someone like Guttormur could live and write.

If there is one thing I admire more than others about Icelandic Canadians it is their ability to laugh at their own foibles and Guttormur, in “The Winnipeg Icelander”, does just that. He hears on a daily basis how Icelanders have adapted their Icelandic and have mixed it with English. However, they say it in Iceland, in New Iceland it’s a mix of Icelandic and English “on Main street with my five dollar cheque.” And you may be able to say “út í marshi‘ but what do you do with “moose”. There ain’t no moose in Iceland. There is a story told about the first settlers not having any idea what a moose was thought that when it was suggested they go hunting for a moose to feed themselves that they thought it was mice they were looking for.

Eggert Peterson left me a message on my blog site asking me to post the entire poem. Here it is. He says that when a relative of his used to read it out loud at gatherings, he laughed so much that he could hardly finish reading.

Guttormur, you’ve been gone awhile now. However, we haven’t forgotten you. This is a tip of our hat to you. Thanks for the poems you left behind. Some people leave death, destruction and pain behind them. You, like many poets, left love and laughter. Thanks.

Eg fór on’ í Main street með fimm dala cheque
Og forty eight riffil mér kaupti
Og ride út á Country með farmara fékk,
Svo fresh út í brushin eg hlaupti.
En þá sá eg moose, út í marshi það lá,
O my- eina sticku eg brjótti!
Þá fór það á gallop, not good anyhow,
Var gone þegar loksins eg skjótti.

Að repeata aftur eg reyndi’ ekki at all,
En ran like a dog heim til Watkins.
En þar var þá Nickie með hot alcohol.
Já, hart er að beata Nick Ottins.
Hann startaði singing, sá söngur var queer
Og soundaði funny, I tell you.
Eg tendaði meira hans brandy og beer,-
You bet, Nick er liberal fellow.

Og sick á að tracka hann settist við booze,
Be sure, að hann Nickie sig staupti.
Hann hafði’ ekki í lukku í mánuð við moose
Af Mathews hann rjúpu því kaupti.
-Í Winnipeg seg’r ann að talsverðan trick
Það taki að fira á rjúpu
Og sportsmann að gagni að gefa ‘enni lick,
En God – hún sé stuffið í súpu.

Við tókum til Winnipeg trainið-a fly,
Nick treataði always so kindly.
Hann lofði mér rjúpuna’ að bera’ upp í bæ
Eg borgaði fyrir það, mind ye.
Svo dressaði Nick hana’ í dinnerin sinni
Og duglega upp ‘ana stoppti,
Bauð Dana McMillan í dinnerinn sinn,
„Eg drepti ‘ana,“ „sagði’ ann, „á lofti.“