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A Gem Worth Waiting For

An Icelandic-Canadian novel appears in English after 110 years

David Arnason

The Young Icelander

Jóhann Magnús Bjarnason, translated by Borga Jakobson

Formac Publishing Company Limited

336 pages, softcover

There is a lovely spot in Manitoba where a small stream runs through a gentle rise on the prairie. There, at the site of his homestead, the author Jóhann Magnús Bjarnason is commemorated with a plaque dedicated to him by the Icelandic-Canadian community in Manitoba. Not many Canadian writers have their home places marked as historic sites and, in particular, not many writers who did not write in English or French. I grew up in the Interlake area of Manitoba, where Bjarnason spent much of his life, mostly in Geysir, Manitoba, a few miles from Lake Winnipeg, and although I visited the site many times, I had no idea of his reputation as a writer. The translation of his most important novel into English may help to reduce his obscurity in this country.

Bjarnason’s work was very well received in Iceland, and he still has a substantial reputation there. The novel is now in its fourth edition. The Young Icelander is the retitled new translation of Eirikur Hansson: A Novel from Nova Scotia, by Bjarnason (1866–1945). Originally published in three parts in 1899, 1902 and 1903, these sections were subtitled Book I, “Childhood,” Book II, “The Struggle,” and Book III, “Aspirations.” Bjarnason’s work was written almost entirely in Icelandic, and only recently have any of his works been translated into English. Borga Jakobson, the translator of the present volume, also translated a collection of his short stories, Errand Boy in the Mooseland Hills.

It is a pity that his work was not translated much earlier. Bjarnason has a keen observant eye, and the picture he draws of Nova Scotia in the last quarter of the 19th century is compelling. I know of no work in English other than The Clockmaker by Thomas Haliburton, published in the 1830s, that combines such accurate observation, such details of quotidian life and such a range of characters and events.

The novel is a Bildungsroman, a tale of the growing up of the hero and, like others of its type, it is necessarily episodic. There is no central dramatic tension to give the novel its focus, but a series of encounters and events and the unfolding character of the protagonist give it its coherence. The novel reads like an autobiography, but the events of the novel are sufficiently different from Bjarnason’s own life to mark the work as imaginative fiction.

The Young Icelander begins as Eirikur Hansson arrives in Canada in 1875 with his grandparents. They are penniless and speak no English. Soon, however, they have a homestead. It is on barren land and it is difficult to eke out a living. The kindness of the Nova Scotia government and the sense of community of the immigrant Icelanders allow them if not to prosper at least to survive. Eirikur goes to school and faces an abysmally cruel teacher to whom he is nonetheless grateful for teaching him English. But shortly thereafter his grandfather dies and his grandmother, unable to run the farm by herself, sends him out at eleven years of age to live with an Irish woman, Mrs. Patrick. She is the first in a series of grotesques and comic figures that Eirikur encounters, a fierce and irrational woman who wishes to transform Eirikur into her son and will brook no resistance. She even changes his name to “Pat.”

Eirikur escapes and is recaptured by John Miller, Mrs. Patrick’s retainer, who never addresses anyone but speaks only to his horses, assuming that his human audience will overhear him. Eirikur finally gets away through the intervention of a lovely young woman named Lalla, whom he adopts as his sister, and her policeman father, Mr. Sanford, who has the unfortunate habit of beginning every sentence with the word “Ahem.”

Like most Icelandic Canadians even to this day, Eirikur has an inordinate pride in his background and a firm belief that Icelanders are a superior race who overcome every kind of hardship they encounter. He carries with him his New Testament and a collection of the poems of Jónas Hallgrímsson, convinced that one could never need more than these two books.

The rest of the novel details a series of encounters that provide comic relief and brief moments of dramatic tension. Eirikur works in a mine, he becomes an assistant to a doctor, he travels almost destitute and he survives largely on the kindness of strangers. After a series of encounters, he finds his way to Halifax in search of Lalla and her father. His fortunes change, and he is able to enroll in Dalhousie University, although not to complete his studies. He eventually marries and moves to Manitoba to farm.

In mild contrast to his fictional hero, Bjarnason came to Canada with his parents in 1875 and left for Manitoba in 1882 when he was 16. The Markland community, as Icelanders called the area of the Mooseland Hills where they settled, was a tiny offshoot of the great migration of Icelanders to the New World that occurred between 1874 and 1883. The main group settled originally in Kinmount, Ontario, near Peterborough, where they spent a year working on the railroad and trying to determine where they would found a colony to be called New Iceland. Most of the settlers travelled to Manitoba, where they established their settlement along the banks of Lake Winnipeg, but a small contingent moved to Nova Scotia. By the mid 1880s most of them had moved either to Manitoba or to North Dakota.

The Young Icelander captures that moment in time. The novel begins with an evocation of the glorious place the child Eirikur remembers. It is the immigrant’s dream of home, in which all harsh details are forgotten and only happy memories remain. Eirikur’s mother has died before he was two, and his father has disappeared. He is raised by his grandparents, amma and avi, who decide to immigrate to America, lured by the promise of a land of endless opportunity. Bjarnason writes from a child’s point of view, and he captures the reduced lexicon and the naive vision of a child, but both the language and the vision mature as the protagonist grows older.

Borga Jakobson’s translation is excellent. The dialogue is lively and smoothly presented. It faces the problem that most translations face: how can you transform words and expressions from one language into another that does not have equivalents? Jakobson explains many of these expressions via direct intervention into the text, but for the most part these moments are not intrusive and they do have explanatory value. She includes as well a series of endnotes, a translator’s notes and a brief biography of the author.

The book includes as well an excellent preface by Birna Bjarnadóttir, the head of the Icelandic department at the University of Manitoba. It explains a good deal of the background of the work and puts the novel into its perspective in Icelandic literature. But the novel is not only Icelandic literature. It is also Canadian literature, and this translation will allow it to take its place in the history of Canadian literature along with works originally written in Ukrainian, Swedish and German. Perhaps there are more gems of this sort waiting to be discovered. 

David Arnason is a Winnipeg writer who teaches at the University of Manitoba. His novel Baldur’s Song: A Saga was published by Turnstone Press in 2010.