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Bréfin frá sólskinsbörnum (The letters from sunshine children)

An interview with scholar Christopher Crocker

In June of 1916, the children’s newspaper Sólskin, a supplement to the weekly North American Icelandic-language newspaper Lögberg, published a letter from a 14-year-old boy in Iceland. The letter was addressed to the Sólskinsbörn (Sunshine children), the children of Icelandic immigrants to North America. The letter described what it was like to be a youth in Iceland and urged Western Icelandic children to read the Icelandic sagas, which describe the "courageous deeds of our ancestors" and instill a sense of belonging to the Icelandic culture.

The letter caught the eye of Christopher Crocker, a scholar of medieval and modern Icelandic literature based in Winnipeg, because it was one of the first published works of the most renowned writers and translator of the sagas, the Nobel Laureate Halldór Laxness. Christopher gained access to the 150 letters-to-the-editor published in Sólskin from its inception in October 1915 until May 1918. In reading the letters, he found that Sólskin facilitated an interactive community of first- and second-generation North American-Icelandic children living across the borders of the United States and Canada, as far east as the Great Plains and as far west as the Pacific Ocean. Believing that Sólskin may have strengthened and shaped the North American-Icelandic cultural identity, he embarked on a project to translate these letters into English. He wants to share the translations with other scholars, Western Icelanders, and anyone else who might be interested.

Christopher Crocker
Christopher Crocker

Christopher Crocker will be making a presentation on the Sólskin Letters at the 2023 Icelandic National League of North America Convention in Banff, Alberta on Saturday, May 13, 2023.

Recently, I asked Christopher some questions about this fascinating project that brings to light the lives of children of Icelandic descent living in North America in the early 20th century. We discuss how the letters offer a glimpse into the lives of young children navigating Icelandic culture from a new continent. We will share some of the passages from these touching and insightful letters. Here is our discussion:

[JD] What initially interested you in the Sólskin letters?

[CC] I feel that they are an extremely interesting and uniquely valuable source for the history of the North American-Icelandic community, as well as for researchers interested in Prairie history, immigration history, and the history of children's culture and media in North America. I decided to translate the letters in order to make them more accessible to researchers and to living relatives of some of the letter writers who might have difficulty accessing them in their original language.

[JD] You note that the letters provide insight into the reading habits of children at the time. Were there other things you learned while doing this project?

[CC] Probably the most interesting thing I learned was simply the existence of such a widespread community of children of Icelandic descent not only reading the same things but communicating with one another through the pages of Sólskin. It was sometimes rather moving when children explicitly acknowledged the value of the sense of community Sólskin and its letters generated among them. This is the case, for example, for eight-year-old Stefán B. Ísdal of Cloverdale, B.C. (IR# I543443), who wrote in a letter: “Over time we get to know each other through our letters, even though the distance between us is great.”

[JD] Were there notable language characteristics distinct to Western Icelanders that came through in the letters?

[CC] There are a few instances with clear borrowings of English words adapted to Icelandic grammar. For example, "cents" and "dollars" were often used when talking about money. There is also the issue that the letters in Sólskin were reproduced in print (most likely from hand-written originals that no longer exist). As such, it's not clear to what degree the hand of the editor, Siggi Júl (who was born in Iceland and didn't move to North America until he had reached adulthood), influenced the texts of the letters. He may have, for example, fixed language differences that he regarded as mistakes. Some of the children actually asked him to correct their letters.

[JD] These children were communicating with others like themselves living very far away. The bulk of the letters come from Canada and span the provinces. What was the distribution in the United States? [CC] Roughly 10% of the letters are from the United States. From North Dakota, there are eight letters sent. These were by Kristín O. Sveinsson (Mountain), Pálina Hoggard (Edinburg), Ólína Theodora Erlendson (Edinburg), Krstín Ásmundson (Upham), Sigríður Helga and Margrét Ruby Hjálmarsson (Walhalla), Magnús Hjálmarson (Hensel), and Jón Hannesson (Svold). From Washington state, there are six letters sent. These were by Bertha Bjarnson (Bellingham), Stefania M. Goodman (Bellingham), Jóhanna Rosenkranza Hafliðason (Blaine), Jóhanna R. Hafliðason (Blaine), Sig. Ólafsson (Blaine), and Soffia Anderson (Point Roberts).

[JD] Several of the letters really demonstrate the impact of the Sólskin forum on the children. A letter by Laurens Admundson of Silver Bay, MB, stands out. His mother was sick and she had to go to the hospital. He writes, "I want to advise you, dear Sunshine children, to play in nature when you feel bad." She recovers from her illness, and Laurens thanks Sólskin for the newspaper's support. Bertha Bjarnsson of Bellingham, Washington, describes how she and her siblings learn Icelandic after attending English school all day. Other children write of their older brothers in the war. At least one child retells a story of a huldufólk visiting her mom as a child in Iceland. Is there a particular letter, or are there letters that struck you as having a personal, social, or cultural impact on these children?

[CC] Yes, these are all excellent examples of Sólskin's impact on the children's lives. I can probably identify several other things in line with this question that jumped out at me. Just one example is how, in several letters, children mention that their parents don't buy or subscribe to Lögberg, so they must borrow Sólskin from their relatives or neighbors. As you might know, readers of the two main Icelandic-language papers in North America, Lögberg and Heimskringla, were typically divided along denominational and political lines. Lögberg's readers were often members of the Lutheran Church and supporters of the Canadian Liberal Party or the Republican Party in the United States. Heimkringla's readers were often members of the Unitarian Church and supporters of the Canadian Conservative Party or the Democratic Party in the USA. Without knowing more information about the writer's families, we can't be sure, but it seems likely that at least some of these children borrowing the paper belonged to "Heimskringla" families. In this respect, it's interesting to consider how Sólskin could function as a kind of bridge across denominational and political divisions in the North American-Icelandic community.

[JD] What else would you like us to know about this project? [CC] In addition to the translations, I have an article coming out in the Prairie History journal later this year (tentatively, in their summer issue) that provides a bit more historical context and highlights a few of the key themes or topics that feature in the letters. I'm also working on a short book about the Sólskin letters, in collaboration with Birna Bjarnadóttir of the University of Iceland, for the Icelandic publisher Hin kindin. We're hoping the book will be published in time for the INL convention in Banff in May.

[JD] Christopher, thank you for your time. [CC] Thank you.

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