By Sverrir Sigurdsson
A memoirist is supposed to depend mainly on his memory. For me, though, I wanted my
memoir to reflect not just my personal life but also the lives of those who came before me.
Life is a relay, every leg a continuation of the previous one. To understand me, I have to
understand my family history. I was born in Iceland just before the Second World War. Steeped in the sagas of Viking adventures, I always knew I would go on a voyage of my own. Thus, at age 19, I left home to study architecture in Finland. Upon graduation, I embarked on a three-year plan to see the world. I was supposed to return to Iceland after satisfying my wanderlust. More than 60 years have lapsed, but discounting occasional visits, I still haven’t gone home. I’m now settled in the Washington, DC area, after having worked in thirty countries as an architect.
Since I’m located in the US, I was worried that access to material on my parents and
grandparents might be a challenge. As it turned out, all I needed was to push some buttons on my computer, and the internet would spew out like a bottomless fount, everything I could or couldn’t imagine.
Until recently, accessing newspaper articles in Icelandic papers would have been a formidable barrier. But a few years ago, the University of Iceland and the National Libraries of Iceland, the Faroe Islands, and Greenland joined hands to digitize every newspaper article and periodical printed from the beginning of news publishing in the 1800s until today. This cache even includes articles published in Canada for the Icelandic diaspora. To date, almost six million pages of searchable text are available to anyone for free at the site www.timarit.is. These articles enabled me to learn about long ago events as if they were yesterday’s news.
(Sunna presented a webinar for Icelandic Roots members last year, "Finding Your Family in Newspapers." If you are an All-Access Member, you receive the link to the private playlist with the recording of this webinar and other educational videos.)
While searching for information about the incident that changed the course of my mother’s life, I found a 1910 issue that reported on the disappearance of the fishing vessel called Gyða. The weather report of that day was stormy, especially in the western fjords where the ship operated.
My maternal grandfather (IR#I447768) was the skipper, his son the first mate, and six other fishermen from their town, Bíldudalur, were the crew members. Their remains were never found. Forty-four years after the incident, I went to Bíldudalur at age fifteen to attend the erection of a monument to honor my grandfather and his mates. The centerpiece was the mast of Gyða, dredged up by a shrimp trawler the year before.
(Articles from 1910 are linked to their pages in the IR Database.)
Digging around timarit.is yielded another gold nugget of information, this time about my
paternal grandparents’ farm in northeast Iceland. This was an 1886 feature article in the
Canadian newspaper Lögberg-Heimskringla, which serves overseas Icelanders in North
America. It told this heroic tale of devastation and salvation during the exceptionally cold winter of 1881, a disaster that drove many Icelanders to migrate to Canada.
Runólfur, a farmer in northeast Iceland, was then old and infirm. He foresaw a hay shortage in spring and asked for help from farmers in a nearby valley where the weather was milder. They came to his rescue, sheltering and feeding his sheep until early May. Assuming the winter was over, they sent the sheep back. But shortly after, snowstorms hit Runólfur’s farm again, dumping four feet of wet snow, which quickly turned into a solid sheet of ice. The neighboring farmers rallied once again. They crossed the snow- and ice-covered mountain pass on foot and skis and herded the sheep back across the pass. To keep the starving sheep moving, the rescuers carried on their back sacks of hay, which they emptied now and then to entice the sheep to go on. They did the trek not once but twice to get all the sheep, horses, and cows, as well as people, to safety. My grandfather, Runólfur Hannesson, born in 1867, was the nephew of his namesake in the above story.
Like a blind man throwing darts with the hope that one would hit the bull’s eye, I keyed in words that might lead me to more gold mines. One link led to another, and soon I was staring at my uncle Óli’s name in the Icelandic National Library’s database. The library had interviewed him for a cultural heritage project years ago. I emailed the librarian, who promptly replied with an attachment of audio files. When I clicked on one, there was my long-dead Uncle Óli speaking to me in his gravelly voice, telling me about his life as a fisherman in the rough seas around Iceland.
Óli was my grandfather’s second son. He would have gone down with Gyða that fateful day if he hadn’t stayed back to take a school-leaving exam. So, instead of dying at the tender age of fourteen, he lived until 90. Education not only improved his life but also saved it, literally. I could almost see Óli sitting in my study—a garrulous man with a big nose red from sniffing snuff, gesturing and regaling me with his seafaring stories. He describes life as a child or “half-earner” on a fishing boat in one episode. Like many Icelandic children in those days, he started working at age ten.
Being the youngest, he was last in line for everything. One night, he was so tired he didn’t care that all four bunks (for eight men) were occupied. He crawled into a bed with someone already in it and folded himself into a sliver of space. The next morning, he woke up bleary-eyed after a restless night of contorting his body. The cook, noticing his yawning, put something under his nose and told him to sniff it. He did, and his eyes popped wide open. What he inhaled was snuff—pulverized tobacco packed with nicotine. Ever since that day, a pouch of snuff and a large red handkerchief into which he loudly blew his nose became part and parcel of Óli’s persona.
If a picture speaks a thousand words, this one of the women of Bíldudalur tells it all at one glance. As a child, I’ve heard my grandmother and mother talk about working at fish
cleaning. Compared to the men risking their lives at sea, I thought the women had it easy. Until the editor of Bókafélagið, the publisher of the Icelandic version of my memoir, unearthed this photo from the National Archives. It punches me in the gut—the misery of the shrouded women, huddled in the cold, worn beyond their age, hands raw from cutting and scraping salt-crusted fish scales and bones. I will never look down on their contribution again.
In my next blog, I will discuss other research sources, such as printed books, family
documents, and conversations with relatives.
Sverrir Sigurdsson is the author of Viking Voyager: An Icelandic Memoir, available HERE. The Icelandic translation of his book is Áveraldarvegum, available at Penninn Eymundsson.
If you are an All-Access member of Icelandic Roots, I hope you will join us for the "What If...?" Writing Seminar on March 15th.