This article is by Sverrir Sigurdsson IR# I447796 and is a continuation of his previous post found here: Part 1.
As I said in my first blog, a memoirist can’t depend only on his memory. To understand who he is, he needs to project his lens into the past and widen his angle beyond his own
experiences. He doesn’t exist in a vacuum but is molded by all the forces, visible and
invisible, jostling him.
In my earlier blog, I discussed the incalculable value of the Internet to research my
grandparents. Printed books were a great source of information, especially to put individual lives in a historical context. One such title was Bíldudalskóngurinn (The King of Bíldudalur) by Ásgeir Jakobsson. To understand what my grandparents went through, I felt I needed to understand their hometown in the Western Fjords, called Bíldudalur.
Since I had no access to Icelandic libraries, I tried the Library of Congress, the most extensive library in the world, but was disappointed. I resorted to the online Icelandic telephone directory and found an antique books seller in northern Iceland. He was actually a farmer running a bookstore from his home as a hobby. I was ecstatic when he said he had a somewhat tattered copy of the book I wanted and would mail it to my home in the DC area. Over several more phone calls and email exchanges, he helped me identify several other titles that fit my need. Although we have never met in person, we have since become good friends.
The book on Bíldudalur revealed the significance of my grandparents' town. Census statistics show that it had a sparse population of 270 souls in the early 1900s. One would think it was a poverty-stricken backwater. To my surprise, the book revealed a hub of entrepreneurship that rivaled any city. Fueling this engine was the energy of one man, named Pétur Thorsteinsson, also known as the King of Bíldudalur. The illegitimate son of a merchant and a maid, he grew up in the Western Fjords and began his rags-to-riches journey around 1880 when he settled in Bíldudalur as a young man.
Ambition drove him into the lucrative fishing and fish trading business. But a record-setting long and cold winter brought him to the brink of bankruptcy. He gambled everything he owned on one trading trip to Denmark, then the colonial master of Iceland, and returned pumped up with funds and energy. From thereon, he built Bíldudalur into a trailblazing model for modern fishing. His company built a fleet of deep-sea fishing vessels and a quay with equipment to load and unload the cargo of oceangoing ships—the first in Iceland and ten years before Reykjavík.
After my grandfather and his oldest son went down with his fishing vessel during a storm, his family forged ahead. There was no room for self-pity in Thorsteinsson´s ambitious town. When my mother and her other brother came of age, they moved to Reykjavík to improve their fortunes. After graduating from the country's only teacher training college, my mother became a school teacher, and my uncle became a notable naval engineer. Their story mirrors that of Pétur Thorsteinsson.
Other titles my antique books supplier recommended were about the British occupation of Iceland during the Second World War. I witnessed this period with my own eyes, but they were the eyes of a one to five-year-old. At the ripe age of three, I often wandered over to the British soldiers’ barracks and mouthed the only English word I knew: chocolate. The result was always sweet.
Second World War Barracks for British soldiers.
Little did I know the seriousness of the soldiers’ presence. The British had invaded Iceland to preempt the Germans, who could have used Iceland as a stepping stone to North America. Located right in the middle of the North Atlantic, the strategic position of Iceland caught the world’s attention, forever changing the destiny of the obscure nation.
I found two books by Gunnar M. Magnúss particularly useful for understanding this period: Árin Sem Aldrei Gleymast (The Years that will Never be Forgotten) and Virkið í Norðri (Fortress in the North). The author witnessed the occupation and wrote the accounts with first-hand information.
Also helpful were books written by the historian Valur Ingimundarson about Iceland´s role during the Cold War. They were extremely well researched and explained why and how Iceland prospered from 1945-to 1971. His beautiful prose also helped me when I embarked on translating my book into Icelandic. The titles of Ingimundarson’s books are Í Eldlínu Kald Stríðsins (In the Firing Line During the Cold War 1945 – 1960) and Uppgjör við Alheiminn (Settling Scores with the World 1960–1971).
Family elders who were eyewitnesses to the British occupation of Iceland also offered insight into those years. I was lucky to have an aunt who lived past a hundred. Although I couldn’t interview her, my cousin did it on my behalf. Aunt Kristin remembered full well the hazards and temptations to young women in a place overrun by foreign soldiers. She talked of drunken soldiers banging on people’s doors demanding “company.” Although violent incidents were rare, just the presence of foreign soldiers, numbering 50,000 at the peak, caused tremendous social disruption. While the able-bodied male population doubled, the number of women remained the same, posing extreme competition for Icelandic men.
As a child, I remember overhearing grownups whispering about “The Situation,” the code word for young women cavorting with foreign soldiers. Written family accounts were equally precious. One of my cousins had assembled several compendia that he called “Family History in Pictures.” My dad had researched the family tree of my maternal grandmother and traced it to our ancestors who lived in Sognefjord,
Norway, in the late seventh century. Dad also kept a diary of his travel to England to seek medical help in 1949-1950, which enabled me to tell that part of the story.
Iceland is a nation of writers and storytellers, starting with the first Sagas written in the 13th century about historical events that took place a couple of hundred years earlier. Happenings around the country are usually well-chronicled, which facilitates research for writers and, in turn, generates more books. They say every one in ten Icelanders will publish a book in his lifetime. Thanks to all the material at my fingertips, I became one of them.
When I went to Iceland in November 2021 to promote the Icelandic version of my memoir, several former classmates presented their own memoirs in exchange. Perhaps one day, a researcher of twentieth-century Iceland would stumble on one of our autobiographies and catch a glimpse of life in that era. My hope, however, is that my descendants will know their family history, feel enriched by it, and be inspired to add their chapters to the saga.
From my cousin’s “Family History in Pictures” collection. I’m second from right, my brother second from left, and the others are my cousins.
Sverrir Sigurdsson is the author of Viking Voyager: An Icelandic Memoir, available at
http:// getbook.at/VikingVoyager. The Icelandic translation of his book is Á
Veraldarvegum, available at Penninn Eymundsson.