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Interesting Icelander for May - Gunnar Gunnarsson

By Sunna Olafson Furstenau

Gunnar Gunnarsson (1889-1975 and IR Database I160778) is an Icelandic writer of over 20 novels and many other publications, too. He was the first Icelander to work as a creative writer. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature six times. In 1955, the Nobel Committee for Literature at the Swedish Academy considered choosing co-winners of Gunnar Gunnarsson and the chosen winner, Icelander Halldór Laxness.

My favorite book by Gunnar is the novella, "The Good Shepherd." When it was published in the United States, it sold more than one million copies in the first year. It is about a shepherd who searches high and low throughout the mountains to find sheep not brought down during the fall roundup. He is accompanied by his trusty dog, Leo, and his bellwether sheep, Gnarly. If you don't know ... a bellwether sheep is a castrated ram fitted with a bell around his neck. They have many trials along the journey, and we join the characters in learning about life and death, love, animals, faith, hope, and other philosophical ideas. This short book is in my "Winter Collection" of books to read again (and again).

His writings are so down to earth and filled with showing the humble and poor people who lived in the north and east of Iceland - the same areas where my family lived as well as many of the descendants in North America.

In September of 2023, when the Icelandic Roots volunteer team traveled around Iceland, we were in the areas of his birth and other farms where he lived in east Iceland. One special stop was at the historic site, Skriðuklaustur.

At Skriðuklaustur, is an archaeological excavation 2002-2012, which revealed a historic Augustinian cloister established about 1493. During the 1500s, Iceland experienced many deadly plagues and diseases and Skriðuklaustur was used as a place for the sick and poor. Gunnar's home at this site was built in 1939. A cultural center and restaurant are now on the site. Klausturkaffi focuses on local ingredients, home-baked breads and cakes, and homemade food. There are exhibits and have guided tours of the home.

A few interesting family history facts:

  • Gunnar was born into poverty at Valþjófsstaður farm, which is the next farm to Skriðuklaustur.

  • The family moved to the farm in Vopnafjörður called Ljótsstaðir when he was seven years old.

  • His mother died at the age of 33 when Gunnar was eight years old. He had four younger siblings.

  • His father had a child with Margrét Ágústa Eggertsdóttir five years later in 1900.

  • Margrét Agústa previously planned to emigrate with her mother in 1873 but eventually returned to Iceland.

  • Margrét Ágústa's mother did emigrate and was one of the few who went to Brazil. We are in good contact with Caio Vinícius Torques who wrote a book about his Torques Þorkelsson family. They also emigrated to Brazil in 1873 on the same voyage.

  • His first publications were Vorljóð and Móðurminning, Akureyri in 1906.

  • Gunnar left Iceland to study in Denmark in 1907. His stories were written in Danish but the stories took place in Iceland. He translated most of his books and many others into Icelandic and some into Danish. Halldór Laxness also translated some of Gunnar's writings.

  • 1912, his first novel, Guest the One-Eyed, was published and was the first Icelandic writing ever made into a movie.

  • Gunnar published Advent in 1936. It was published in many languages, including English in 1940 with the title, The Good Shepherd.

  • 1938 his book, Ships in the Sky, was #6 on the New York Times´ bestsellers list.

  • Gunnar returned to Iceland in 1938 and had a new home built by 1939 at Skriðuklaustur.

  • In 1948, Gunnar donated Skriðuklaustur to the Icelandic state and moved to Reykjavík.

  • Gunnar Gunnarsson was married to a Catholic. To be buried next to each other in consecrated ground, they are buried at Viðeyjarkirkjugarður on Viðey Ísland.

  • A memorial for Gunnar is located in Vopnafjörður, overlooking the downtown area.

In Gunnar´s home, there is a two-bedroom apartment offering an Artist-in-Residence Program managed by The Institute of Gunnar Gunnarsson.

Also on site is the ruins of the monastery. Read more here.

I highly recommend reading "The Good Shepherd" and if you are in East Iceland, take the road to Skriðuklaustur. They are worth your time.


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