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The Viking Immigrants: Icelandic North Americans

The Icelandic Roots Book Club Nov 3 Featuring: The Viking Immigrants: Icelandic North Americans with L.K. Bertram

By Heather Goodman Lytwyn

Laurie Bertram grew up in an Icelandic/Scottish family in Manitoba: “home to the largest concentration of Icelandic people outside of that far-northern country.” (p3). She is an Associate Professor at the University of Toronto. Her book The Viking Immigrants: Icelandic North Americans received an award from the Canadian Historical Association for the best book of Prairie History. Icelandic Roots featured it in our 2020 Book Flood.

In her opening pages, Laurie explains that she completed her research over a span of 15 years, during which she “travelled thousands of miles, learned a difficult but beautiful language, and benefited from the help, insight, and support of a very large number of people.” (p.xi) One person she credited as a tremendous support was her doctoral supervisor, Franca Iacovetta, a scholar of gender and migration history. Another of the many people Laurie acknowledged is her uncle, the genealogist and historian who assisted Christina Sunley and so many others in their writing and research: Nelson Gerrard.

Photo of L.K. Bertram
L.K. Bertram

From 1870 until 1914, almost one-quarter of the population of Iceland immigrated to North America. As the decedents of those who left and those who stayed behind, we strive to learn what adaptations our ancestors made to fit in and what traditions and beliefs endured. The Viking Immigrants explores the delicate balance of fitting into a new climate and country while maintaining the pride and identity of their homeland.

History is often told from a male perspective: his story. But the topics in Laurie’s book primarily deal with things closer to the day-to-day lives of women and their families. While the men who immigrated would take on manual labor jobs in freighting and construction, which often involved working outdoors and possibly required more muscle and work ethic than assimilation, their female counterparts were often working indoors in domestic service, which required them to learn to speak English: “Icelandic women who could speak English received almost double the wages of those who could not.” (p.50) Women also had to adapt to the acceptable fashions and style of dress in North America: “Clothing that highlighted the cultural differences between Icelandic and North American society potentially hindered the acceptance of the immigrant community, particularly since many North Americans already viewed Icelanders as exotic curiosities form the ‘savage north.’” (p.32)

Laurie’s research reveals things that the average descendant in the United States and Canada may be surprised to learn. For example, who knew how the Icelandic preference for coffee over tea affected trade and commerce? Perhaps those of us who inherited the tradition of Vinarterta assume that if we travelled to Iceland, we would find the exact replica of a seven-layered cake with prune filling and only wonder if it was iced or not. Those of us who are second or third-generation might be unaware that Icelanders experienced prejudice and that we were identified by a term that was perceived as acceptable to some but insulting to others. Like other immigrants from foreign lands, our ancestors often experienced discrimination and ostracism. As one farm laborer, Magnús Magnússon, recalled, his Anglophone coworkers “refused to use the same (wash) basin and towels as we used. We bore their contempt with as much dignity as we could summon, but… the treatment they accorded us was no better than the treatment of convicts at Stony Mountain Prison.” (p.33)

One chapter is dedicated to superstitions and ghost stories which helped to maintain some of the Icelandic folklore and their identity, as well as teach future generations how to face the challenges in their lives. “In such oral narratives, people who lacked physical and spiritual power in life could often, in death, possess a tremendous physical and spiritual power that surpassed that of the strongest community members. Such stories helped enforce social taboos against the abuse of vulnerable community members by threatening abusers with supernatural retribution, as in the case of several stories about the ghosts of abused foster children.” (p.88)

One topic of particular interest to me is the decline of the Icelandic language. Although immigrants were often welcomed, “…any perceived refusal to assimilate linguistically often created tensions. Commentators in the Manitoba Free Press railed against immigrant-language education in the province, arguing that it eroded Canada’s fundamentally British character.” (p.108)

I rarely heard my father speak Icelandic, and that was possibly linked to the fact that he and his brothers all married women who were non-Icelanders, and by the time they were married and had children of their own, their parents and grandparents were passed away: “Oral history interviews suggest that intermarriage affected the transmission of the Icelandic language. Some Icelanders considered it rude to speak in front of non-speakers, including non-Icelandic spouses, in-laws, and guests.”(p.108)

This is just an appetizer for the information found in The Viking Immigrants: Icelandic North Americans. Our need to better understand what was lost and what was gained in adapting to a new country and culture motivates us to seek out books like this one which sheds light on so many topics.

To learn more, I encourage you to read this unique approach to immigration on a ground level and to join us in conversation with L.K. Bertram at our Icelandic Roots Book Club on Nov. 3, 2022.


Email us your questions or join the conversation on our Facebook Group.

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