The Icelandic Roots Book Club for Thursday, April 6, 2023, will feature The Windows of Brimnes: An American in Iceland by Bill Holm. Joining us is special guest Cathy Josephson.
By Heather Goodman Lytwyn
Cathy Josephson was awarded the highest honor that the Icelandic state can bestow on individuals. She received the Knight’s Cross of the Icelandic Order of Falcon at The president's official residence, Bessastaðir, on January 1, 2023, presented by Guðni Th. Jóhannesson. Cathy is Bill Holm's cousin. We were very grateful that she agreed to be our guest even though in doing so, she will be joining us at 12 midnight in Iceland.
Like Bill, Cathy was born and raised in Minnesota. She lived in many places in the US before moving to Iceland in 1995. A dedicated Icelandic Roots volunteer, Cathy is the Leader of the Iceland Genealogy Team, Membership Director, works in translations, assists with setting GPS coordinates for places in Iceland, is a leader in education & seminars, and one of the genealogists who helps to create the database for IR. She is someone you may have met at any number of Icelandic Conferences or presentations and who might be the very person who accepted your membership application to join Icelandic Roots.
The Windows of Brimnes: An American in Iceland is a gift of philosophical writing reminding us of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond. The publisher’s mission statement provided a clue in answering the question, who was Bill Holm? “Milkweed publishes with the intention of making a humane impact on society, in the belief that good writing can transform the human heart and spirit.” That said it all.
Bill Holm was an American poet, essayist, memoirist, and musician. He was born on a farm north of Minneota and graduated from Gustavus Adolphus College in 1965. Later he attended the University of Kansas and became a Professor Emeritus of English at Southwest Minnesota State University, where he taught classes on poetry and literature until his retirement in 2007. When he died in Feb 2009, he had published 16 books. His work was adapted for theatre, radio, and TV productions.
The Windows of Brimnes was written at Bill’s house at Hofsós, a remote location in north Iceland, close to the sea and disconnected from traffic, malls, radios, televisions, or phones. It was the perfect place to record his thoughts without the tapping of computer keys. His writing combined his clever diction with the humour of an intellect who told it like he saw it. Bill was an independent thinker, not taken in by propaganda or blindly following of the dogma of the month. He was an intellectual and a dedicated lifelong learner of history, art, music, poetry, philosophy, theatre, and novels. So it was not surprising that his writing had numerous topics and included descriptions of a wide range of people and places. Bill admired people who were creative and productive and those rare individuals who thought for themselves and would not be forced to pretend they believed what no one else dared to question. This book made me wish Bill was a person I had met, and I am confident that those who had were better off for it.
One of Bill’s convictions was that people should have the right to their own opinions, and no one should be forced to take an oath in compliance with a particular point of view. He avoided newscasts that presumed to be responsible for drawing conclusions about how people should interpret issues. I think in the last few years, we have all become aware of how networks with a one-sided interpretation of events are at least in part responsible for polarizing our thinking. The book was written in 2007, and his concern seems all the more relevant today.
Of course, not being bombarded by news analysis does not mean Bill had his head buried in the sand. He was continually critical of what he considered foolish decisions made by the leaders of government, especially when no one raised an eyebrow, no matter what decision was made. He criticized the senselessness of war that took place during his lifetime and the destruction of the planet for the profits that could be made. He was genuinely alarmed that Iceland was being destroyed by aluminum smelters and seduced by the almighty dollar.
There are so many topics covered in this book, and I wonder if you noticed how many times there were connections with things we have been talking about in our recent book clubs or have mentioned in Icelandic Roots publications? Serendipity! Were you surprised when Hrafnkel Priest of Frey was discussed in Bill’s book since we just studied that saga for the February book club? Was the reference to Auður the Deep-Minded not one of the ancestors written about by Alfreða Jonsdottir? Is it not just this month that Jason Doctor posted on the Icelandic Roots Facebook page, the book cover for Wakeful Nights by the poet Stephan G. Stephansson and then Bill was talking about that very book and the author? Those who watched the webinar “Destination Emigration Hofsós & Vesturfarasetrid” with Mallory Swanson on Feb 23/23 would have connected her reference to Nelson Gerrard’s photography exhibit of Silent Flashes with Bill’s poem of the same name (p106) and his praise: “…Nelson, the genealogist, is really an artist in
disguise.” (p 105) I assure you these overlaps were all unplanned.
It is these coincidences of timing that are so exciting for us and just another example of the benefits of belonging to Icelandic Roots so we can keep on making connections! I hope you will join us on Thursday, April 6 and share with us which of Bill’s topics resonated with you.