The Tricking of Freya, by Christina Sunley, St. Martin's Press, 352 pages, $28.95
Until I began researching my novel, I'd never visited either Winnipeg or Gimli - yet I'd been hearing about these places all my life.
While I was growing up in New York, my mother would regale me with stories about her childhood in the West End, Winnipeg's Icelandic enclave, and her summer visits to Gimli , an Icelandic village an hour to the north on Lake Winnipeg.
With great nostalgia, my mother would tell me tales of "our people" in Canada, poets and storytellers who drank strong coffee through sugar cubes clenched between their teeth. I heard endlessly about her lovely mother, who was crowned the Fjallkona (maid of the mountain) at Islendingadagurinn , the annual Icelandic festival in Gimli, and her father, a renowned doctor in Winnipeg. Along with miscellaneous relatives like her cousins, the gang of Finnbogason boys.
Yet never once in all those years did we ever go to visit our people in Canada.
Orphaned as a young girl, my mother was abruptly sent away from her cozy life in Winnipeg's West End to live with relatives in the United States. And though she returned to Canada for occasional visits, without living parents or grandparents she eventually lost touch. By the time I was born, she claimed there was no point going to visit Winnipeg. "Everyone I know is gone," she would say longingly.
Iceland, of course, was the other place our people came from, and it seemed even more remote to me than Winnipeg. One of my earliest memories is of my mother telling me the story - true, in fact, yet mythic all the same - of how my grandfather as a child came to emigrate with his family from Iceland to Canada after a devastating volcanic eruption in 1875. After the ash fall had ruined much of the farmland, my grandfather's family set off for the "New Iceland" settlement that was forming on the shores of Lake Winnipeg. They rode away from their farmstead on horseback, crossing glacial rivers under the midnight sun, never to see Iceland again.
Eventually, my mother's stories about "our people" inspired me to write a novel - The Tricking of Freya - about a young woman of Icelandic descent who becomes obsessed with unravelling a family secret that takes her back to Gimli and then to Iceland itself.
To research the book, I - like my main character, Freya - would need to journey to both Iceland and Canada. On my first trip to Iceland, I was greeted with great hospitality by distant relatives and experienced a whirlwind of dramatic landscapes: glaciers, fjords, fields of steaming lava.
But what would Winnipeg be like, and tiny Gimli? I had only my mother's memories of a lost world from the 1920s and '30s. It was now the 21st century. Unlike many immigrant communities in North America, the Icelandic immigration was confined almost exclusively to a period of 40 years - well over a century ago. What would be left, I wondered, of the Icelandic immigrant culture she remembered so vividly?
In Winnipeg, I managed to track down one of the Finnbogason "boys" of my mother's youth, a kindly gentleman now in his early 80s. Tom gave me a tour of the old West End, pointing out the sites: the "Goolie" Hall (Icelanders in Canada were called goolies), the Jon Bjarnason Academy, the Wevel Cafe, and various other Icelandic establishments. Yet most were either closed or had long ago changed hands. Finally we ended up at my mother's childhood home on Victor Street, the setting for so many of her stories. Sadly, it was boarded up and covered with graffiti. I never showed my mother the photographs I took.
It was clear to me that the old West End of Winnipeg was no longer a thriving Icelandic enclave. Did this mean the Icelandic presence in Winnipeg had dissipated completely, living on only in the memories of its elders?
Undoubtedly, after many generations, the descendants of the original settlers were no longer identifiable as Icelanders. Few spoke the language any more, and the language is at the heart of the culture. Yet what I discovered in this Canadian city and its outlying regions were people who still strongly identified with their Icelandic heritage, calling their grandparents afi and amma , gathering for Icelandic family reunions and for the yearly festival in Gimli. Winnipeg even has its own weekly Icelandic community newspaper, Lögberg-Heimskringla, though these days it is printed in English.
In the Interlake Region north of Winnipeg, the area of the original "New Iceland" settlement, the Icelandic influence seems more distinct. Here I found towns with Icelandic names, like Gimli, Hnausa, Arborg, Hecla. I visited Riverton, once the hub of "New Iceland," where many people of Icelandic descent are still living. Farms and houses throughout the Interlake had signs posted showing their original Icelandic place names.
I met a pair of elderly bachelor farmers, brothers, who still spoke Icelandic. One of them recited for me from memory a poem written by my great-great uncle, a well known Icelandic poet. For a moment, standing in their simple farmhouse in Manitoba, where books and photographs of ancestors were the most prominently displayed items, I felt as if I were back in Iceland itself.
What I found, in the end, was not the lost world of my mother's youth, where everyone spoke Icelandic, but a more assimilated Icelandic-Canadian community existing within a greater, multicultural Canada. Some of these Icelandic-Canadians have little interest in their heritage, but many feel it is a strong element of their identities and are actively at work to preserve and enliven it. At the University of Manitoba, you can even obtain a masters degree in Icelandic Studies, and the Icelandic Collection at the university's library houses 27,000 volumes of Iceland-related books.
Many of the places I visited on my trip to Manitoba eventually became settings in my novel - and now that my book is coming out, I will be returning again, this time to do readings and book signings in Gimli and Winnipeg - those once mythical-seeming places of my mother's memories.
Christina Sunley is the author of The Tricking of Freya. She will be in Gimli at 7 p.m. on April 4 at Aspire Theatre (76 Second Ave.), and in Winnipeg at McNally Robinson Books (Polo Park) at 7 p.m. on May 4.