Reviews

Review by Judy Sólveig Wilson

This comprehensive biography of Stephan Stephansson is 555 pages long, not including the notes, credits, and index. I thought it would take an awfully long time to read, but surprisingly it did not. It was so interesting and down to earth that I just kept reading and reading. This poet, whether you consider him to be a Canadian, American or Icelandic national treasure, was a fascinating man. I have three of his original books of poetry, but all I really knew about the man himself was that he suffered from insomnia; hence the name Andvökur for that particular series of books.

Born in the autumn of 1853 on a disputed day, Stephan G., as he came to be known, was born to a poor farming family in the small croft at Kirkjuhóll in the district of Seyluhreppur in the Skagafjörður region in northern Iceland. He was a well-loved child, especially by his affectionate mother, Guðbjörg Hannesdóttir, who was determined that her child would learn to read and write and learn his catechism. Speaking of learning his catechism, there is a very funny chapter in the book where a drunk minister confirmed the children in Stefan's class, and began over and over again until the service look the entire day. It was long remembered in the district, and that chapter of the book is simply titled "The Long Service". It was during his childhood, at the age of 11, that Stefan wrote his first poem. Even as a child he often thought in poetry as he went about his chores, a characteristic that never left him throughout his life.

Stefan not only helped his father with the farmwork, but also worked on fishing boats to help the family finances. Sometimes the boat on which he worked came close to the Island of Drangey, where Grettir the Outlaw from Grettir's Saga was said to have met his death.

There began a lifelong interest in Stefan with the issues of being an outcast. Due to the hardships suffered by the family due to the usual climate conditions during the time and the fact that Guðmundur Stefánsson, Stefan's father, did not own his own land, the family decided to emigrate to America in 1873 along with 150 others.

The book's description of the voyages from Iceland to Scotland and then on to America is horrifying and interesting at the same time. The horses transported on The Queen on the first leg of the journey were poorly treated and never given water, so that some of them died. Stefan was appalled, because he had a true love of animals which would last all his life.

When they arrived in Quebec City on August 25, 1873, the Icelanders were herded into immigration sheds, which sounds horrid, but there is a charming story attached to this. Stefan was so impressed by the fact that there were two separate washrooms - one for women and one for men, where there was running water and many stalls for individuals to use.

The family first settled in Shawano County in the Icelandic settlement in Wisconsin, and then walking all the way from Shawano across Minnesota, went to the newly-forming Icelandic settlement in the Dakota Territory in 1881. They settled on a farm near Gardar. Largely due to his growing dissatisfaction with the religious climate in the area, Stefan, now predominantly known as Stephan G, left the settlement in 1889. Behind him he left the graves of his father and a young son who had died from diphtheria at the age of only three years. They travelled to the Tindastoll-Markerville area, where Stephan remained for the rest of his life, except for a couple of trips to Winnipeg and one to Iceland.

Stephan G. was greatly influenced by writers Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman, as well as any other author who wrote about self-reliance, nature, and realism. He subscribed to many non-traditional journals as well. His own poetry reflected this,' and he composed poems on an almost constant basis during his life. He became a highly controversial figure within the Icelandic community for many reasons - his rejection of traditional religion, his pacifism during World War I, his support of women's rights, and his extreme willingness to always make his opinions known. He was definitely a man who spoke his mind, both in person and in his poetry. He was therefore either extremely loved and admired or hated. There seemed to be very little middle ground in the reception he received.

There is so much in this book that I could go on forever. It is well-researched, and written by an Icelandic author who has made Stephan G. one of his main interests in life. There are pictures, maps, and charts throughout, painstakingly obtained, I imagine. It is highly educational and very enjoyable. I came away liking the poet very much. Although no one person could agree with everything he said or thought, he was an honest, hardworking, and extremely intelligent person. In a Foreword, John Raulston Saul says that "This is one of the secrets of Canadian life -much of our great poetry has been written in neither English nor French." Stephan G. always wrote his poetry in the Icelandic language, and yet, Raulston adds that he wrote Canada's "most important war poetry."

Of course, being a biography, I realized that Stephan G. would die in the end. The way it was written was so gripping, however. This simple, brilliant man simply stopped breathing on the night of August 10,1927 and "the curious eyes that had first opened in the humble turf hut on the farm of Kirkjuhóll, nearly 74 years earlier, had closed for the last time." So ends the book. No reactions, no commentary, no obituary, nothing. It made the death of this simple yet remarkable man that much more powerful.

This wonderful book is available through the regular channels such as Chapters and McNally Robinson, and through Tergesen's store in Gimli. It is also available online through www.StephanGStephansson.com. We should all know more about Stephan G, who is a national treasure no matter what your perspective.

Stephan G. Stephansson