My Viking Lady of the Lake is a Collection of short stories inspired by the pandemic. It takes its name from the signature story. As the momentum of the pandemic kept building my mind increasingly gravitated to my great-grandparents, Stefan and Valgerdur Sigurdsson, who lost four children to tuberculosis in the early years of the last century. Their remarkable story had long engaged me; now I felt compelled to bring it to life. It is 1905. You first meet them at the bedside of their oldest son, Johannes, 17, as they watched his life drain from him and with it so much promise for the futur e.Barely a year had passed since they had buried their 8 year old Gudrun, and five years since three-year-old Stefan. You are taken inside their hearts and minds as they reflect back on the forces and events that had shaped their lives from the momentous decisions to leave their Icelandic homeland for a distant land. You are with them as they meet and start building a life together as prominent leaders in New Iceland. You ride the waves of their great successes and tragic setbacks, their story evolving through a series of scenes as if the film. Although fictionalized it is based on true facts.
The pandemic cut a wide swath across every dimension of our lives and the way we live and work together. If you were like me, and I suspect many were, we turned to more introspective reflections? What is life all about? What do we value the most? What do I miss the most? What is the first thing I want to do when life returns to normal, or a new normal? Since the publication of Vikings on a Prairie Ocean in 2014, I had continued to write about the people, places, and events growing up on Lake Winnipeg, and the values and influences that had shaped my life and career. Many of these short stories were published in the magazine known as Icelandic connections, formerly the Icelandic Canadian magazine, and then posted on my website – vikingsonaprairieocean.com. As the pandemic continues its sweep, these stories reflecting themes around relationships, respect, and reconciliation, resonated for me as embodying timeless truths around which resilient lives and communities are built. Might they resonate for others I asked?
Drawing the stories together would also provide the context in which to frame My Viking Lady of the Lake: A life of Courage, Grace and Resiliency. This book would also be a timely companion to Vikings on a Prairie Ocean; publishing it as an e-book would allow more flexibility in the design of the book to include a large gallery of pictures to complement both books. Finally, it would make it more reader accessible for each of the stories could be read independent from the others. However it would be organized in a way that each succeeding story would contribute to an unfolding tapestry of the story of the Icelanders on Lake Winnipeg, and how they weaved their lives together with the people who had only known this land as their land and others who came from many other lands.
Let’s begin the journey. I include a map of Lake Winnipeg as a resource. You will want to have your map open with you as you travel. The first chapter is drawn from Vikings on a Prairie Ocean. You are joining me as a boy of eight on a journey north from ourhome in Riverton to Berens River. Here, Sigurdson Fisheries, the family fishing company with over a century of history on Lake Winnipeg had first established operations in 1895.Now it is 1955.You will experience the lake as I did with my Mom, my sister Elaine and my brother Eric as we travel on the family fish freighter, The J.R Spear to spend the summer, as we did every summer, with Dad at the fish station. The narration of the journey will also introduce you to the broad context in which all of the stories are set.
Next, you will go on a very different voyage in the North Atlantic. It is 1855 and the Earl of Clandeboye, a young Irish lord and naval officer, is making a visit to Iceland with a young Icelandic law student as his guide. By 1872 now Lord Dufferin and Governor General of Canada would remember his deep affection for the Icelandic people he met on that trip and would be instrumental in securing Government support for their immigration to New Iceland. It is 1876. You will now join my great-great grandfather Sigurdur Erlendsson who will describe in his own words the difficult and dangerous journey of the family from the remote reaches of North Eastern Iceland to settle on Hecla Island. Now it is 1905. You will now enter the palatial home of Valgedur Jonsdottir and Stefan Sigurdsson (whose names in the Icelandic tradition were formed by adding son to his father’s first name, hence Sigurdsson, and dottir to her father’s first name, hence Jonsdottir) at Hnausa, 18 miles north of Gimli, along on the shores of Lake Winnipeg as tragedy stalks them once more.
What manner of people were these Icelanders, once sheep herders on volcanic island in the middle of the North Atlantic, now fishermen on an inland lake in an ocean of land you may well ask? You are about to meet them. Leifi Hallgrimson, who arrived in Hecla as a young boy with his single mother in 1879, is now a widely respected man having built a successful fish business. You will meet him at his fish station at Big Black River at the North end of Lake Winnipeg in 1930 where we learn of his deep relationship with the indigenous people through a young boy he mentored who became a friend over his life.
You will then meet my mother’s father, Afi Malli my grandfather ( Afi in Icelandic) . He was an iconic Lake Winnipeg fisherman. We visit with him in his home on Hecla Island as he negotiates the purchase of the Book of Knowledge from a salesman who somehow made his way on the mail boat for the twenty-mile trip to the island to sell encyclopedia’s to this remote community of Icelanders. Later you will meet him in his remote camp as he waits for first ice to set his nets. Afi was “the old man and the sea”- charismatic and unforgettable – you will quickly come to love him as much as I did (maybe not quite as much!).
Now you are ready to meet my Dad, Stefan, upon taking off his sailor’s uniform and coming home after the war, realized, that the best way into my mother’s orbit as a prospective suitor was to talk fish with Malli. For Dad, there was never any doubt that joining the family fish business was the only life he had ever wanted. You will meet him at the family fish station on a small island at the mouth of the Berens River where he spent four months every year. If Dad was the King of the island his great friend Dolly Berens Gibeault, the indigenous cook at the station was the Queen. Here you will go inside the life of the Icelandic and indigenous fishermen as they went about their daily lives together. They never knew or used the word reconciliation. They just lived it. You will also learn about his special bond with Dori the mechanic, who returned from World War 2 “shell shocked”, unlike dad who came home from the navy with body and mind intact.
Now you are ready to come with me to my hometown, Riverton Canada a small place with a deep history and big heart. Knowing Riverton’s story, like many small towns across Canada, is to hold a mirror onto the story of Canada. Here folks with Icelandic, Ukrainian, and indigenous backgrounds blended together seamlessly. You will be able to draw your own conclusions as to what makes this community of strong independent self-reliant people, with a proven track record of success in academia, the professions and business. You will be introduced to the stories of many who contributed to making the community. Many of the men went away to work for lengthy periods; it was the mothers and grandmothers who were the glue and leadership that bound the community together. You will meet Doc Thompson, the iconic country doctor, Gutti Guttormsson the acclaimed farmer poet, Gus Romaniuk, a Ukrainian pioneer and entrepreneur, my Afi S.V Sigurdson, my Dad’s father, businessman and the first Mayor of Riverton, and Reggie Leach, the legendary hockey superstar, known as “The Riverton Rifle. You will join Reg and me selling our respective memoirs at the 2017 Canada 150 Celebrations which engaged the entire community of Riverton and the area, capped by a major concert to celebrate the history of Riverton’s deep music culture, and later share in honouring our hometown Riverton upon being named as members of the Order of Canada in successive years.
I will then take you onto the mighty Icelandic River for an adventure on the ice far greater than those boys Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer could have ever imagined happening on the Mississippi. Then I will take you with me on my night of terror lost on my first shift as a cat operator working for the family construction business and then building the Winnipeg Floodway. You will come to understand that in the fish business, you were in every business, and the unlikely story of how hauling fish on ice would lead to building roads and ditches on land. Finally, I want you to meet my great friend, now passed, David Tomasson, who epitomized the values and influences which had shaped both our lives. David always did what he said he would do. When asked what he would do by his fellow Deputy Ministers, of whom he was the most senior, what he would do when he left Government, his answer was simple “I’ll just go back fishing in Hecla.”
www.vikingsonaprairieocean.com ; www.glennsigurdson.com