Secrets of the Sprakkar: Iceland’s Extraordinary Women and How They Are Changing the World

Secrets of the Sprakkar: Iceland’s Extraordinary Women and How They Are Changing the World by Eliza Reid was written by the “First Lady” of Iceland. Reid is the wife of current president Guðni Thorlacius Jóhannesson. She states at the beginning that the title and formal role of First Lady do not exist in Icelandic politics, and that she used the term (and the publisher probably had a huge say in using it too, displaying it so prominently on the cover) as a way for North Americans to relate to her position. I misinterpreted the subtitle; I interpreted the book as a collection of profiles of specific Icelandic women whose names were already well known, and how they are each doing something to change the world. Thus I was expecting to read chapters on notable women such as the country’s (and indeed the world’s) first elected woman president, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, and perhaps former prime minister Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir and even singer Björk. While Reid did write a few pages about Vigdís, instead of profiling those specific Icelandic women separately within her own chapter, the women she did cover might not even be known throughout all of Iceland itself.

Sprakkar is an ancient Icelandic word meaning extraordinary or outstanding women. Iceland is known for being the country most advanced in terms of gender equality, and Reid profiled women who worked towards this goal. She covered comedians, writers, poets, students, immigrants, women of colour, community leaders, gender queers, and others to learn their stories and achievements. Women opened themselves up to her, and I believe that if anyone else had been the interviewer she would not have had such access. It is a testament to Reid’s interview style and comfort factor, as well as her own openness, that brought out such intimate portraits. Reid, in a surprising degree of candour, told about her early days in university where she met her future husband and her highs and lows in her role as First Lady. Her life was an open book, and she revealed her vulnerability as an immigrant learning the Icelandic language. While a respected woman throughout Iceland, Reid disclosed:

“I am not usually nervous appearing on live television or in other interviews, but given that in Iceland I am not speaking in my native language, I am more cognizant of any mistakes in my delivery or my more limited vocabulary detracting from my message.”

Reid inserted both footnotes and endnotes, the former not always immediately detectable since the referential asterisks were so small. They looked like quotation marks and were easily skipped over. Granted, it was obvious that there were footnote(s) appearing on some of the pages, but I didn’t always know where they linked since the asterisks were minuscule. I always got to the end of the page where I encountered the footnote, missing where it linked to, and had to reread the page to find out. Reid’s humorous asides were sometimes laugh-out-loud moments, such as in this particular footnote about Icelandic phone directories:

“Iceland’s online telephone listing is an interesting study on its own. The country has so many Björg Magnúsdóttirs and Jón Jónssons that in order to distinguish one from the other, listees have the option of including their profession next to their name. So you call Sigrún Björnsdóttir the plumber and not Sigrún Björnsdóttir the pilot. Entries are not vetted, though, so it seems Iceland has at least one hamster whisperer, one Cher expert, and dozens of lion tamers. In the now defunct printed phone books, they were all listed alphabetically by first name, because we are so informal in Iceland that surnames (patronymics, really) aren’t significant. Whether addressing your teacher, doctor, or even the president, you just need the first name.”

I enjoyed Secrets of the Sprakkar and the stories of the inspiring women Reid covered, but most of all I liked Reid’s personal story of falling in love with an Icelander, marrying and starting a large family and how she adapted to her new life in Iceland. Some of the women she encountered in her journey were profiled, so she clearly drew inspiration from them.

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