The Viking Immigrants: Icelandic North Americans

The Viking Immigrants: Icelandic North Americans by L. K. Bertram told the story of Icelandic immigration to North America between the years 1870 and 1914. It started off as a slow academic read, as the introduction at a lengthy 21 pages was overwhelmed by 57 endnotes. I wondered if I would be able to stay awake through its brief 174 pages since each chapter’s introduction was so boring and no sentence seemed free of the cloying pull of an endnote superscript.

The book was presented as a solid brick of text, with minimal spacing between the lines and few paragraph breaks. In spite of its plentiful photographs the layout did not look friendly to the eyes, but then academic reads don’t go out to win prizes for their appearance, although the cover was attractive.

Bertram wrote about how Vikings and coffee (both of which were depicted smartly on the cover) as well as vínarterta, fashion and superstition shaped the lives of early Icelandic immigrants. She brought up a phenomenon of modern immigrant studies: how traditions from the old country seem to live on in the new world, or in this case New Iceland, while they die off back home. Such is the case with vínarterta, a thin multi-layered cake filled with fruits (usually prunes). Icelandic immigrants, upon visiting their ancestral home for the first time, are shocked to discover that they can’t find vínarterta anywhere. Yet hotdogs are in abundance. What has become an Icelandic specialty–hot dogs (and I can attest to their scrumptiousness)–were introduced only when American armed forces occupied the island in WWII. Bertram revealed how sacred Icelandic immigrants regard their vínarterta recipes, with bakers claiming authenticity based on the fruit filling used, the number of layers or whether or not to use icing.

The first Icelandic settlement in North America was not Gimli, Manitoba (that is the largest) but Spanish Fork, Utah. In 1855, a small group of Icelandic Mormons relocated, leading a group of converts that eventually numbered four hundred.

Icelandic immigrants suffered prejudice in North America. Their language, fashions and food seemed odd to their neighbours and many abandoned their native dress as soon as they arrived here. But an obvious giveaway of Icelandic heritage was one’s name. Bertram reported how many immigrants changed their names or anglicized them, which was not an uncommon occurrence. Even though my own maternal great-grandparents were wanted in Canada as immigrants from Poland and Ukraine, nevertheless they experienced discrimination and each set of families changed its name to a more English-sounding surname. One can feel the sting of xenophobia in newspaper reports such as:

“Much to the horror of ambitious and image-conscious Icelanders, news of arrests and public disruptions appeared on the front page of the Manitoba Free Press for the reading pleasure of English audiences around this time. Such reports included the 1879 arrest of an ‘Icelander with an unpronounceable name,’ who was found drunk on the street and arrested after ‘giving his tuneful voice too full scope in an Icelandic version of ‘Pinafore’ yesterday.'”

The most interesting revelation in the entire book was Bertram’s history of the Icelanders’ exploitation of their own Viking heritage. While at first they downplayed this history as a stereotype, they soon realized that they could eliminate prejudice by reclaiming this part of their past:

“It argues that because the Viking was admired and accepted by anglophone North American society as a symbol of Protestant whiteness, it offered Icelanders a convenient avenue for both acknowledging and neutralizing immigrant difference during wartime and other periods of potentially volatile anti-immigrant sentiment.”

Yet Bertram continues:

“While many Anglo-North Americans might have accepted and approved of the Viking events staged by Icelandic and Scandinavian communities, the languages of these immigrant groups suffered a different fate. Icelandic-language use and the Icelandic publishing industry declined during the first half of the twentieth century due, in part, to changing identities and internal pressures, including the linguistic standards that North American descendants found difficult to maintain. It is clear, however, that anglicization was also partially a defensive move for many against the anti-immigrant sentiment that surrounded the world wars, the Winnipeg General Strike, and the Great Depression.”

The Viking Immigrants was exhaustively researched and the bibliography–seventeen pages–will keep Icelandophiles busy.

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