Alfred A. Knopf
Translated from the Icelandic by J. A. Thompson
Ms. Hen decided to read this novel because she is going to Iceland, and she wanted to steep herself in its literature. She read that the author, Halldor Laxness, won the Nobel Prize for Literature for this novel and others, and is the only person from Iceland to ever win that prize. Iceland has more Nobel Prize winners for Literature than any other country per capita, which is one, since the population is so low.
When Ms. Hen bought this novel, she thought it would take a long time to read and it would be dense, but it was not! The book she bought is hardcover, and was cumbersome to carry around, but the story flowed and captured her interest right away. It is an epic of an Icelandic pioneer, Bjartur of Summerhouses, and life on his farm.
The land is cursed by Kolummkilli, a spirit whom if one doesn't give a stone to her tomb, it will bring the person bad luck. Bjartur’s bride wants to give the spirit a stone, but he doesn’t let her, because he doesn’t believe in superstitious nonsense. Thus begins his string of bad luck, but he does not see it that way.
Bjartur is stubborn in a way that no other person is stubborn. He is not upset when his wife dies, and his child might almost be dead, he is not upset when his children are hungry and malnourished which is caused by his stinginess, he only thinks of his land and his independence.
Ms. Hen was impressed by the enormous amounts of coffee that the characters drink throughout the novel. When they would have a party or a gathering, cup after cup of coffee would be consumed. Iceland has a huge coffee culture, and Ms. Hen admires this. She can’t wait to go to Iceland and drink lots of coffee.
In the beginning of this novel, Ms. Hen could not help but think that Bjartur is like Captain Ahab in MOBY DICK; Bjartur has a singular vision, an obsession about his sheep and his land, and does not care about anything else. Later on in the novel, she realized that his obsession is with independence, and not his land. He wants to be an independent person at all costs. He becomes successful during World War 1, when the other countries in Europe are too busy killing each other to produce wool.
The war is Bjartur’s blessing and downfall. He becomes rich, has a bountiful amount of sheep, and two cows, and he is prosperous. But like Captain Ahab, he becomes too obsessed, and it becomes his curse.
Since this is a rural novel, there are many mentions of chickens and hens throughout. Ms. Hen did not underline or bookmark any of the places where the hens appeared because she didn’t want to ruin the book. But Bjartur calls his daughter, Asta Solilja, “chicken,” as a term of affection. Asta Solilja is a wonderful character, the child that is brought back to life after her mother dies, and even though she disgraces Bjartur, he still loves her.
This novel opened Ms. Hen’s eyes to what the independent spirit of Iceland is about. Bjartur wants nothing more than to be able to stand own his own two feet and be able to make his own choices. Bjartur is a fascinating character, though he is stubborn, he knows what he wants. He wants freedom from the chains that have held his people down, and the ability to change his life, which is something everyone should admire, and if we have that ability, to strive towards it ourselves.