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  • Wasteland with Words. A Social History of Iceland
  • István M. Szijártó
Wasteland with Words. A Social History of Iceland. By Sigurður Gylfi Magnússon (London: Reaktion Books, 2010. 288 pp. $39.95).

In the autumn of 2008, Iceland appeared in the headlines as the first victim of the global financial crisis. This fact did not, however, alter her status as a rich Scandinavian country. But in the nineteenth century, this desolate and sparsely populated island was desperately poor. People kept sheep in isolated farmsteads housing relatively big households. Living conditions were characterized by cold and wet turf dwellings, horrible hygienic circumstances, and widespread contagious diseases. Young people served in alien households from the age of 15 or 16 to 30 to accumulate some wealth to get married—and those who did not succeed served also for the rest of their lives.

We get to know this world from the book of Sigurður Gylfi Magnússon, an eminent Icelandic historian, founder of the Reykjavík Academy and chair of the Center for Microhistorical Research, a propagator of microhistory.1 His intention is "to try to tell an interesting story, a story of people set against the background of their country's cultural history." He wants to present the history of nineteenth- to twentieth-century Iceland from the point of view of the individual, building on "personal sources and the microhistorical method." How is it possible to write a complete history of a country and its people, when these sources —however revelatory they might be—reflect the personal experiences of certain individuals and therefore, as the author recognizes himself, the picture they give is necessarily fragmentary?

The result of this bold venture is an interesting book: uneven in its exposition but an arresting read. The main line of the argument is supported by macro-oriented chapters and texts that are written using the conventional tools of the social historian; chapters that tell how the motorized trawler brought about the breakthrough of capitalism, drawing people to the coast, especially to Reykjavík, giving them work in industrialized fishing, bringing about the urbanization and modernization of the society; texts that describe the changes in demography and household structure, or how Iceland was completely changed in the decades after the Second World War. Hopefully it will not disappoint the reader that no convincing explanation is offered as to why the Icelandic economy collapsed in 2008, but the main focus of the author is on the end of the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth centuries. He has a thorough knowledge of these periods based on a great number of personal diaries and private correspondence, and after the first one hundred pages of the book, these sources and the micro-historial approach take over.

Sigurður Gylfi Magnússon's book gives an insight into the intimate details of ordinary life, especially into those of the extraordinary brothers, Halldór and Niels Jónsson, who have written and copied an amazing amount of manuscripts in the years between 1888 and 1934: letters, collections of poetry, diaries, and even handwritten newspapers. The author depicts a society in which culture (acquired at home in the long winter evenings when the household processed [End Page 264] wool and entertained itself with sagas and verse) was crucial insofar as it provided an emotional outlet in a world dominated by ubiquitous death and grief: "It is this interaction between work, death and education that best explains the almost universal, and unprecedented, literacy of nineteenth-century Icelandic peasant society."2

The book presents the first half of the twentieth century concentrating on the capital, Reyjkavík. Following the introductory parts written from the point of view of macro-oriented social science history, the focus shifts once again to the everyday life of ordinary people and their experiences. The situation of women falls into the place of culture and education as the central issue, while the special attention given to children and death remains. Since this basically dual structure of the book prefers a "before-after" duality in time as well, fine chronological distinctions are blurred. (This is hardly affected by the post-1945 chapters...


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pp. 264-266
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