- What the Bear Said: Skald Tales From New Iceland by W. D. Valgardson
In this collection of fourteen short stories, W. D. Valgardson writes about nineteenth-century Icelandic immigrants and their descendants in New Iceland, Manitoba, placing the experience of emigration at the heart of his subject matter. Some of the stories take place in both the country left and the one arrived to, offering a spectacular view of the vastness of experience in an emigrant's life. Equally captivating are the stories that describe a settler's hard fought attempt to adjust to even the most unforgiving circumstances. All of the stories, however, bear the mark of a folk tale. As stated in the author's preface, the Icelandic folk tale serves as a "model" for these stories. When approaching the above-mentioned heart of this collection's subject matter, the reader may gradually understand the relevance of its literary style. In fact, the style of these short stories may in a large part be responsible for the collection's novelty.
There is a certain historical framework at play in What the Bear Said. Coinciding with the great wave of emigration from the European mainland and Scandinavia in the nineteenth century, it was around 1870 when large groups of Icelanders started to leave their country for North America. In October of 1875, the first large group of Icelandic emigrants arrived on the shores of Lake Winnipeg, the site which became the Icelandic reserve, and which is still referred to as New Iceland. By 1876, in this place which for many had been imagined as the promised land, the newcomers from Iceland already faced several hard facts, one of them being a smallpox epidemic. W. D. Valgardson does not hesitate to revisit the site of broken dreams. One of the short stories is simply titled "Quarantine" (65-71), describing the dire circumstances wherein the Icelandic settlers found themselves. During the epidemic, they were literally cut off from all possible remedy in the new and densely hierarchical society. But can a folk tale serve such a subject matter, some may ask. What is a folk tale?
In addition to the historical framework that provides the backdrop for these stories, a certain literary heritage makes itself felt. Icelandic folk tales do not only originate from the Germanic/Northern literary heritage. They have their roots in a longstanding tradition of oral storytelling, a tradition the Icelandic emigrants ferried over the Atlantic Ocean in the nineteenth century, and handed down to their descendants. Like the world's folk tales in general, the Icelandic one fosters a fantastic gallery of "characters," all of which make an appearance in What the Bear Said. Some of them— like the trolls and the so-called hidden people—are singular to the Icelandic tradition. The ghosts and elves are—despite a couple of Icelandic character traits—more universal in both nature and behavior. As stated in the collection's preface, the author of these stories is no stranger to the tradition of oral storytelling. [End Page 267] As a child in Gimli, Manitoba, he was introduced to the way in which people gathered, again and again, around a kitchen table and told stories. What he did not know, is that the stories told tended to incorporate some fragments from Icelandic folk tales. With this fusion of the mundane and the fabulous, of reality and the supernatural, the Gimli-stories remained true to the original Icelandic folk tale.
But why would the folk tale serve the subject matter at hand; namely, the vastness of an emigrant's experience? As the reader of this collection of short stories discovers, when confronted with the shortcomings of humanity, and/or society's horrific limits towards its people, the folk tale tends to unveil the very depths of the human being's vulnerability. Simultaneously, the folk tale accommodates the human being's hopeful disposition, and her natural inclinations towards some kind of a force we tend to term supernatural. Given the experience of an emigrant...