- The Viking Immigrants: Icelandic North Americans by L. K. Bertram
The Icelandic community in North America continues to cultivate and celebrate a distinctive culture. L. K. Bertram’s The Viking Immigrants: Icelandic North Americans historicizes the community’s traditions, from clothing to coffee and much more, and it is revealed that the distinctive culture of the Icelandic community in North America is not only distinct from other ethnic communities in North America but also from culture in contemporary Iceland. There is rich and growing scholarship studying the community of North American Icelanders and their culture, though much of it has focused on the settlement history in and around New Iceland (i.e., Manitoba’s Interlake Region) in the latter part of the nineteenth century, or is in the form of literary criticism on the substantial literary output that has and continues to emerge from the settlers and their descendants. There is no shortage of material available to a historian who is drawn to the study of the Icelandic culture in North America, and The Viking Immigrants provides a new perspective on the material and social history of the community.
Bertram has made a groundbreaking and unique contribution to the study of this ethnic community’s history, focusing her study on the broad categories of clothing, beverages, the supernatural, Viking symbolism, and baking. The reader who opens this book will not follow a traditional and technical history of Icelandic struggles and settlement in North America, accounts of which are often hyperbolic or narrowly focused on leading men and institutions. Instead, Bertram leads the reader into the lives of characters resurrected from archives, oral accounts, and newspaper sources, among other primary sources. The reader might imagine they are walking through the Icelandic quarter of Winnipeg in the late nineteenth century, or sitting in a kitchen drinking coffee in between the two World Wars. Bertram’s book tells the stories of traditionally underrepresented characters such as the tailor, the prostitute, the laborer, and, most poignantly, the amma (grandmother). In the author’s words, “this book focuses on the unseen qualities” rather than on a “continuity with the homeland and the preservation of tradition” (p. 5). As the book reveals, Icelandic culture in North America and Icelandic culture in Iceland diverged remarkably during the course of the twentieth century.
Bertram’s book begins with an introduction that provides a useful summary of the history of Icelandic immigration to North America. The endnotes to this section lead the reader to a vast selection of popular and scholarly historians whose work informs any study of the Icelandic community [End Page 292] in North America. Importantly, the author has a section in the introduction that contextualizes Icelandic immigration to the Americas within the colonization, bringing to the forefront what most histories of the community, though not all, choose to neglect: Icelanders were in fact active participants in the displacement of Indigenous peoples in North America. The introduction then provides an outline for the “alternative road map of the historical evolution of Icelandic North American culture” (p. 23).
Chapter 1 details the clothing styles the immigrants brought with them to North America and the adjustments that were required to adapt to the new, and colder, environment and to enable social mobility in the new society. Icelandic immigrants in North America dedicated substantial time, effort, and financial resources to their dress. Such a level of attention, especially by women, shows their ability to integrate into a new society that required a different wardrobe, and often many more outfits. Icelandic immigrant men, Bertram explains, often adopted and adapted Indigenous clothing more suitable for the harsh winters on Lake Winnipeg. Clothing was a necessity that the immigrants were able to use to disguise their own ethnic difference from the mainstream Anglo-centric society of North America and also utilize to enable upward social movement.
Chapter 2 is about the culture of beverages in Iceland before emigration and in particular in North America after immigration. Both coffee and alcohol were important beverages for the...