Modern Sagas

Sep 29, 2018

Attending the Deuce of August celebration in Mountain, whereat Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir charmed the North Dakota crowd, stirred my interest in our Icelandic immigrant heritage. I have written about Her Excellency’s joyous appearance in Mountain and about the courageous service of the Icelandic midwife, Aldis Laxdal, whose monument stands in the Vikur Lutheran Cemetery.

My go-to source as to matters Icelandic in northeastern North Dakota is Thorstina Walters, author of Modern Sagas: The Story of the Icelanders in North America, published by the Institute for Regional Studies in 1953. Rereading the Walters work after a gap of years, I am deeply impressed.

First, because the author was an impressive woman, born the daughter of Thorleifur Joakimson (Americanized to Jackson) and Gudrún Jónsdóttir in Pembina County, North Dakota. They were of the Icelandic stock who had come first to Manitoba and thence to Dakota Territory.

Manifesting the Icelandic penchants for educational attainments and literary pursuits, Thorstina Jackson taught school, became a social worker, and took graduate work at Columbia University. There, and thereafter, she pursued studies in Icelandic history, culture, and emigration. King Christian X of Denmark and Iceland awarded her the Knights Cross and Order of the Falcon. She was an active organizer of the Icelandic Millennial Celebration in 1930.

Meantime she had married another child of Icelandic immigrants, Émile Walters--a landscape artist who, on returning to his North Atlantic homeland, reinvented his style to depict its stunning landscape. Later he would bring his style to bear in paintings of the Badlands of North Dakota. He, too, received the Knights Cross and Order of the Falcon.

Thorstina Walters continued her career in social work during the 1930s, then worked in the Censorship and War Information Department during the Second World War, while Émile undertook government missions in Iceland. In 1944 Thorstina was stricken with multiple schlerosis--one consequence of which was the renewal of her historical interests.

With a fellowship from the University of Minnesota, and drawing on her father’s research as well as her own, she wrote Modern Sagas, a work that presents and interprets the Icelandic immigrant experience for the rest of us. The first thing I noticed on rereading the book is that the introduction was penned by none other than Allan Nevins, the acclaimed biographer and historian, author of the eight-volume history of the Civil War, The Ordeal of the Union. This contribution no doubt derived from Thorstina’s years at Columbia University.

The second thing I noticed is that Thorstina Walters presents her people, compellingly, as the salt of the earth--as people who cherish all that is good about their ethnic heritage, but also exemplify the best of American values. I think about the time of publication, when the public ideal was the melting pot, and when English-speaking Americans expected immigrants to abandon all that was dear to their heritage, and I am moved by Thorstina’s gallant portrayals.

Third, several times while reading of Thorstina’s parents and home life, I was so deeply moved that I had to lay the book aside and collect myself for a few minutes. Now I return to her description of the winter ritual of the rökkursvetn, the twilight nap that took place in the interval between an early supper and the later evening, when the family assembled for readings and recreation. This will be my model for our upcoming northern winter.