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A Song from Wayne

“The village of Mountain in Pembina County is the center of a sizable Icelandic community,” writes Father Bill Sherman in his classic study, Prairie Mosaic. The settlement in North Dakota spun off from the colony of Gimli, in Manitoba, and comprised not only Mountain but also Hallson and Gardar. Mountain, however, was a cultural center. Sherman writes,

A large room above a grocery store in Mountain was the setting during the 1880s and 1890s for frequent Icelandic lectures, dramatic events, and debates. In fact, Icelandic settlement life reflected a strong emphasis on the more ‘intellectual’ sorts of national pursuits such as poetry and drama. A lending library and especially the school were of great importance. A debating society was organized in Mountain in 1886.

I have a list of favorite Icelanders, which begins with Thorstina Jackson Walters, who was born to Icelandic immigrant parents in 1887. They had come to Dakota Territory by way of Manitoba. Her parents being part of the literate culture of the community, Thorstina grew up surrounded by story and song. They observed the winter custom of rökkursvetn, a nap at twilight, after which the family awoke for readings and recreation. (Dr. K and I, in fact, have embraced this winter mode for our own household.)

Thorstina Jackson Walters published Modern Sagas, her history of the Icelandic immigrants, with the NDSU Institute for Regional Studies in 1953. She and her husband, the artist Émile Walters, both received the Knights Cross and Order of the Falcon from King Christian X of Denmark and Iceland.

I feel like Snorri Thorfinnison, another scion of Icelandic North Dakota, is an old hunting buddy. Born in 1901, Snorri (who was named for the first Norse baby born in North America) got a degree from the university and then arrived for continued study at North Dakota Agricultural College--where his dean described him as “a tall fair-haired lad of Icelandic heritage . . . with a determination to educate himself for the service of his fellow man.” He went on to an inspiring career as an agricultural educator and a local historian. I have now on my desk his book of poems, Whispering Wings, which I always like to read before venturing into the hills after sharptails.

Beside Snorri on my desk is Wayne Gudmundson, the great Icelander of our regional community today, author of Song for Liv, recently published by North Dakota State University Press. Liv is Wayne and Jane’s daughter, for whom the book is written. The work comprises photographs, of course; research into the author’s Icelandic origins; and reflections of remembrance.

Wayne’s gestation as an Icelander was not quite like Thorstina’s. He came to his ancestral home in Mountain from Fargo, by auto. “Years ago,” he writes, “I was introduced to the North Dakota landscape as a child in the back seat of a 1954 red and white Chevy on family trips to visit my grandparents.” Each visit included an automotive ascent to the hill west of town, a long conversation at the top, a depression of the clutch, and a long, coasting glide back to town.

As for the puckish Icelandic poet, K. N. Julius, who was more revered in the old country than in Mountain, Wayne’s father introduced him as “old K. N. He was a gravedigger, a handyman, and a poet.” My favorite photo from Song for Liv: page 11, South of Akureyri, 20 June 1993, East of the farm where K. N. worked before emigration.”

Song for Liv will figure in our rökkursvetn this winter. Wayne, do you think this ritual is a subtle metaphor for old guys like us? Or are we just on the long coast home?

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