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Books for Summer road trips – Stories from Iceland, Denmark and Canada’s small towns

Books for Summer road trips

This past month I travelled south into the USA, down through Washington State, into Oregon, turning around at Portland to go east to Yakima, and then back north home.  It was a long looping drive, around the coast, skirting or getting into mountain peaks and forests, puttering along big highways and small byways (when we got a bit lost), through cities like Seattle and little towns like Chumstick (there’s a name for you!) that we only saw because of the forest fires burning along other routes. It was the little towns that were most interesting – how they are defined by their economies and resources, and in turn, how the people that live there shape the town.  The politics, tastes, habits and incomes of the inhabitants were plain to see.
While moving from motel, to inn, to hotel, I spent my evenings reading three books:

  • Stuart’s McLean’s classic memoir of his travels in small-town Canada, Welcome Home;
  • Peter Høeg’s novel The Elephant Keepers’ Children, set on the fictional Danish island of Finø; and
  • Names for the sea, a memoir of Reykjavik, Iceland, by Sarah Moss.

All three books feature detailed descriptions of towns and cities located in the arctic  and subarctic – i.e. cold, snowy places. All three are excellent examples of the setting – the towns and communities – functioning, at least in part, as a character. Rather than being depicted as a static backdrop, it interacts with the characters, reacts to what they do, and is part of the characters’ reasoning and thinking, defining what they do and being defined by them.

The Elephant Keepers’ Children, by Peter Høeg

The key to understanding Peter Høeg’s writing is to pay attention from the first page, in this case, the cover. Note the apostrophe in the title after “keepers”. This means there is more than one elephant keeper. The title refers to ideas or problems or ideas that  are so elephantine that they subconsciously force you, like an elephant’s keeper, into uncontrolled behaviours.

“Mother and Father’s elephants  are not the Indian variety that can be taught to sit on your lap and do the crossword puzzle and stand on their front legs and wag their tails. Mother’s and Father’s  elephants are the African species that wander great distances without warning and that you can be on reasonable terms with but never be certain of. “ (p. 487).

The main characters in this story, teenagers “Tilte” and her brother “Peter”, the narrator, have parents who are brilliant but prone to being dominated by their elephants. As Tilte observes: “They’re elephant keepers. That’s Mother’s and Father’s problem, They’re elephant keepers without knowing it.” (p. 148) Peter and Tilte’s  parents want to know what God really is, they want to meet God, and in trying to do this they fake some miracles and get involved in an extremist plot to blow up a multi-faith convention (with some old-fashioned self-enrichment thrown in for good measure.)

About children, not for children

Like in his other book written from the viewpoint of precocious, intelligent children who outsmart adults, Borderliners,  Peter and Tilte (especially Tilte) often speak, reason, plan and plot like adults, and do not show any of the limited reasoning typical of developing children. Rather than children, they are, I suspect, representations of adults seeking to find their place in the world – perhaps like the notoriously publicity-shy author was in his youth.

The plot is clever and engaging – on the surface the novel is clearly a mystery though just one corpse from a natural death is involved. But Høeg is, again, frankly critical of the Danish welfare system and its treatment of children with problems. A frequent theme in children’s literature is the threat is of children being abandoned, losing their parents and being forced into care.  That is the dark thread woven through the story.

The names of the characters are strange, punnish (on purpose – Martin Aitken did an excellent job of the translation into English, I thought) and clearly an indication of their natures:

  • Leonora Ticklepalate, who is a Buddhist and runs a business advising people on how to spice up their love-lives;
  • Rickardt Three Lions (Richard the Lionheart?) a crazy, impoverished member of the nobility;
  • Albert Winehappy, a morose, over-sized secret agent and gourmand, and so on.

Often, the plot is similarly slapstick, with corpses and coffins appearing and disappearing, and people popping out of hampers, leaping about in shock and going off on wild goose chases. For instance, when the children want to get away, Tilte just bellows “Honor killing!”  and all the people in the public square jump on the children’s pursuers. Is that black humour, or what?

Faith, loneliness and hope

But underneath the humour lie profound observations on  the nature of faith, loneliness and hope. Loneliness for instance, showing the isolation and idiosyncrasy of the little island of Finø reflected both in Peter’s name and character:

“That’s what happens now, all by itself. I shift my attention. From the blackness of the night to the light of the stars…My attention is turned one way, toward loneliness, and I go the other. From the feeling of loneliness to what surrounds it. From being trapped within myself, inside the joys and sorrows that make up Peter Finø and that reside like tiny, floating islands adrift within us all, I shift my attention to what those islands are adrift upon. That’s all I do. It’s something anyone can do. I change nothing. I don’t try to make the loneliness go away. I just let go of it. It begins to remove itself. She begins to remove herself. And then she is gone. What remains in a way is me. But in another way, it’s just a very deep feeling of happiness.” (pp. 494-495)

So, If you want to  know how to manage your elephants – loneliness and failing faith included, read this. It is thought-provoking and very clever.

PS: The children’s mother’s favourite song is “Monday in the Rain on Lonely Avenue”. It might be Høeg’s invention, but there is a traditional Danish song from 1953 called Mandag Morgen Blues (Monday Morning Blues) by Danish singer John Mogensen, which sounds like something their mother could’ve sung and done a little dance to.

Names for the Sea, by Sarah Moss

I grabbed this book because it is set in Reykjavik, and I’ve always been fascinated by Iceland and Reykjavik, ever since seeing (and now owning) the decidedly odd Dogme 95-type movie, 101 Reykjavik, directed by Baltasar Kormákur. Having worked my way through quite a few novels and movies set in Iceland and (by inference) Denmark, I was intrigued to know why someone would go and take a sabbatical in Reykjavik at the height of the world financial crisis in 2009 and the particularly severe aftermath of that in Iceland in 2009.

Landing up in a kreppa

According to Wikipedia, in the years 2003–2007, following the privatization of the banking sector, Iceland moved toward having an economy based on financial services and investment banking but was hit hard by the 2008–2011 Icelandic financial crisis. In 2008, affected by the worldwide financial crisis, the nation’s entire banking system systemically failed and all three of the country’s major privately owned commercial banks collapsed following their difficulties in refinancing their short-term debt and a run on deposits in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.

Relative to the size of its economy, Iceland’s systemic banking collapse is the largest experienced by any country in economic history. The crisis resulted in the greatest migration from Iceland since 1887, with a net emigration of 5,000 people in 2009. Iceland’s economy stabilised and grew by 1.6% in 2012. Many Icelanders, however, remained unhappy with the state of the economy and government austerity policies. Moss writes:

“I still haven’t found the kreppa [the financial crisis]. I feel like a poor person here, the only one who can’t afford a cup of coffee, who brings sandwiches to work  and mends her children’s clothes. It’s normal for the UK, I tell friends who observe us rationing use of our pay-as-you-go phones, walking to save petrol, turning the heating down. But it doesn’t seem to be normal for Iceland. (p. 265)

Names for the sea, snow and wind

Into this simmering volcano, literally and figuratively, of an island, came Moss, her husband and two toddlers – she was there to teach English Literature to Icelandic university students.  Do not be mistaken by the title: Icelanders do not have an enormous number of names for the sea, despite their country being an island. As one Icelandic writer has commented, they have a lot of names for wind, since it is a very windy place, and for snow, for the same reason. Rather, the name reflects Moss’s preoccupation with trying to find words for the raw, windblown, barren scenery of the island and the ever-present sea – and master the local language.

While her children learn Icelandic fast, right up to the end of the book, Moss confesses that she is too embarrassed to express herself in Icelandic. The city is dominated by its environment – the changing seasons, the sea, the wind, the tree-less volcanic landscape.  Moss is disarmingly frank in her retelling of their year in Reykjavik, recounting her misunderstandings, numerous faux pas and sense of alienation combined with liberation.

“The day passes through landscapes that simply don’t make sense, mountains the mind can’t read. It’s like watching God in the act of creation, passing through fells of bare naked lava and rock, like seeing the world before it was finished. We’re on day four of creation, moving back towards day three, a world made of sky, fire, earth and water with none of the complications that come later. The mountains are red, as if the cinders haven’t yet cooled, or the black of embers, carved by valleys where it seems that if you watched long enough, you’d see that the rock is still flowing.” (p. 338)

Reading at times like a well-plotted novel, the memoir is captivating and filled with studied, poetic observations on all aspects of their life in Iceland – from the kreppa (which she does eventually encounter), to knitting, childcare, elves or “hidden people” (yes, including a tree-elf called Oli), to politics and volcanic eruptions. Formed by their island, the Icelanders come across as self-sufficient, non-ironic, egalitarian and open-hearted. No wonder then, that Moss’s final words are that she is not yet ready to leave the island that she had come to call home.

PS: The cover is not a bunch of islands in the sea, it’s humans in swimming costumes in one of Reykjavik’s famous outdoor thermal pools, probably The Blue Lagoon.

Welcome Home – Travels in Small-town Canada, by Stuart McLean

Welcome Home, by Stuart McLean, Penguin Books Canada, Toronto, First published 1992, 10th anniversary edition 2002 republished in 2010)
Welcome Home, by Stuart McLean, Penguin Books Canada, Toronto, First published 1992, 10th anniversary edition 2002 republished in 2010)

Stuart McLean steps outside his alter-ego of Dave of the Vinyl Cafe stories and here writes as himself, an author searching for genuine small towns in Canada. These towns had to have bus-stops, no cash machines, perhaps a ten-pin bowling alley with an actual human pin-setter. They had to be small, run by the people who live there, dominated by whatever resource or source of income the place naturally has, and perhaps have an ice-hockey rink.  He was looking for the heart of Canada.

In writing about these places, McLean has produced something of a potted history of the nation. It is really, really charming. It is engrossing, every single page of its whopping 633-page bulk. McLean writes in his usual spare, yet eloquent style, with carefully chosen words. He is a master of the final one-liner and he does drop them frequently here with excellent effect. While I often smiled, I also found myself longing for photos of these places, and Googled them afterwards. The book was published 22 years ago, and contains an update for the 2002 edition by McLean.

Small towns, by definition

In case you were wondering, these are the small towns in which he spent several weeks in each instance:

  • Maple Creek, Saskatchewan
  • Dresden, Ontario
  • St-Jean-de-Matha, Quebec
  • Sackville, New Brunswick
  • Foxwarren, Manitoba
  • Nakusp, British Columbia
  • Ferryland, Newfoundland

Of these, Foxwarrren and Nakusp are the most northernly and coldest places. The others are all in the high 40s latitudes – also cold, but not subarctic.  Yet, all these places are shaped by the people living there, and they in turn, are shaped by the town and its location.  People go away and return eventually to raise children in their home towns, or grow old and die there. They complain about the terrible weather, the boiling summers, the bitter winters, the violent iceberg-choked sea, yet do not move away. I found it amazing to read how resourceful people are – what they come up with to make a living and help others make a living too, and where the products of little those towns go to – the water, power, lumber, sports, and even the maple syrup, that mostly get exported to the USA and elsewhere.

Falling slightly out of love

McLean’s own voice comes through most clearly when he writes about Foxwarren, Manitoba, where the townspeople built their own ice hockey rink. McLean is looking to find the amateur hockey he knew as a kid.

“But my notes, which begin in such detail, trail off soon after the action begins. I don’t even remember who wins. There is a high stick, and then another. High elbows in the corner. And a fight. And then another. I am close enough to the ice to see it too clearly. This is not why I have come…Is this  the way it always was? Somehow the game seemed purer when I was young. To my memory even the fights were…Were what? Honourable? Just? Dignified? Who has changed? Me, or the game? …I came looking for the heart of Canada. Is this what we have become? Chippy? Aggressive? Even when we play? Dressing up like Americans. Naming ourselves after American professional teams. There is no disillusionment more complete than the disillusion that comes with lost love. Once I was enchanted by hockey. Maybe you don’t see things clearly when you are under a spell.” (pp. 383, 394)

Despite the occasional disenchantment and sadness, McLean never resorts to sounding preachy or overly sentimental, and included some funny moments, like when he was trying to prevent people getting the wrong idea when a woman cut his hair in his hotel room; and when he told a woman on a train, reading one of his books, that he is the author – to her delight.

Earlier this year, American director John Waters published his account of him hitchhiking across America, called Carsick. Apparently, some pretty weird people picked him up.  When you get up close and personal with people, who knows what might happen. But if you don’t, you’ll never get to know what is really out there.

In McLean’s case, only good things happened to him – perhaps because he is, by all accounts, a genuinely personable man – but his narrative also made these little Canadian towns look good.

“Many people will tell you that you have to hang around big cities, if you want action. I live in a big city, a city striving to become ‘world class’ whatever that means, but some of my favourite adventures continue to happen in small towns.” (p. 627)

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