Guest Post: Digging into My Roots by author Sverrir Sigurdsson

It has been a long time since I had the pleasure of hosting an author on my blog. I am pleased to restart the same by hosting author Sverrir Sigurdsson as he talks about the events leading up to his memoir, Viking Voyager: An Icelandic Memoir.

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About the Book:

This vivacious personal story captures the heart and soul of modern Iceland. Born in Reykjavik on the eve of the Second World War, Sverrir Sigurdsson watched Allied troops invade his country and turn it into a bulwark against Hitler’s advance toward North America. The country’s post-war transformation from an obscure, dirt-poor nation to a prosperous one became every Icelander’s success. Spurred by this favorable wind, Sverrir answered the call of his Viking forefathers, setting off on a voyage that took him around the world. Join him on his roaring adventures!

Link to the book: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08MDMRM66

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Guest Post by Sverrir Sigurdsson

A memoirist is supposed to depend mostly on his memory.  But when I started writing my memoirs, I felt what was stored in my brain wasn’t enough.  To get to the bottom of who I was, I needed to burrow into the consciousness of the people I came from. 

My dad had researched the family tree of my maternal grandmother and traced it all the way to our ancestors who lived in Sognefjord, Norway in the late seventh century.  In other words, I’m a descendant of the original Vikings who left Norway for Iceland in protest over King Harald the Beautiful Hair’s efforts to unify the country.  My ancestral pantheon includes Erik the Red and his son, Leif Eriksson the explorer.  But names alone weren’t enough; I wanted to know these people, how they lived, what they did in life, and what they were made of. 

I started by digging into my grandparents’ stories.  My maternal grandmother was no stranger to me as she lived with the family until she died.  She was as gentle as a lamb with me, but she had to have the heart of a lioness to face down the tragedy of losing her husband and son in one fell swoop and continue to raise her four other children.  The other three grandparents, however, had passed away before I was born. 

Since I was located in the US, I was worried that accessing material for my memoirs might pose a challenge.  To my delight, the internet brought the world to my fingertips.  My first seminal find happened while browsing the online catalogue of the Icelandic National Library.  My Uncle Óli’s name appeared in a cultural heritage project conducted by the library some years ago.  I emailed the librarian, who promptly sent me the digitized cassette tapes of his interview.   I clicked on one of the files, and there was my long-dead uncle speaking to me in his gravelly voice.  In the interviews, he describes life as a seaman fishing the rough seas around Iceland.  Having started his maritime career at the age of ten, the working age of Icelandic children in those days, he had plenty to tell.  His words fill five hours of recording.

His accounts also shed light on his father, my grandfather.  He was a self-made man who started as an orphaned farmhand and ended as skipper of a lucrative fishing vessel called Gyða.  One day in 1910, his ship disappeared during a storm.  Forty some years later, the ship’s mast was recovered from the bottom of the fjord, but none of the remains of the skipper, his first-born son and the other six crew members have been found.  Uncle Óli would have gone down with them if he hadn’t stayed behind to take a school leaving exam that day.

On another internet search, I stumbled on the digitized logbook of Gyða’s first captain, the one before my grandfather.  The log is typically terse and dry, recording the weather, the catch, and the ship’s location, which could reach as far north as the Polar Circle.  Some entries are more interesting than others, and here is one: 

“A flu epidemic ravaged the town that winter.  By the time Gyða set sail, three men had come down with the flu, and a fourth would join them by the time they reached the fishing grounds.  Despite good weather and an abundance of fish, the lines were idle because all but the skipper and one crew member were in bed, delirious with fever.  When the skipper finally succumbed to the flu, some of the other patients had recovered sufficiently to execute the sailing chores.  A few days later, the crew was still weak but well enough to resume fishing.  However, the bait, herring, had gone bad because the ice had melted while they were ill.”

I struck a goldmine on the website www.timarit.is . Until recently, accessing newspaper articles in Icelandic papers would have been a formidable task.  But a few years ago, the University of Iceland and the National Libraries of Iceland, the Faroe Islands, and Greenland joined hands to digitize every newspaper article and periodical printed from the beginning of news publishing in the 1800s until today.  To date, almost six million pages of searchable text are available to anyone for free at the site.

A story about my father’s side of the family came from an unexpected source—a Canadian newspaper that serves the Icelandic diaspora in North America.  This heroic tale of devastation and salvation took place during the exceptionally long and cold winter of 1880-1881.  Runólfur, a farmer in northeast Iceland, was then old and infirm.  He foresaw a shortage of hay in spring and asked for help from farmers in a nearby valley where the weather was milder.  They came to his rescue, sheltering and feeding his sheep until early May.  Assuming the winter was over, they sent the sheep back.  But shortly after, snowstorms hit Runólfur’s farm again, dumping four feet of snow, which quickly turned into a solid sheet of ice.  The neighboring farmers rallied once again.  They crossed the snow- and ice-covered mountain pass on foot and skis and herded the sheep back across the pass.  To keep the starving sheep moving, the rescuers carried on their backs sacks of hay, which they emptied now and then to entice the sheep to go on.  They did the trek not once but twice in order to get all the sheep, horses, and cows, as well as people to safety.  My grandfather, Runólfur Hannesson, born in 1867, was the nephew of his namesake in the above story.

These people and their stories were never far from my mind when I wrote Viking Voyager: An Icelandic Memoir.  Their endurance kept the nation going until conditions were ripe for Iceland to prosper.  To them I owe my golden childhood and the superb education that equipped me to compete in the world.  The spirit of these same people egged me to pursue an architecture degree in Finland and from thereon to adventures around the world.  To them I owe my fortune, not in monetary terms but in the wealth of experiences gathered from the places I visited and people met.  Vikings traveled the world to seek their fortune; I’ve indeed found mine.

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