by Halldór Laxness
It took me 100 pages to commit to Independent People by Icelandic author Halldór Laxness--and then I couldn't put it down. Written in 1946 and securing him the Nobel Prize in 1955, it covers a subject so universal that I imagine it has meant vastly different things to readers depending on the decade they read it. An Icelandic Grapes of Wrath, it follows the protagonist Bjartur of Summerhouses, an ordinary sheep farmer, who, after eighteen years in humiliating servitude, has finally bought his own land and his own sheep and wants nothing more than to live as an independent man. But as he faces the hardships of weather, poverty, winter, babies that are born and die spring after spring, he always faces the question of what independence means, whether it is even possible, and if so, at what price. And readers, facing his choices with him, ask themselves the same thing. As I read it I came up with answers far different from those of Bjartur even as I followed him as he endured the consequences of his own answers. It is a brilliant book.
Independent People draws you in slowly then wraps itself around you so seamlessly that it is difficult for me to select out particular passages that illustrate its style and scope. Instead I will quote one long passage where Bjartur has departed mid-winter on a long journey, leaving his children under the care of his eldest daughter Asta Sollilja. These are her thoughts as she finds herself sitting alone in the dark in their sod home on the second night after her father's departure, facing the prospect of months of loneliness and uncertainty:
“And Asta Sollilja, who sat teasing her wool, how was she to forget all those tomorrow evenings which make tonight so long? She tried to think of how the stairs had creaked yesterday morning when Father went down for the last time, how the bits had jingled in old Blesi's mouth when he threw the rein over, put his foot in the stirrup, and sat down astride his luggage, how the frozen snow had squeaked beneath the horse's hoofs as they moved off. She forced her mind to dwell on this departure for as long as possible, as if on the first part of a story, so as to be able to cheer herself the more with the thought of his return at Easter; and possibly there would be a green Easter since there had been a white Christmas; and then, after an incalculable number of evenings, she hears the jingle of harness outside, for now he is taking the bridle off, and once more the stairs creak, and she sees his face and his strong shoulders rising above the hatchway, and it is he, he has come at last. She hopped towards this vision of the future over innumerable endless evenings. But when it came to the point, she found she couldn't do it; she couldn't lift herself high enough into the air. She stood alone facing the many evenings that had yet to come like a crowd of dead men trooping through one living soul; the soul of man needs every day a little consolation if it is to live, but there was nowhere any consolation to be found.”
How much I loved this book surprised me. I haven't stopped thinking about it since I put it down weeks ago.
You can buy Independent People at your local bookstore. If they don't have it in stock (likely), order it from them to support that community treasure. If, inexplicably, you have no local bookstore, and you don't have it in you to start one, you can order it online at Bookshop, Barnes and Noble and Amazon
About Susan Edsall
Writing is how I make my way through the thicket of what we’ve made of this planet we’re on. It takes me a long time and lots of words. Social media mystifies me. How do so many people have so much to say, so quickly, and with such resolute certainty? Read more about Susan >