In the late 1800s an Icelandic farmer leaves his home and family to visit the King of Denmark in Copenhagen, where a proselytizing Mormon bishop convinces him to travel to the town of Spanish Fork in the Utah Territory in order to also become a Mormon. The farmer builds himself a new life there and after several years sends for his family to join him.
Well, that sounds like a nice enough story about a man looking for paradise and finding it. However, it’s really not. The farmer is a nice enough man and he doesn’t do it maliciously, but he leaves for his grand adventure without thinking about his family, which completely ruins them. A horse trader, whom he gives permission to use his land before he leaves, not only makes the land worthless by keeping too many horses on it, but also uses his wife and son as cheap workers and rapes and impregnates his teenage daughter. The family ends up losing the land and working for whomever takes them in.
I was really more invested and interested in the story of the women, and in my opinion the two strongest scenes in the book involve the teenage daughter. In the first one the local priest and a government official seek to determine the identity of her child’s father. This one is hilarious and infuriating at the same time, because her insistence that it was more or less an immaculate conception is countered by the two men trying to explain to her the mechanics of sex without going into detail. The second one takes place between her and the rapist when she tells him that she will leave Iceland with his son, and it makes you empathize with her so much, because he tries to bend her to his will once again, this time because he does not want to give up the son that he never acknowledged as his before.
The farmer’s story on the other hand involves him becoming accostumed with Mormonism and acclimating to the different life in Spanish Fork. However, even here women’s stories play an important role. There is for example a seamstress that after being abandoned by her Josephite husband has an affair with a Lutheran who then rapes and impregnates her daughter. The farmer “saves” them by marrying both of them and thus elevating their standing again. This is mentioned again and again, Mormons having the duty to save outcast women by taking them as wives and women having to choose between agreeing to that or living in the most horrid of conditions, which is really like having no choice at all.
Laxness really exposes the detrimental influence organized religion often has on people and especially on women, be it by the rigid control exercised in Iceland by the Lutheran church or in Utah by Mormonism. The story of the seamstress illustrates nicely that it also doesn’t make one bit of difference which denomination you belong to when you are a terrible person. For me the book really was about the women’s stories, and I think Laxness does their struggles justice, especially in showing how they suffer not only obviously through male violence, but also because of societal and religious constraints and the simple carelessness of men, which does not hinder their sense of entitlement at all.
There is also a ton of information on Icelandic costumes and folklore in the book, and the setting is historically accurate, since in the late 1800s several thousand converted Mormons left Iceland for Utah. Laxness also has a very unique and appealing writing style, which often has a slightly tongue-in-cheek undertone, even when the subject matter gets dark. There are also no graphic or gratuitous descriptions of the rapes that happen, they are only alluded to in the most indirect manner.
All in all, highly recommended.