In 1998, Minnesotan writer and teacher Bill Holm bought himself a house called Brimnes in Hofsós, a small village a half-hour’s drive from the town of Sauðárkrókur in northern Iceland. He began to spend his summer vacations there, playing the piano, writing, watching the mountains on the other side of Skagafjörður, entertaining visitors and getting to know his neighbours and his own Icelandic roots (which were actually in Vopnafjörður). Bill Holm died at the age of sixty-five in February 2009, leaving this book behind as a record of his connection with Iceland.
The Windows of Brimnes has ten chapters, each of which can be read as an independent essay. The first four cover Hofsós, Skagafjörður, Icelandic birds, and Icelandic folktales. Then Holm shifts his view towards America, with an essay about Icelandic immigrants and his family history, another about his youth and young adulthood in the shadow of the Vietnam War, and a third about the question of how much choice we have in deciding who and what we listen and pay attention to. The three concluding essays discuss Icelandic Christianity (both in Iceland and North America), Icelandic poetry, and finally Icelandic (and American) politics.
Holm summered here, so his Iceland is a bright, magical place full of creativity and celebration. He speaks about beautiful things: horses, folktales, birdwatching, writers, poets, musicians, and friends. He knows that Iceland will be strange and exotic to many of his readers, so he blends in some of the beginner stuff that we’re all familiar with – how the phone book is organized by first name, how special the tölt is, how the moon astronauts trained here, how horsemeat is better than you think, and how great it is that there are no mosquitoes in Iceland.
A focus on the fat and sweetness of a country is typical of ethnic literature in America. Italian-Americans write lovingly about risotto and ribollita. Scottish-Americans shore up the shortbread-and-haggis industry. Native readers tire of this quickly, but must understand that this kind of talk is what makes Diaspora members feel like they belong and should come back for a visit.
Holm saw untapped value in small communities, whose neighbourliness fascinated and comforted him. His 1996 book The Heart Can Be Filled Anywhere on Earth argues that one can lead a full and satisfying life in Minneota, Minnesota (population 1500), his hometown. Windows of Brimnes is an ode to the way of life in Hofsós and Skagafjörður. Holm has little appetite for Reykjavík, which, he regrets, “is now a real city.”
Just when the reader is ready to dismiss Holm as hopelessly in the grip of what Jim Rice has called the Iceland-is-wonderful discourse, comes the book’s last essay, “Fog.” In it, Holm recognizes that he has presented an image of Iceland slathered in “whipped cream and jam.” Writing well before the bank collapse, he proposes that Icelandic “idealism, intelligence, and humour” is also mixed with “venality, foolishness, and greed.” He especially criticizes aluminium processing and the dam at Kárahnjúkar, which he says amount to the deflowering of the Icelandic landscape.
Regardless of one’s stance towards smelters and dams, this is a welcome recognition that life in Iceland is not just a midsummer idyll. There is another Iceland where trout are raised in pens, not fished from lakes and streams; few people write, and fewer still farm; and daily life is, like elsewhere, burdened by political and moral uncertainty and dispute. So far, Icelandic fiction writers such as Arnaldur Indriðason and Hallgrímur Helgason have explored this Iceland better than any foreign observer.
Key to Holm’s love of Iceland is that Iceland was his refuge from the disturbances of the American national soul. Holm was a freethinking Christian rather than a fundamentalist, a truth-teller rather than a dissembler, an observer rather than a war-maker, and someone who questioned what he was told to believe. He felt that in Iceland, society shared his values, or at least, more so than in America.
Iceland is, in truth, a disputatious and contentious land where public discourse moves from one tense debate to the next. A recurring theme is whether Iceland should become more like the United States or more like Europe – in areas as diverse as health care finance, national defence, Internet commerce, eating habits, city planning, energy privatization, and alcohol sales. I think Holm was pretty knowledgeable about current affairs in Iceland, and nevertheless decided against making Windows of Brimnes a book about the country in all moods and months of the year.
Indeed, I suspect that there are a lot of readers who will like Holm’s sweeter, creamier take, and that Windows of Brimnes will age well. It’s already out in paperback. I had a good time reading it, and I can say it’s one of the better Iceland books on the market – a concise and readable record of an American’s attachment to the North Atlantic.
Born in Minnesota in 1943, Bill Holm taught writing at Southwest Minnesota State University and was the author of twelve books of poems and essays, including Eccentric Islands, The Heart Can Be Filled Anywhere on Earth, Playing the Black Piano, and the intriguingly named Boxelder Bug Variations. Holm died in February 2009.
- By: Bill Holm
- Publisher: Milkweed Editions, 2007
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