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Arts & CultureBooksSecrets of the Sprakkar by Eliza Reid

Secrets of the Sprakkar by Eliza Reid

by Edith Cody-Rice

Many Almonte residents will be surprised to hear that the First Lady of Iceland, Eliza Reid, was raised in the nearby village of Ashton. She met her husband, Gudni, now president of Iceland, at Oxford 25 years ago and after sharing digs in England, they married and returned to his home country, Iceland. Now, 20 some years later, at the summit of the Icelandic society, she has become a powerful ambassador for Icelandic culture. Her chosen profession is journalism. She was previously editor for Icelandair’s in-flight magazine, a staff writer at Iceland Review, and has been published in the New York Times, The Globe and Mail, Monocle, and several other newspapers and magazines. With a friend, she established the Iceland Writers’ Retreat in 2014. Secrets of the Sprakkar, published in 2022, is her first book. The full title of the book is Secrets of the Sprakkar: Iceland’s Extraordinary Women and How They Are Changing the World, sprakkar being an ancient Icelandic word meaning extraordinary or outstanding women.

Although the United States claims to be the oldest surviving democracy in the world, in fact, Iceland is the oldest parliamentary democracy in the world. The Althing (Icelandic: Alþingi) is the national parliament of Iceland. It is the oldest legislature in the world that has been abolished and subsequently reestablished. It was founded in 930 at Thingvellir (the “assembly fields”), which is almost 45 kilometres (28 mi) east of Iceland’s capital, Reykjavík. Iceland was distantly ruled by Denmark until 1918 when it became the Kingdom of Iceland sharing a monarch with Denmark. It became a republic in 1944.

With humour and acuity, Eliza Reid relates her experience as an immigrant in Iceland. She lived there 13 years before her husband was elected president. She entered a country of 320,000 with a largely homogeneous population where everyone appears related to everyone else and family supports are very strong. In fact, there is an Icelandic register Íslendingabók which citizens can consult to determine to whom they are related and in what degree and an app you can consult to determine if a person you are planning to sleep with is too closely related. Of course, Ms. Reid had to adapt to deeply rooted Icelandic customs; for example, there is the relative unimportance of last names; everyone has their own distinctive one, even within a nuclear family. Last names use the first name of the parent (usually the father) and end with the suffix, “son” or “dottir”, describing the relationship between the person and that parent. First names are vital, however. And the Icelandic language is surely one of the more difficult to learn.

But what really sets Iceland apart are its progressive social supports for families and treatment of women and other gender minorities. Ms. Reid describes the support she received through pregnancy and the social programs that allowed both her and her husband to pursue their careers while caring for their four children. The supports mean that finances are not the primary driver of whether to have children. She wittily recounts her expectations of numerous Canadian style doctor’s visits and advice during pregnancy only to discover that in Iceland, pregnancy is viewed as a normal development and is handled by midwives, not doctors, and with little fuss.

And then there are the spectacular women, both in contemporary society and in Icelandic myth. Consider, for instance the legendary 10th century Hallgerdur (nicknamed Long-Legs for her, you guessed it, long legs) whose long hair was soft as silk and grew to her waist. Her husband slapped her across the face when he discovered she had dishonoured the family by stealing food from a neighbouring farm during a famine. Not one to turn the other cheek, Hallgerdur bided her time and when her husband was besieged by enemies, declined his request for two strands of her strong lustrous hair to restring his broken bowstring. She recalled to him the slap and he died with a broken bow. Women in the 21st century see her as one of Iceland’s earliest feminists

And as an illustration of current attitudes in Iceland, Icelanders were not outraged when a new parliamentarian rose and gave a televised speech in the Althing while nursing her newborn, a first. It did not cause outrage although it did cause some comment.

Given its title, it is not surprising that Ms. Reid’s book focuses on Iceland’s aspiration to gender equality. Ms. Reid interviewed many contemporary Icelandic women for this book and the interviews reveal that, notwithstanding the goal, all is not perfect in Iceland. Women still need to fight for their space but respect for that space is miles ahead of many other western democracies, excepting Scandinavia. The World Economic Forum’s 2023 Gender Gap Report survey of 146 countries noted that for the 14th year running, Iceland (91.2%) takes the top position. It also continues to be the only country to have closed more than 90% of its gender gap.

Eliza Reid genuinely appreciates Iceland, with all its quirky customs (like never starting a new job on a Monday) and sayings (To come from the mountains means to be out of touch). She calls this book her love letter to the nation and her book gives us a fascinating account of a tiny country where life is safe, the state has managed to support its citizens and its aspirations are worthy of international recognition.

 

 

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