The Axe's Edge
Linda MacKinley-Hay was a teacher and freelance book reviewer in Fredericton, N.B.
Kristjana Gunnars, in this collection of ten stories, challenges the way we think of English Canadian literature. Drawing on letters, journals, and historical documents, she fashions a prose which she hopes contains the Icelandic voice begging to be heard.
The one-word titles — “Bells,” “Mice,” “Guest” — attest to the simplicity of the life and themes portrayed. There is acceptance of hardship (“…working was the way one lived”) and of the interrelationship of life and death (“…dead people came into our world a lot”). And interestingly enough, both the Bible and superstition offer solace to the Icelander in Canada — and seem not to be contradictory.
In “Crossroads,” a farm hand’s rich heritage of folklore allows him to come to grips with the Canadian wilderness where one is in constant danger of forgetting what is important:
Then you grab the axe and lift it over your face with the sharp edge facing down... As you chant, all your forefathers...tell you everything you want to know about the past or the future. ...That’s the deal, but if you don’t keep your eyes on the axe’s edge, you forget everything they tell you...
In the final story, ironically entitled “Holiday,” the narrator travels from Icelandic River, Manitoba, back to “the old country,” determined to uncover the truth about life in Iceland before 1848. Believing that he must immerse himself in the culture in order to know it, he walks the streets of Reykjavik, empty of the holidaying populace, before “releasing” himself to the ocean’s depths and the pure “Icelandic strain.” Finally he is home.
The Axe’s Edge, because it forays into uncharted territory, introduces a different style of prose-piece — an Icelandic Canadian short story.