Peasant Autonomy
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Story 26

A river in Iceland – 1879

The crossing

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(Photo: Howard Ignatius)


The old man undresses the toddler quickly. His face is weathered but his gestures are vigorous, as if he is still in the prime of his life. “I am bishop Thjodrek, I am an emissary of the Most High,” he calls to a group of horsemen on the riverside. “I baptise this child now to let it go straight to the Eternal Kingdom of God, when it dies.” Then he dips the toddler briefly into the cold water, and murmurs prayers while rubbing the howling child dry with a cloth, and putting it under his sweater to warm it with his body.
Thjodrek sits in a big sloop in the middle of the river. He orders the boatman to let the sloop drift with the stream. When the boatman objects, he repeats in a loud voice that he is a bishop, and sent by God himself.

Thjodrek, together with a group of converts, is on his way to a port town to travel from there with a steamer to the Mormon community in America. He grew up in a small farm in Iceland. Later on he went roaming, and ended up in the Mormon community in Utah, United States. Thereupon, he returned to his country of birth to preach the Mormon faith, and take followers with him to the holy community across the ocean.

for bigger picture click on this photo

(Photo: Matthias Serfling)


One of the impoverished people in the sloop is Steina, a young woman, the mother of the toddler. She huddles on one of the benches, in a haze of tears. She looks fearfully toward the horsemen. These are the powerful and brazen Björn Mud and his cronies. Mud had gotten her pregnant, but never wanted to acknowledge the child. He has brought so much shame on her and her family. But, when he heard that she was leaving for America, he had quickly rounded up some friends to take seize 'his' child from her. She knows for sure that Thjodrek would rather drown the just-baptised child than let it fall into the hands of that devil.

Mud sees the sloop drifting with the stream. A few of his mates want to pursue it. But he knows that there are swamps and quicksands. You can't do anything there with horses. Mud raises his right hand and shouts, “Come on, we’ll go, there is no need to witness a child murder.” Further on the sloop runs against the river bank, and the converts continue their journey.


The Icelandic author Halldór Laxness recounts in his novel Paradise Reclaimed (1960) how a group of poor peasants starts a new life in faraway America.

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= the next page: Silver lining - a small village in Massachusetts, United States – 1884, story 27.
= the Table of contents, story 26.