Independent People: A guest post by Ann Dixon

Open season has ended on our Northern Favorites shelf, but we’d like to keep loading it with your favorite books. So if there’s one you’d like to add, email a short guest post explaining why it’s favorite-worthy. (No spoilers, please.) We’ll add your selection to our shelf and post your thoughts – short ones in the weekly round-up, longer in separate posts as we’re doing here.

Alaskan author Ann Dixon writes beautiful books for children, published with Whitman, Alaska Northwest, McElderry and Scholastic. She has also published on outdoor and environmental topics. A recipient of the Contribution to Literacy in Alaska award (2000), Ann will be posting as a 49 writers featured author in July. Here she explains why Independent People is her current Northern Favorite.

For me, a Favorite Book is impossible. Even when the range is limited to Northern books the choices are too numerous and my tastes too varied. Are we talking fiction, nonfiction, or poetry? For adults or children? Genre or literary? Contemporary or classic? My mind can manage only “favorites,” plural and sans caps.

With that grain of salt, and a “for adults” qualifier, I’m eager to spread the word about my most recent literary love, which just happens to fall conveniently into the Northern category. Independent People is set in early-twentieth century Iceland, a North recognizable to Alaskans, yet different enough to stimulate new imaginings. The novel, by Icelander Halldór Laxness, is probably not for everyone, yet I find it difficult to predict who will like it and who will not. On the surface, the story is about a subsistence sheep farmer who struggles relentlessly to obtain and maintain his independence within a near-feudal economic system and a punishing environment. But the novel sprawls, uniquely and unexpectedly, with a storytelling style unique to Laxness yet certainly steeped in the poetic sagas and oral tradition. Laxness writes with a vision of humanity that is wry, overarching, and sublimely tragicomic – if you have the attention span for understated Nordic humor. A several-page passage describing a young boy’s imagination as he moves from a state of dreaming to waking is astounding and alone worth reading the book for.

Shortly after finishing Independent People I was so excited about Laxness that I read another of his novels, World Light. Half-way through, I thought perhaps it would overtake Independent People as something I could call my “most recent” favorite. I finally decided to stick with Independent People for reasons owing to a certain plot development in World Light, which I won’t spoil by mentioning. But I can’t keep from loving World Light as well, not just for its plot and characters but for descriptions like this: “From the brow of the glacier there shone the kind of light one can only read about in more advanced doctrines.”

The beauty of nature, the harshness of nature; the kindness of people, the idiocy of people; the pleasures and sufferings of the flesh, the joys and struggles of the spirit; the injustices of society, the tyranny of individuals; isolation and community; and above all, the pursuit of poetry as life – or is it life as poetry? — these are the themes of Laxness that I’ve discovered so far. Fortunately, I’ve got The Fish Can Sing waiting by my bedside. With a title like that, how can an Alaskan resist?

FYI: Halldór Laxness won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955. Several but not all of his works are translated into English. He died in 1998.

4 thoughts on “Independent People: A guest post by Ann Dixon”

  1. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Thanks for introducing me to Laxness, Ann — I notice his name on the shelves (you might imagine why) but I didn’t know enough about him to be intrigued. Now I am. The flavor and pacing of his book (as you described it) reminds me of another one I just finished, Per Petterson’s “Out Stealing the Horses” (a bestseller and book club favorite, but not commercial at all). “…Horses” was chronologically fluid but also understated and puzzling in ways that are very hard to summarize. My feelings kept shifting as I read, but now that I’ve finished, I’m still thinking about the book and won’t be surprised if I read it a second time. Petterson is Norwegian, by the way.

    Thanks for broadening the discussion of “Northern” books.

  2. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Mistype there. “Out Stealing Horses” is the title — not “Out Stealing the Horses.” (This was the second time I had to type in that comment — the first time it disappeared into cyberspace! Ergh.)

  3. There are ten titles available in English by Laxness, most of them are also great, Salka Valka is well worth the search, The Fish Can Sing also has my highest recommendation…

  4. I’ll be reading more Laxness in the coming months, but right now have some other titles impatiently waiting.

    Funny Andromeda should mention “Out Stealing Horses.” I just finished reading it for the second time, this time as a writer. I, too, felt a sense of fluidity in the book that reminded me of Laxness (what I’ve read so far of him). It may have partly to do with their use of past and present tenses. They seem to be less hung-up on strictly following the rules; time may shift back and forth, past to present to past, without much notification to the reader.

    I’d also like to get my hands on a copy of “Out Stealing Horses” in Norwegian, a language I can sometimes decipher. I have a feeling the translation has a lot to do with its tone.

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