The Little Book of the Hidden People by Alda Sigmundsdottir

little-book-of-hidden-people

Okay, so I’m planning a little trip to Iceland in about seven weeks.** Because of this,  I was looking for “something Icelandic” to read and started googling and found this book. I’ve always enjoyed reading folklore and “fairy tales” so I thought it would be a great light-reading snack in the midst of all my book club reading obligations, and… it was!

Author Sigmundsdottir tells us at the beginning of the book that she finds the media’s assumption that Icelanders have an “elf fixation” a bit annoying.  One anecdote she relates is how she was contacted by a representative of the media doing a story about how construction of a building had been halted because it was on a site where Icelanders believed elves lived. As it turns out construction was halted to confirm that no critical archaeological sites would be disturbed – a much less sensational story. She shares the stories in this book to help “set the story straight” regarding the role of elves in Iceland’s history, saying:

“Iceland’s elf folklore, at its core, reflects the plight of a nation living in abject poverty on the edge of the inhabitable world, and its peoples heroic efforts to survive – physically, emotionally and spiritually. That is what the stories of the elves, or hidden people, are really about.”

She goes on to say that the stories helped the early Icelanders “soldier on” during their period as an “oppressed colony.” She says, “The stories helped. A lot. They were the Icelander’s Prozac, providing refuge from the cruel circumstances people faced.” I suppose much folklore is born in such situations.

(below: [from Goodreads.com] – author Alda Sigmudsdottir)

I really liked how the book was organized, too, as each tale was followed by notes and the author’s explanations and observations. I was intrigued by many of the legends and beliefs, such as that “in those days (it was believed) that everyone was born with the ability to see the hidden people, but when the baptism water entered peoples eyes, they lost that ability.”

Also of interest to me was the concept of the “changeling” – where an elf might “switch out” one of its own race with a human child. This legend is not unique to Iceland either, but it could be taken to extremes there, as Sigmunddottir muses in her notes after one story titled “Father to Eighteen in the Elf World”:

“… an elf might come into your house and put her decrepit old husband who does nothing but howl all day long in your child’s place, after making him look exactly like your child so you can’t tell the difference. Remember that. Meanwhile, I have been pondering the significance of this “old people” business. I mean, why decrepit old people? Then one evening I was watching a telethon for UNICEF, where they were showing images of all these starving, malnourished children. They were so small, yet their faces looked so old. Like they had aged a lifetime from all that suffering. And it made me think. Were the children in Iceland back in the day also so malnourished that they looked old before they were even past infancy? The thought was rather disturbing, as was the idea that those children would be flogged mercilessly until “something happened.”*  Something. But what if nothing happened? What if they were starving, malnourished children, and were flogged mercilessly because someone thought they were changelings? It hardly bears thinking about.”

*Earlier in the book we learn this was the prescribed treatment for how one could determine if their child had indeed been “replaced” with a changeling.

(Below: gratuitous pop culture reference: In the Star Trek episode, “The Changeling” Captain Kirk  suspected that’s what the interstellar probe known as “Nomad” was.)


Many stories seemed to me to be transparently contrived to keep children – or even adults! – from straying too far from home in a dangerous landscape. Who knew what dangers – natural or supernatural – awaited them when they were away from shelter? All in all, a quite enjoyable read, and I will certainly keep my eyes and ears open when I travel there in April. 🙂

Other google searches by me found a popular trail which goes through a valley known as “The Land of the Hidden People.” See picture below. Looks beautiful!

(picture credit: http://www.iceland24blog.com/2014/11/viknasloir-trail-land-of-hidden-people.html)

viknasloir-trail

**Why am I going to Iceland? Part vacation and partly to play in the 32nd edition of the storied “Reykjavik Open” chess tournament. I’m an amateur player, but on my good days can play competitively with the masters. Not grandmasters, though, and so far there are 35 grandmasters registered for this tournament. I’m only the 110th(!) seed the last time I checked. My goal is score >50% in the tournament. Hey, it could happen. 🙂

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“Safety” by Lydia Fitzpatrick – Selection #9 of Deal Me In 2017


The Card:
♠7♠ of Spades

The Suit: For this year’s Deal Me In, the suit of Spades is the domain of Clotho, one of the Fates from Greek Mythology who, according to Plato’s Republic sings of “the things that are.”

The Selection: “Safety” from my e-copy of The O. Henry Prize Stories 2016. Originally published in One Story magazine.

The Author: Lydia Fitzpatrick – Currently a Los Angelean, and  a graduate of the University of Michigan’s MFA program and a Hopwood Award winner.

What is Deal Me In? I’m glad you asked!  Full details maybe found here, but generally speaking it’s a reading challenge where participants read one short story a week for the year, the reading order being determined by the luck of the draw. See here for a list of the stories/essays I’ll be reading in 2017.

Safety

“The children know that, for the first time, they are hiding without wanting to be found.”

I read this story on my lunch hour at work, and it held my attention better than most that fall victim to that unfortunate time slot. I found myself holding my breath during parts of it, as it was quite suspenseful.  The setting?  A school shooting, seen through the eyes of an aging gym teacher and a young student who turns out to actually know the (at first) unknown active shooter, recognizing the Saint Michael’s (patron saint of soldiers) medallion dangling from his neck.

The gym teacher protagonist isn’t named, but was easy enough to like. We learn that he “is old, has been at this school for decades, and with each passing year, the children like him more and listen to him less..” and that dripping of the shower of the locker room has become “the metronome of his days.” I liked that one. He’s in the process of leading his class of eighteen small children through the “wind-down” phase of their exercise period, when an out of place sound fractures their normal routine.  The sound reminds one boy of “the sound a baseball bat makes when it hits a baseball perfectly” and one girl thinks it is the sound of lightning – “not lightning in real life, because it is sunny out and because she can’t remember ever hearing real lightning, but like lightning on TV, when the storm comes all at once.” Only the teacher and one other boy (who has “been to the range with his father and brother”) recognize the sound.

The teacher leads the children to a hiding place in his office (within the boys locker room) where they “huddle” and where he covers them with an old blue parachute that “the children play with on Fridays.” There they hide… and listen. They hear the sound of the gunman entering the gym, then the door to the locker room. They hear footsteps moving across the floor.  One boy thinks it’s the principal “because the principal is the only one who walks through the halls when they’re empty.” Then they hear metal clang on metal (the gunman’s hitting a locker with the butt of his gun?)

I have to admit, this story got my adrenaline flowing. The topic is certainly not a pleasant one, though, as the term “school shooting” has sadly entered the language in recent years. I included this story in my Deal Me In roster at random, maybe because I was curious about the title. I didn’t know in advance where it would lead me. The author states (in the story notes in the back of the book) that she started the story just after the one-year anniversary of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, noting that she’d “just had a baby, and all of a sudden, my fears involved this new person and the safety of her current self, over which I had some control, and her future self, over which I have way less control.” These thoughts led to a good story – one good enough to make the O. Henry Prize Stories collection for 2016.

What about you? Have you ever encountered stories that – even though they were about a topic you would prefer to avoid – you found really “worked” for you? I’d have to say that was the case for me with this one.

 

 

 

Deal Me In 2017 Catch-up Post: selections #5 thru #8

IMG_3919-0Yes, I’ve been a bad boy and have not posting about the stories I’ve read recently, but at least I have still been reading my story weekly.  What have I missed sharing?  Well, I thought I’d go ahead and do a brief wrap-up of selections 5-8, which I have completed.

“Week” 5 – ♦A♦ – Letter from a Birmingham Jail (essay) – Martin Luther King

mlk-birminghamWell, Deal Me In’s “randomizer” just missed in having me draw this card the week of the Martin Luther King Holiday here in the United States, but since February is also “Black History Month” here, I figured DMI’s hand of fate was trying to land it somewhere in the middle.

Confession: I don’t remember reading this essay before, though I have of course been aware of it. I certainly haven’t read it as thoughtfully as I did this time  – I know that at least must be true. It’s also an essay that has perhaps added meaning in these challenging political times, and I was amazed at how chock-full it is of quotations that are part of the mainstream now. We are, for example, reminded that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” and that “History is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up there privileges voluntarily,” and that “groups are more immoral than individuals.” How true this last…

For those who don’t know, the famous letter is King’s answer to one group of his critics (eight white clergymen) who were urging him to end his policy of nonviolent resistance and allow the issue of integration to be “handled in the courts.” King effectively gives many arguments and cases why he should not do so. His frustration with the lack of support from more moderate whites is also transparent throughout. At one point he says, “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negroes’ great stumbling block in the stride forward is not the White Citizens “Counciler” or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice.”

A great and iconic essay that rightly belongs in my copy of the Joyce Carol Oates-edited collection The Greatest American Essays of the Century. I recommend revisiting it if you haven’t lately, or even reading it for the first time if you never have. I’d love to hear your thoughts about it in the comments.

“Week” 6 – ♦K♦ – The Devil Baby at Hull House (essay) – Jane Addams

hull-house

For week 6, DMI’s hand of fate kept me in the same suit and same source, leading me to this interesting essay by Jane Addams, a woman of letters who, though I was certainly aware of, I had never read before. This essay was first published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1916, and later was included in Addams’s “The Second Twenty Years at Hull-House in 1930.

To understand the setting of the story, one must know first that Hull House (above) was a “settlement house” in Chicago and, according to Wikipedia, Hull House became, at its inception in 1889, “a community of university women” whose main purpose was to provide social and educational opportunities for working class people (many of them recent European immigrants) in the surrounding neighborhood.”

It seems that Hull House became the center of what we would now call an “urban myth” – one in which a “Devil Baby” had been born there and was being kept secret from the public. The rumor became so powerful that Hull House became inundated with “pilgrims” who visited there and refused to believe the repeated denials of the “Devil Baby’s” existence. Addams expertly uses this phenomenon to examine just what are the kind of people who are likely to believe such a story, even when contradicted by those who would certainly know better. In the essay, the standard “profile” of these visitors becomes one of an “older woman” and Addams also notes that “…the story constantly demonstrated the power of an old wives’ tale among thousands of people in modern society who are living in a corner of their own, their vision fixed, their intelligence held by some iron chain of silent habit.”  The essay drifts a bit into an examination of old age, but returns to conclude that the legend was so widely believed “because the Devil Baby embodied an undeserved wrong to a poor mother…”

A very interesting read that goes much deeper that I first expected.

“Week” 7 – ♦3♦ – I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings – Maya Angelou

caged-birdThe randomized order of DMI continues to honor Black History Month, and I was pleased to have an excuse to finally read this, which I must sadly report, I was apparently unequal to. Upon finishing, I still didn’t know why the Caged Bird Sings until I googled it. It was taken from the third stanza of a poem by African-American poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar:

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,
When he beats his bars and would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings –
I know why the caged bird sings.

This essay was actually adapted from the opening sections of the 1969 “autobiographical fiction” book of the same title, and tells of the author’s childhood growing up in Stamps, Arkansas. There are undoubtedly some great sections, including a “showdown” between Angelou’s mother and a local group of “white trash” kids who harass her family at the store they own. I found the day to day life descriptions well done too, but probably just fell victim to “unrealistic expectations” for this work, since it is such a famous title. I probably should read through it a second time or, better yet, read the entire book, not just an excerpt.

“Week” 8 – ♠K♠ – Double On-Call – John Green

john_green_by_gage_skidmoreGreen is a local “literary hero” here in Indianapolis. (His office is just a few miles from mine, and a coworker has even bumped into him grabbing lunch at the nearby Whole Foods store!). This was a good story and quite unlike his other work that I’ve read. The quotation it leads off with might give you some indication:

“God is weak and powerless in the world and that is precisely the way, the only way in which he is with us to help us.” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer

What does THAT mean? I think that I still don’t know even after reading the story, which is about a very young man who works as a chaplain in a hospital, where we meet him during a “double on-call” shift – or two consecutive nights of being on call at the hospital, chained to his pager. On this particular night, the crisis du jour is a young couple who brings in their baby who “fell.” Fell as in that’s the transparent “story” they’ve come up with to explain away its head trauma, caused by the father. It is the young chaplain’s duty to talk with the father and get him to realize the magnitude of what he’s done.

Not a pleasant story, but one well told. I read in some online reviews (but was unable to confirm) that this was an earlier story of Green’s, tidied up to be published in a volume titled “Double on Call and Other Stories.”

That get’s me current, though I am currently reading “Safety” by Larry Fitzpatrick for selection #9.  What have YOU been reading lately?

What is Deal Me In? I’m glad you asked!  Full details maybe found here, but generally speaking it’s a reading challenge where participants read one short story a week for the year, the reading order being determined by the luck of the draw. See here for a list of the stories/essays I’ll be reading in 2017.

“Shiloh” and the Orphan Stories from Ron Rash’s “Something Rich and Strange”

ronrashbook

One of my unofficial blogging resolutions for this year is to have more posts that aren’t specifically about the Deal Me In Challenge. So, okay, here’s one:

One of my book clubs recently read a short story collection, Ron Rash’s “Something Rich and Strange,” which contains stories set in Appalachia, but across a wide time period – all the way from from the Civil War era to the present. This book and meeting recalled to my mind that once, several years ago, the book club of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library met to discuss his superb collection, “Welcome to the Monkey House.” We only had an hour to meet – not enough to cover all 24(?) stories in the book – and afterward I wrote a blog post “Orphan Stories from the Monkey House,” briefly describing the stories we didn’t get to in order to give them a little love too. Strangely, both at that meeting and at my recent one for Ron Rash’s book, I found my favorite story was being neglected throughout the meeting. This time, however, I took action and “forced” my book club to talk about Rash’s story, “Shiloh,” maybe my favorite of the whole 34 included in that volume. And what is it about Shiloh, anyway? It keeps popping up in my reading and related adventures…

“After Shiloh, the South never smiled…”

I first heard of the famous Civil War battle, Shiloh, when I was quite young. Many young people first learn of things via movies or tv, and in this case my experience was no different. My Mom and Dad were huge fans of the blockbuster (of its time, anyway) film “How the West Was Won.” It featured an all-star cast, and several more huge stars (like John Wayne!) in extended cameos. Wayne played alongside Harry Morgan as generals Sherman and Grant engaged in a dialogue after the first day of the Battle of Shiloh – a day where the Union suffered considerable losses. The film was narrated at points by Spencer Tracy, whose magnificent voice informed us that, “after Shiloh, the South never smiled…”

Yes, that’s actor George Peppard stumbling through the foreground in that clip. Later, maybe when I was ten or eleven, my family went on a summer camping trip (we did a lot of these since my dad was a teacher, and he often said the three best things about being a teacher were June, July, and August) where we visited many of the more famous Civil War battlefields, and though Shiloh wasn’t among them, my “general knowledge” of the Civil War and its battles increased.

Still later, when a student at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana, I learned a little about General Lew Wallace, the author of Ben-Hur and a resident of that town in the later years of his life. It was also in college where I acquired the nickname “General” or “General Jay” – though that had nothing to do with Lew Wallace. (I apparently liked to give orders to my fellow freshman when we were fraternity pledges.) I learned that Wallace was an important figure in the Battle of Shiloh, frequently blamed for heavy losses on the first day of fighting,  because he allegedly “took the wrong road” on the way to the battle. It was a “stain” that hounded him the rest of his career.

getchelllewwallace

(above: (left) author Kevin Getchell and some of the artifacts he shared with us at his lecture; (right) Major General Lew Wallace)

STILL later, just a few years ago, I went to a program at the Indiana Historical Society given by author Kevin Getchell,  who had written a book (“Scapegoat of Shiloh“) which in his eyes “exonerated” Wallace from the blame that history had – right or wrong – assigned to him. I learned a lot more than I had ever known about the battle, and got a copy of his book which I later read but never blogged about (my brief review on Goodreads.com is linked above, though). He autographed my copy for me referencing”the peace of the true Shiloh.” 


Back in November, during a visit to the Lew Wallace Museum and Study in Crawfordsville, I saw among the General’s collection of walking sticks one that my guide told me had been collected by him many years after the war, when he returned to the exact site where his tent had been and selected its raw material from the wood available there. I thought that was a great story – and artifact! (It’s not a great picture by me above, but I think it was the one with the white handle)

Then STILL later, just a few weeks ago in fact, I went to another program, this one sponsored by “the Indianapolis Civil War Roundtable” (http://www.indianapoliscwrt.org) – a local  organization of amateur historians that I didn’t even know existed until just not long ago. The program was about Lew Wallace’s role in the Civil War. This rekindled my interest in Shiloh and THEN – Lo and behold – the penultimate story on Ron Rash’s book was one titled “Shiloh.”

“Shiloh” by Ron Rash

Rash’s story is that of a soldier who is seriously wounded in the the famous battle and begins walking(!) home, which in his case is quite a long journey to undertake on foot. His wound is severe enough that I immediately began to question whether or not he had actually survived his injury, suspiciously wondering if Rash was trying to pull off a variation of Ambrose Bierce’s famous story,”An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” I was prepared to be outraged at such a transparent “rip off” of a favorite story. As the character in Rash’s story got closer and closer to home, other hints emerged concerning the severity of his injury and of there being a “fever” at large, which he may have contracted. “Here we go,” I thought.

When he reaches home, and sees his wife, and she doesn’t answer his shouts of greeting as he approaches the cabin, I thought, “this is it.” But that wasn’t it. Rash had a different twist in mind for us, one that I hadn’t seen coming, and one I applauded, especially considering the short story pedigree of Ambrose Bierce’s story that it called to mind.

There were a few other stories that my Book Club didn’t get to (unlike the Vonnegut Library’s book club, which meets in the middle of a weekday(!), we have an open-ended meeting time, though we rarely go on for more than 90 minutes or so). Still not enough time to cover 34 stories, though. Prior to the meeting, I had made a list of the story titles with a one-sentence, ridiculously oversimplified summary of what the story was about and, as I sensed the meeting starting to wind down, took a look to see what stories we didn’t get to. It made me think once again, as I did with Welcome to the Monkey House, what causes some stories in a collection get “orphaned” at a book club meeting?

In this case, reviewing my list today almost four weeks after our meeting, the stories we didn’t cover weren’t necessarily weaker stories, though a couple were in my opinion, but rather were crowded out by the club wanting to talk more about other stories – other stories that perhaps elicited a more emotional response. There were three that were left out (Okay, I admit there is a possibility these were discussed and I’ve forgotten – or were sneakily brought up during my trip to the restroom. 🙂 ), however, that I’d like to mention here for those that may be interested in reading this book:

“Into the Gorge” was a great story about an older man whose family land had been sold off to the government which had, in turn, made it part of a State Park. The protagonist remembers that his father had a secluded crop of ginseng plants “in the gorge” and decides to do a little ad hoc harvesting, which local law enforcement doesn’t approve of. My blogging colleague Dale at the Mirror With Clouds blog posted about this story  recently.

“Dead Confederates” was a grim tragi-comic story of a down on his luck – but likely good-hearted – man who falls into bad company and agrees to help plunder some old graves for civil war artifacts that can then be sold to collectors.

“A Servant of History” was a truly creepy tale that felt as if it might have been inspired by Rod Serling’s “Night Gallery” or “Twilight Zone” series. A “college boy” with “delusions of grandeur” fancying himself as an historian, visits an ultra remote Appalachian family (descended from a Scottish Clan) in search of nearly forgotten ballads that though “lost to time in Britain might yet survive in America’s Appalachian Mountains.”

(below: Gratuitous picture of the Lew Wallace Study in Crawfordsville, IN)

So, that’s my story. 🙂 What about you? Have you been in a book club that read a collection of short stories? If so, how did you handle the discussion? Did you just talk about ones that came up naturally, or did you plan the discussion so each got a fair hearing? I’d love to hear about it…

(below: Author Ron Rash)