Independence is the most important thing of all in life. I say for my part that a man lives in vain until he is independent. (p. 29)
Bjartur of Summerhouses is an Icelandic crofter, having earned his independence after 18 years in service. He is a proud man who works hard and has little time for emotion: For once the crofter was rather at a loss for words, for to him nothing had ever been more completely unintelligible than the reasoning that is bred of tears. He disliked tears, had always disliked tears, had never understood them ...(p.296) Bjartur establishes his homestead, marries, and raises a family, but he is entirely focused on retaining and strengthening his independence, often at the expense of relationships. His children grow up uneducated and ill-prepared for the rapidly-changing world in the first half of the 20th century. Bjartur is conservative to the point of being reactionary, and refuses to acknowledge the realities brought on by politicians and economic conditions.
This epic novel takes place over many years, following Bjartur through good times and bad. Bjartur was not the most likeable character. His single-minded pursuit of independence and financial security meant that most of his family were unable to realize their full potential. Their emotional needs were largely unmet. And Bjartur experienced losses of his own, but It had never been a habit of his to lament over anything he lost; never nurture your grief, rather content yourself with what you have left...(p. 450)
While Independent People is sobering and often sad, I also found it moving. With its expansive scope and tough characters, it reminded me of John Steinbeck's East of Eden, which I also enjoyed. It is not an easy read, but is well worth the effort. ( )
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