Jane Smiley on Eliza Reed’s Book About Iceland: “It reminds me of the hot baths I took there”

From a Washington Post review by Jane Smiley of the book about Iceland by Eliza Reed titled “Secrets of  the Sprakkar”:

On the back deck of our house in California, we have a hot tub. When it is cold, raining or sleeting, I call that deck “my own private Iceland,” because it reminds me of the hot baths I took when I was in Iceland on a Fulbright scholarship in the winter of 1977. Maybe reading Eliza Reid’s book, “Secrets of the Sprakkar,” in the hot tub is part of why I enjoyed it so much, but it’s also true that Reid’s style is amusing, her thoughts are honest, and the issues she discusses are becoming more important by the day.

Reid, who was born in Canada, has been the first lady of Iceland since 2016. She is 45 years old, married and has four young children. She would, and often does, say that she is privileged, and she shows that she understands this by structuring her book around interviews with other women, mostly in Iceland, who have set out to do what they wanted to do and have succeeded. Many of these “sprakkar” (an ancient Icelandic word meaning extraordinary or outstanding women), she explains, “fly under the radar, but their lived experiences nevertheless help portray a society that values the ambition of gender equality.”

Because she is knowledgeable about her adopted and in some ways unique country, what interests Reid most is how her interviewees understand their own success. She intersperses her conversations with brief glimpses of powerful women in Iceland’s history, among them, Hallgerdur Long-Legs, from the Njals Saga (one of my favorites); Olof Loftsdottir, in the 14th century, who “bought and sold property in her own name and led sailing missions”; and Vigdis Finnbogadottir, a former president of Iceland who, during her tenure from 1980 to 1996, hosted the 1986 summit between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev.

But Reid is more interested in regular women who understand their circumstances and do the best they can. My favorite is Ragnheidur Eiríksdóttir, who “has been a nurse, journalist, sexual health and self-confidence instructor, and, of all things, knitting tour operator.” How do knitting and sex connect? Ragnheidur remarks, “They’re quite similar in my mind. In both cases, I am trying to make people braver and encourage creativity.” Reid openly takes up the more complicated issues of open sexuality: “Does all the casual sex and partner swapping lead to moral decay or decreased outcomes on some quantifiable lifestyle indicators? Not at all.” She does acknowledge that there are dangers, including of infection and assault, but she insists that these problems will not be solved by tradition, but rather by increased education. I would agree.

Maybe the most important chapter, for Americans, is “Claiming the Corporate Purse Strings” — about how female entrepreneurs and inventors can work to claim what they have invented and be in charge of how it is produced, and who gets the money. This also brings up the issue of motherhood in a public and corporate setting. Was there an Icelandic woman who ran for the office of president, took two weeks off to give birth, and then went back on the road with her newborn? There was — she finished second out of six.

The saddest chapter is toward the end, when Reid goes on a United Nations mission to a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan and meets with women in shelters at the camp. One of them, Zaad al-Khair, has lost her brother in a bombing, and his last words to her were about not giving up her education. She works in a shelter, an “oasis,” where women feel safer and more empowered than they do in the rest of the encampment. When Reid returned from her trip, she was determined to raise funds for more oases, and she succeeded.

It is evident that in Iceland, gender parity is not the hot button issue that it is in the United States, unfortunately, but Reid has some advice: “To achieve gender equality, we cannot leave anyone behind, including immigrant women, women of color, women with disabilities, and queer women. We need to work with the many male allies here, who also benefit from increased balance and who recognize that gender equality serves everyone.”

I understand how far Americans have to go to get things together on these issues of equality, and I also know that even to bring up these issues in the United States is more dangerous than doing so in Iceland (even though a third of Icelanders own guns, to get one, a person must go through a rigorous process that includes getting a license, undergoing training and seeing a mental health specialist). But Reid writes in hopes that the rest of the world might see Iceland as a model, and, in addition to agreeing with her, I also recommend her short, well-written, amusing and detailed book.

Jane Smiley is the author of numerous novels, including “A Thousand Acres,” which won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Her most recent book, “Perestroika in Paris,” came out in paperback in December.

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