Secrets of the Sprakkar by Eliza Reid
(Simon and Schuster 2022, hardcover, 288 pages)
Reviewed by Isabel Huggan
I suspect that many readers, after finishing Eliza Reid’s engaging and accomplished study of Icelandic women (both past and present), will immediately be online looking for flights to Reykjavik. Her lively, candid tone is so inviting, and the country she describes so appealing – one of the world’s most peaceful, happy and gender-equal – that it is hard to imagine a reason not to go.
Sprakkar, Reid tells us, is an ancient word meaning “extraordinary women”: that the Icelandic language has so long contained such a term helps to explains how women are regarded in this small northern nation.
To my mind, Secrets of the Sprakkar is a slightly misleading title, for the equality enjoyed by contemporary Icelandic women is not the result of some covert female pact but, as Reid herself suggests, rises from the unique alchemy of history and location as well as the clear-eyed determination of many individuals over many years. This volcanic island, approximately one-tenth the size of Ontario, has a population about the same as London (Ontario) and these two aspects, along with its particular environment and remote location, bear some responsibility for a society developed over a handful of centuries: each individual is responsible, in his or her or their own way, for the welfare of the whole. Inter-dependency, bred in a harsh climate, creates a “we’re in this together” equality. As women have historically worked alongside men in fishing and farming, they’ve established their credentials – it seems that’s at least part of the reason for Iceland’s current high level of social equality.
Eliza Reid, the wife of Iceland’s president Gudni Johannesson, was born and raised in the Ottawa Valley and her writing style retains a distinctly Canadian flavour – open and warm. She met her husband while they were students at Oxford in 1998: they married and returned to Gudni’s homeland in 2003, where he continued his research in history at the university, without the slightest intention of entering politics. But fate took a hand, and led him to stand for election in 2016, and to win.
During her first eight years in Iceland, while continuing a travel-writing career (among other jobs), Reid gave birth to four children. Readers who are mothers will note with envy several details illustrating what a civilized country this is; for example, four-month-long paternity leaves, and subsidized childcare. Another positive feature of raising children in an insular society is that families are close at hand, so that grandparents, aunts and uncles are part of the endeavour: women are able to work outside the home and, further, are expected to do so. It’s part of the deal.
Secrets of the Sprakkar is divided into chapters in which interviews with Icelandic women illustrate different facets of this gender-equal society. Reid adds to her contemporary accounts mythic and historical figures, with reference to the country’s rich literary tradition, such as the Icelandic Sagas, originating as family stories, handed down for centuries. Her own interest in story-telling motivated Reid in 2014 to initiate the Iceland Writers Retreat that has since become an international success. A wide variety of writers lead workshops for a week each spring: a quick online check reveals that it is again, post-COVID, operational.
Reid cleverly blends her own story – coming to a strange country and learning to belong – with the stories of others. Over the course of one year, she interviewed 40 women from diverse parts of Icelandic society – farmers, fishers, politicians, artists, students, activists, businesswomen and immigrants like herself who have become citizens. She spoke at length with advocates for legal rights for the LGBTQIA+ community – in Icelandic, hinsegin (literally, “the other way around”). Compared to most countries, Iceland’s attitudes regarding sexual behaviour or gender-related issues are relaxed, but Reid writes there is still need for improvement.
Progress is also necessary, she says, to address the problem of violence against women, exacerbated during COVID. Although Reid clearly has a mission, as First Lady of Iceland, to present her adopted home in a positive light, she does not whitewash her findings, or pretend that Icelandic existence is perfect. There’s a forthright quality in her delivery of facts that neutralizes the negative, and her plucky-lass personality shines through even as she describes less-than-ideal aspects of the society or the climate or the long dark days of winter. She makes her case for Iceland’s women very well.
As someone who lived abroad for more than three decades, I found Eliza Reid’s ability to remain Canadian at the same time as transforming herself into Iceland’s First Lady both admirable and heartening. She has thoughtfully provided Secrets of the Sprakkar with informative endnotes, suggested further readings, and appropriate questions for bookclub discussion.
And yes, I’m looking at fares …
Isabel Huggan, after 33 years living abroad (the last 22 in France where she ran her own Writer’s Retreat), returned in September, 2020, and now makes her home in Orillia, where she continues to mentor by mail and email.
- “I Am Not My Husband’s Handbag,” by Jelena Ćirić, Iceland Review (3 September 2019).
- The deadline for the Iceland Writers Retreat is soon.
- First Lady Eliza Reid.
- CBC Books on Eliza Reid, including links to interviews.
- Eliza Reid’s Ted Talk, “Pulling Back the Curtain: Life as a First Lady.” YouTube (6 January 2020).
- Andie Sophia Fontaine’s profile of Eliza Reid, “The Optimist,” in the magazine that she wrote for: The Reykjavik Grapevine (3 March 2022).
Header photo of geyser in Iceland by Judy Proudfoot.