Guðrún Björk Guðsteinsdóttir

J. M. Bjarnason’s Critique of Racial Hierarchy in Canada in the Early 20th Century

In this paper I will briefly introduce a short story about a young Icelander‘s participation in a marathon in Halifax and examine how the race serves as a metaphor for racial hierarchy which the author exposes and challenges. The story is in three parts, written in Icelandic by Johann Magnus Bjarnason (1866-1945) and published in 1910 in a collection called Spring Nights in Mooseland Hills [Vornaetur a Elgsheidum]. The author was ten when his family emigrated from Iceland to join a rather short-lived settlement that had been sectioned off for Icelandic immigrants in the Mooseland Hills in Nova Scotia. This was where Bjarnason spent his formative years until the settlement was deserted, his family being the last to move west after six years of trying to farm land that turned out not to be arable. Nova Scotia is central in Bjarnason’s early fiction, much of which deals with issues of national and social membership that he would obliquely interrogate through metaphor and allegory. In Bjarnason’s short story an old Jew becomes the personal coach of the rather unpromising, careful and dour young Icelander, providing him with the opportunity of a lifetime. The story is curious. Bjarnason uses racial stereotyping in a most heavy-handed manner but digs at its roots at the same time. Moreover there are striking puns in the story once it is recounted in English that are not at all present in the Icelandic text.