Reviewed by Sara Hodon
Be Still the Water
by Karen Emilson
Paperback – August 10, 2016, ISBN-13: 978-1535408080
A story about Icelandic immigrants settling on Lake Manitoba in Canada in the early 20th century, Be Still the Water by Karen Emilson could be described as a sweeping epic, a 450+ page family drama in the tradition of the Icelandic sagas.
But at its heart, the novel is a fairly simple story. It’s a story about family, love, and all of the complexities that go along with both. It’s a story of a young girl named Asta (pronounced Ow-sta) Gudmundsson, who put her love for family, friends, and home above her own happiness throughout her life. The Gudmundssons leave Iceland under somewhat of a cloud of scandal and settle in the farming and fishing village of Siglunes. With the help and hard work of other immigrant families, Siglunes becomes a true community, complete with a general store and school.
This novel has a bit of everything—tragedy, family dramas, a bit of romance, a few scandals, a sense of history, and even a mystery. There are villains and heroes, light moments and dark. It’s the kind of novel you want to set aside time to read, because you want to give it the proper attention it deserves. At first glance, I was daunted by a few elements of the book. First, the length. It’s nearly 500 pages, and as a busy mom of a 1-year-old, my reading time is limited and I wasn’t sure I was up to the challenge. Second, the Icelandic names were a bit intimidating, particularly when I saw a cast of characters and their connection to Asta printed on the inside flap of the front cover. Would this be a rambling storyline that would require me to constantly check back and forth to refer to names and their connections to each other? Fortunately, the length of the book wasn’t an issue, as the plot held my interest and the short chapters kept the story moving. The list of characters turned out to be helpful—I only had to refer to it a handful of times. And after a few chapters, the names simply faded into the plot and were much less intimidating. The storyline alternates between Asta’s present (laying on her deathbed) and her past (revisiting her memories from throughout her life), and Emilson makes a clear distinction between the two. Asta chooses family loyalty over true love, although she is fortunate to have two great loves in her lifetime—she is engaged to Finn, son of her parents’ close friends, and their love is inevitably tested when Finn enlists for the military and fights in World War I. He physically returns but like so many veterans, he’s never quite the same and ends their engagement. And of course, Asta has “the one that got away”, Bjorn, the one she yearns for but the timing never seems to be quite right. Later in life they are reunited, but it’s bittersweet by all accounts.
Although she’s at peace with the decisions she’s made and the direction her life has taken, Asta still has one regret—she never discovered what happened to her beloved younger sister, Freyja, who disappeared nearly seventy years earlier. Asta has five siblings altogether, and although she loves them all in their own way—headstrong older sister Signy, hardworking older brother Leifur, sweet younger sister Solrun, and bookish, creative youngest brother Lars—dreamy-eyed, boy-crazy Freyja is her favorite. While there are a number of significant moments in Asta’s life, she admits that in many ways her life was divided into Before and After her sister disappeared. After Freyja goes missing, no one in the family is ever the same, but it is Asta who makes it her life’s mission to find the girl. Parents who have lost children often find themselves in a state of suspension—unable or unwilling to move on with their lives because of their devastating loss—but in the case of the Gudmundsson family, life moved on regardless. The father and older brother had a farm to run, their mother had young children to raise and a mother-in-law (called “Amma”) to care for, and the younger children had to attend school. Although Freyja’s absence was always felt, over time the family reluctantly had to admit that she was gone for good and they move on as best they can.
Emilson’s characters are believable and solidly written. The characters are Icelandic immigrants in Canada, yet as I read I was reminded of American frontier-based literature like O Pioneers!, My Antonia, and the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder—all of these works recount the harshness of the land and the struggles the early settlers faced simply to survive each day. I knew nothing of Iceland, and Emilson does a fine job of adding interesting details about the “Old Country” into the plot. She mentions the stories Amma tells the younger children based on the Icelandic sagas, to the superstitions, to the food that had made its way to the new country, to the practical method of knitting fishing mittens with two thumbs. (Emilson doesn’t explain this, but after doing some research, I learned that gloves were often knitted this way so that if a fisherman’s mittens were too wet or messy, he could turn his hand 180 degrees and use the dry part of the mitten, so it was like having two pairs of mittens in one. I thought this was rather clever!)
Be Still the Water has some twists that I didn’t anticipate. Asta’s life, while certainly not easy, seemed fulfilling. She trains as a nurse and helps both parents as well as a number of trusted neighbors and dear friends through their illnesses. Nursing is truly a calling, proven by Asta’s selflessness and caring heart.
Spoiler alert: As I already mentioned, when Asta and Freyja are reunited, it’s bittersweet. Asta has short-term memory loss (read the book to learn the circumstances), but as is the case with so many in the nursing and health professions, she never loses her desire to help others. She lives in something of a suspended reality, but seems content with her life.
It apparently took Emilson 15 years to write this book, and I admire her commitment to telling Asta’s story. It is a lengthy read, but now that I’ve finished it, I realized it needed to be. Asta had a long and eventful life, although I often got the sense that she was simply doing what was expected of her. She didn’t seem cut out to be a farmer’s wife, yet her future was a looming question mark. She had the demeanor and caring nature of a nurse, but that wasn’t a vocation she was setting out to pursue—it was something she simply chose. Besides her family, she didn’t seem to have any obvious burning desires (at least in a professional sense). Of all of her siblings, Asta’s life seemed to be the most in flux. She pursued nursing but also worked at the general store in town for a time and had a knack for it. She probably would’ve stayed at the store had circumstances not dictated she return to nursing. In some ways Asta’s character reminded me a bit of someone like Forrest Gump, who simply said yes to situations and experiences that came along and saw them through (most, not all, working out in their favor).
Be Still the Water is full of nuance, small moments that add dimension to the larger story. It’s the story of a family and how that family helped to build a community in a brand-new place. It’s the story of a young girl and how she was the anchor of her family in so many ways. Full of happiness and heartbreak, joy and sorrow, Be Still the Water is a familiar story about a culture unfamiliar to many. It’s the perfect choice of book when you’re in the mood for something different.
About the reviewer: Sara Hodon is a Pennsylvania-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in over two dozen print and online publications.