In an epic set in Iceland in the early twentieth century, Gudbjartur Jonsson buys his own croft after eighteen years of service to the local bailiff, and brings his wife and his small flock of sheep there to build a new, independent life for himself.
Originally published in 1946 and out of print for decades, this book by the Nobel Prize-winning Icelandic author is a huge, skaldic treat filled with satire, humor, pathos, cold weather and sheep. Gudbjartur Jonsson becomes Bjartur of Summerhouses when, after 18 years of service to the Bailiff of Myri, he is able to buy his own croft. Summerhouses is probably haunted and is certainly unprepossessing, but Bjartur is a stubborn, leathery old (whatever his age) coot, and he soon has his new bride and few head of sheep installed in a sod house. When his wife dies cold and alone giving birth to the daughter of the Bailiff's son, Bjartur takes the child on almost as another test of his independence. Bjartur survives another wife, three sons that lived and several dead ones, all with his "armour of scepticism," which "endowed him with greater moral fortitude than that possessed by the other men." Through hard times (in the guises of worms and a cow that threaten his precious sheep), Bjartur maintains his ferocious and self-destructive independence, one aimed not so much at bettering his condition as being able to tell his former employer where to get off. Laxness is merciless with the hypocrisy of the upper classes, as exemplified by the Bailiff's poetess wife, who applauds the simple life of poor country people, or the Bailiff's son, whose social-welfare schemes help him but undermine the crofters. Laxness is not easy on Bjartur, who is bloody-minded in the extreme, but he is tender enough to compose a poem to his exiled adoptive daughter, and bold enough to engrave a simple marker in honor of the misunderstood ghoul who has haunted his farm and family. He's a figure that Snorri Sturluson would have recognized.