Sugar Sweet: A Place Called Hecla Skip to content

Sugar Sweet: A Place Called Hecla

I had been unaware that there was a place called Hecla (named after the Icelandic volcano, only the ‘k’ was changed to a ‘c’ by the Canadian Post Office, or so I was informed) before reading Doris Benson’s debut, A Place Called Hecla, the first book in a trilogy about the community of descendants of Icelandic settlers on Hecla Island in Lake Winnipeg, Manitoba.

So I was surprised when an acquaintance of mine commented upon seeing the book’s cover: “Oh, Hecla Island. I worked there one summer. They love everything Icelandic over there.” And, apparently, she loved everything about Hecla Island.

It’s a bit difficult to form an opinion of the book. On the one hand I enjoyed Benson’s description of the local fishing community, the hardships Heclingers faced, the way they made the wheels of the community turn and of the island itself—it certainly seems like a wonderful place—while on the other hand, this form of linear, effortless storytelling doesn’t appeal strongly to me.

At first I wondered whether A Place Called Hecla was anything like Where the Winds Dwell by Bödvar Gudmundsson about Icelandic settlers in Canada, which is among my all-time favorite books, but I quickly realized it’s nothing like that.

Most obviously, it’s set in a different time featuring a different generation of immigrants, but it also has a different literary perspective. The two books are more or less incomparable.

Benson’s story opens in 1953 with one of the main characters, Ben Bergursson, traveling to Winnipeg to see his polio-stricken four-year-old niece who’s in the hospital. On the same day he meets and falls in love with the beautiful Irish-Canadian nurse Laura O’Neil.

The book focuses on their relationship with the perspective regularly shifting from the two love birds to different islanders and their stories.

(I’m curious whether the surname Bergursson, the Anglicized Icelandic patronymic Bergsson, actually exists, as I would have assumed that the most obvious simplification would have been Bergson. If someone could enlighten me on that I would appreciate it.)

In a way, the book feels like a mix of a Barbara Cartland love story and the description of the Avonlea community in Anne of Green Gables minus Anne.

While that is not necessarily a bad combination and the story is interesting to a certain extent, it lacked intensity. I missed a powerful protagonist driving the plot forward, unforeseen twists and turns, hair-raising drama and a strong enough read-on factor.

That said, I admire Benson for documenting the story of the Heclingers and giving people an insight into their community, especially since it was dispersed after the island was made a provincial park in 1970.

I say documenting because Benson herself is a descendant of Heclingers and although the characters in her book are fictional she might as well be writing about the story of her family.

That is what this book feels like, a documentation of family history with a little sugar and spice which people who have Icelandic roots—particularly those who have roots on Hecla Island or in neighboring communities—are likely to enjoy but it might not appeal to a much broader audience. The rather amateurish design of the cover doesn’t help, either.

Of course, as I like to point out, literature is always a matter of taste, and it should also be noted that for a debut, A Place Called Hecla, is impressive for its vivid descriptions and rich language.

Without having read the following two books, entitled When Home Can’t Be Hecla and Roots Run Deep in Hecla, I have a feeling that the sugar-coating might come off with irreversible changes to the lives of the Heclingers and that Benson’s storytelling will evolve with more writing experience.

While I’m not overly excited to learn more about the lives of the Bergurssons, I am excited to learn more about the history of Hecla Island, and after having read Benson’s debut it is most definitely a place I’d like to visit.

stars30

The trilogy can be bought here.

Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir

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