Review of ‘Summer at Little Lava: A Season at the Edge of the World’

Summer at Little Lava: A Season at the Edge of the World
Charles Fergus
North Point Press

There's a sliver of exaggeration, but only a sliver, in Charles Fergus' description of the stretch of western Iceland where he and his family spent a hard summer a few years ago at the "edge of the world." The abandoned farm where he brought his wife and 8-year-old son was the outmost outermost: you reached the 22-by-27-foot concrete-walled house by slogging across a mudflat that flooded with the tide. No road, no electricity, no plumbing, no neighbors you could notice. The weather, to put it charitably, was unfriendly; on a good day the rain let up in the afternoon. The view, also, was somber: gray ocean and dark volcanoes. A lava field adjoined the property.

As it happened, that was pretty much what Fergus was looking for. His 73-year-old mother had been stabbed to death by a man who broke into her Pennsylvania home, and Fergus needed someplace to grieve and get past his grief. At the pocket farm called Little Lava (litla hraun in Icelandic, and that's the last Icelandic you'll hear from me), he hoped to find "solitude, birds on the wing, the healing breath of the wind in my face, and the chance to take the days one at a time." Therapeutic isolation, nature as the ultimate healer.

He chose well. His wife, Nancy, had studied the Icelandic language and culture, so they were semiprepared for the barren, stingy land — and people that often seemed the same way. Icelanders come off here as dour, self-reliant, pragmatic and seriously deficient in joie de vivre (with one exception, whom we don't meet, unfortunately, until the end).

I know I promised not to mention any more Icelandic words, many of which sound like eight or nine boulders cobbled together, but I have to break my vow to quote Fergus on Icelandic conversations: "A large percentage of every conversation consists of the word ja, meaning yes and standardly pronounced yow," with different inflections to indicate approval, astonishment, dissent or doubt. Fergus got to where he could confidently lob in a yow or two himself. "With all the jas flying this way and that," he reports, "it sounded like a pack of dogs barking."

Fergus passed his time hiking, kayaking, bird-watching, climbing and slowly getting to know the people who lived nearby. One farmer had a Labrador retriever named President Clinton, which he pronounced "Clean Tone." People were helpful, yes, but often for a price. The farmer who hauled their equipment across the mudflat in a tractor expected rich-American compensation. Others, however, helped him patch up his breach with the past in a direct and palpable way. They talked about incidents that happened four and five centuries ago — the girl who drowned when the tide caught her, a volcanic eruption — as if they had occurred three months ago.

Fergus is at his best describing the creatures he meets in this craggy, dangerous corner of the world. He discovers that three families of sea eagles nest in the vicinity, and he clambers to one aerie for a face-to-face meeting with a nonplussed eaglet. He describes seals so curious that fishermen catch them by lashing a keg to a long rope and netting them when they can't resist swooping in to investigate. He is bombarded by arctic terns. Dark-coated foxes surefootedly prowl the lava field, where a human misstep can easily result in a broken ankle.

"The breeze brought to my ears a sonorous humming, the lowing of thousands of resting eiders," he writes of one outing. "The humming changed pitch slightly, intensified. I looked skyward. High against the clouds was a black shadow. It flapped in level flight. The long, broad wings stopped moving, and the eagle soared....[Then it] flew off, between earth and heaven, like a soul on a long journey."

In time he came to terms with the tragic cause of his own journey in the context of the gritty, unchanging cycle of life in this place where the wind blows hikers off cliffs and the currents turn violent with no warning. His grief slowly melted as he found his own way to transform death into a reliance upon survival.

A few days before Fergus and his family were to leave, he was visited by a roaring, rambunctious hunting-and-fishing guide called Heidar. Heidar, unlike everyone else Fergus met in Iceland, brims with humor and vitality. He wants to drink Scotch, tell stories, eat, laugh and run rampant through the lava field. Fergus finds himself matching him drink for drink and stride for stride. It may be that Iceland is the only place in the world where it's considered a rousing good time to sprint drunkenly through a jagged field of broken lava. But you affirm life where and how you find it.

Reviewer Donald Dale Jackson writes from his home in Connecticut.

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