Confessions of an Immigrant’s Daughter by Laura Goodman Salverson

The fourth printing of Confessions of an Immigrant’s Daughter by Laura Goodman Salverson is a tantalizing read, a book that requires time as there are countless delicious sentences to savour! Born in Winnipeg to Icelandic immigrants in 1890, the author peppers her memoir with stories of characters she met in her journey from childhood to marriage and a family of her own. She grew up in a family where her mother gritted her teeth and accepted her husband’s wanderlust, which propelled their family from one place to the next. Over the years, the family moved back and forth between the USA and Canada, making homes in various cities, towns, and farm communities. It seemed as soon as they were settled, he would find some new employment that necessitated his leaving the family again. Salverson’s keen eye and memory helped her mine these episodes, full of intriguing and curious incidents.

The author, who didn’t speak English until she was ten, became a master of prose. Confessions of an Immigrant’s Daughter won the Governor General’s Award for non-fiction in 1939, when it was first published. It was released again in 1949, 1981, and now in 2023. This historical record shows not only the hardship of Icelandic pioneers but also the social manners and prevailing attitudes in the early years of the twentieth century.

Describing her impression of their journey to Winnipeg, Salverson writes: “In wet weather, the road, like an angry sea-serpent looping along, dripped a red, gummy spume, through which the horses and men slithered and slipped, and often enough, to my vast amusement, sank half-way to their knees.” The author conveys so much in one sentence, that you can see and hear what the men and animals had to overcome.

Her descriptions of the indigenous population, as well of the Blacks she met in Mississippi, show the racism of the times, but to alter any of her text to suit today’s standards or to reflect today’s sensitivity would be a terrible mistake. We need books like these to inform us of how settlers lived and how they thought at the time. Here are a few examples:

“Besides, everyone ought to know that half-breed squabbles didn’t warrant troubling the Queens’ Constabulary—they were common as fleas on a cur’s back and no more important.”

“A tall, drunken half-breed with a cudgel and a coil of rope in his hands, stood on the veranda steps, and as it seemed to me, completely blotted out the golden light of the setting sun with his huge menacing bulk.”

We now know the indigenous population suffered greatly after the colonists arrived. We know the half-breeds Salverson refers to were the Métis, whose land was taken away by the government of the time and given to the colonists. It wasn’t their land to give.

Salverson writes extensively about her mother’s hardship and her own, the sacrifices they made to keep food on the table. As for her marriage, the author skips over any romance she may have had before the wedding and writes: “In June 1913 I married George Salverson in the old Lutheran manse in Winnipeg. A good way to end all my foolish fancies, and assume a time-honoured business of commonplace existence.”

Though her husband, George, supported her love of writing, it’s not clear how he felt about her less-than-maternal instincts when she became pregnant. “There is nothing to be said of the baby, except that the prospect bored me…” After their son’s birth, Salverson did what was expected of her—the housekeeping and the child care—but writing took center stage and she did what she could to find the time to satisfy her curiosity.

I was particularly taken by her passion for becoming an author. Her first book was published in 1923, when she was 33. When she describes how she wrote her first book, it reminded me of a scene from the film Amadeus, when Mozart continues to compose despite a deathly illness.

“There were days on end when I sat at the machine with a mustard plaster on my head, because it was less disturbing to suffer the burning sensation than the sickening throb in my temples and at the base of my skull. I knew I should go to a doctor, but I wanted to finish the book.”

I’m thankful she did. It’s an exceptional memoir of an Icelandic family, one to be read again and again.

Laura Goodman Salverson (1890–1970) was an award-winning Canadian author.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ McGill-Queen’s University Press (July 15 2023)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 392 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 0228018331
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-0228018339

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Diana Stevan likes to joke she’s a Jill of all trades as she’s worked as a family therapist, teacher, librarian, model, actress and sports reporter for CBC television. She’s the author of five novels and a novelette.

Her novels cross genres: A Cry from the Deep, a romantic mystery/adventure; The Rubber Fence, women’s fiction; and Lukia’s Family Saga series, historical/biographical fiction. Based on her Ukrainian grandmother's family’s life in Russia and in Canada, the series is a trilogy covering the years 1915-1943: Sunflowers Under Fire, Lilacs in the Dust Bowl, and Paper Roses on Stony Mountain.

When Diana isn’t writing, she loves to garden, travel, and read. With their two daughters grown, she lives with her husband Robert on Vancouver Island and West Vancouver, British Columbia.