The Remarkable Laura Goodman Salverson
Virginia Martin, October 2015
Laura Goodman Salverson, the award winning author self identified as a Unitarian in her listings in Who’s Who in Canada in the 1940s and 1950s. She is also listed as one of the speakers seventy five years ago when the church celebrated its 50th anniversary. Attempts are being made to locate additional information about her 1941 presentation.
Laura was born in Winnipeg. Her parents were immigrants from Iceland. The family struggled economically and moved frequently. She left Winnipeg as a child but returned in the early 1940s and lived here for about 15 years. Laura was the first person of Icelandic heritage to win a Governor General (GG) award. She won two within two years. Her novel, The Dark Weaver, won the GG for fiction in 1937. Her autobiography Confessions of an Immigrant’s Daughter won the GG non fiction award in 1939.
She completed high school and had ambitions to be a writer. Self educated, she published a number of books, over 150 short stories and a volume of poetry.
Ahead of her time, in the 1920s and 1930s she addressed women’s social issues and struggles in a compassionate and eloquent voice. She dedicated her 1925 novel, When Sparrows Fall, to:
“Nellie L. McClung
Who has been a voice for the voiceless
The humble women of her land.”1
Her writing is compelling for many reasons but two stand out:
The first is the story of her remarkable life. She overcame ill health, poverty, a need to earn a living and limited education to fulfill her dream of becoming a writer. She worked as a maid, a seamstress, a retail clerk, a nurse’s aid and ran a boarding house- many of the jobs immigrant women hold today . She became a published award-winning writer in her second language, a rare accomplishment. In Confessions she wrote:
“I had never heard any technical points discussed. I had no idea such material was available. I knew nothing in fact except what I wanted to represent…I wanted to write a story which would define the price any foreign group must pay for its place in the national life of its country of adoption.” (p.511)
A second reason, her work so compelling is her insight into and eloquence in illustrating women’s issues. In the 1920s and 30s, she wrote of domestic abuse, the hypocrisy of organized religion, the exploitation of older sisters who were expected to look after their younger siblings while their brothers were not expected to help.
She wrote of the difficulties of young working women who had to keep up appearances and would cut food to pay for laundry, of the status and working conditions of household help, of the difficulty of finding employment, of piece work in factories, of a loveless marriage entered into for economic reasons. Her description in her autobiography of working in her aunt’s maternity hospital is especially provocative.
She published material that identified a number of women’s issues, especially immigrant women’s concerns. All of her books are out of print now but many are available at used book stores and on the web.
She was also the founder and first editor of the Icelandic Canadian (now the Icelandic Connection). Laura wrote many articles for the publication. She also was president of the Winnipeg Chapter of PEN.
She was ahead of her time in another way too. I have a copy of her autobiography signed in 1939. She wrote: “Yours for Canadian Literature” above her name!
Confessions of an Immigrant’s Daughter 1939
The Viking Heart 1923
When Sparrows Fall 1925
The Dark Weaver3 1937
Wayside Gleams 1924
These are only a few of the about 150 short stories she wrote.4
“Hidden Fire” (1922) MacLean’s and Maple Leaf (won prize from Women’s Canadian Club of Saskatchewan).
“The Greater Gift: A Christmas Story” originally in The Western Home Monthly and later reprinted a number of periodicals and anthologies. Most recently in Writings by Western Icelandic Women (1996) Edited by Kirstin Wolf
“When Blind Guides Lead” (1925) MacLean’s (Feb)
“The Alabaster Box” (1927) MacLean’s (Dec)
“Queer Heart” 1935-36 The Canadian Magazine (August)
“Slipper Ease” 1936-37 The Canadian Magazine (October)
She wrote at least four historical adventure novels including several about Viking settlements in Minnesota. Some were first published in serial form in magazines. One novel, Johan Lind, a serial in Western Home Monthly was never published as a book. I do not find her historical novels as compelling as her contemporary ones, although I have only read two of them.
1 Salverson. (1925) When Sparrows Fall. Thomas Allen, Toronto
2 Bumsted describes it as “a highly acclaimed autobiography”
3 The only publicly owned copy of The Dark Weaver in Winnipeg is in the Icelandic Collection at the University of Manitoba. It is non-circulating. My cherished copy was a gift.
4 Foster, Merna p. 222. A number of Laura’s short stories are available on Microfiche in the Winnipeg’s Millennium Library. Four, ‘Hidden Fire’, ‘The Greater Gift’, ‘When Blind Guides Lead’ and ‘The Alabaster Box’ are reprinted in Wolf
Bumsted, J.M. Dictionary of Manitoba Biography. Accessed online. Feb. 22, 2009
Foster, Merna (2004) 100 Canadian Heroines: Famous and Forgotten Faces. The Dundurn Group, Toronto. A Daughter of Iceland, Laura Goodman Salverson’. pp 222-223
Hjartarson, Paul (1990) Laura Goodman Salverson. Dictionary o f Literary Biography. Vol. 92. Canadian Writers 1890-1920. p. 319
Martin Virginia (2011) Laura Goodman Salverson: A Reader’s Reflection: The Icelandic Connection. Vol. 63 #4. pp 163-167.
Roy, Wendy, (2005) The ensign of the mop and the dustbin: The maternal and the material in autobiographical writings by Laura Goodman Salverson and Nellie McClung. essay in a collection Auto/biography in Canada edited by Julie Rak. Waterloo: Wilfred Laurier University Press.pp247-262
Thordardson, Elin (2009) The woman who reappeared. Vol. 62, no. 2 The Icelandic Canadian
Wolf, Kirsten, Editor (1996) Writings by Western Icelandic Women. U of Manitoba Press. (p. 177-209)