Preserving an ancient cultural heritage. A vivid look at Iceland and its people

Iceland, by Pamela Sanders and Roloff Beny. Salem, N.H.: Salem House. 220 pp. $40. This striking depiction of Iceland is a vivid reminder of the considerable historical contribution of the Scandinavian people. Relegated to a part of the world where harsh climate and often inhospitable landscape present difficulties for day-to-day existence, the Scandinavians have nonetheless managed to fashion egalitarian yet prosperous societies that have become textbook models for other nations.

This is certainly true for the people of Iceland, as author Pamela Sanders and photographer Roloff Beny underscore in this rewarding book. Roughly the size of present day Virginia, Iceland is a nation with terrain so challenging -- complete with roaring rivers, torrid geysers, long icecaps, and a country surrounded by ocean -- that NASA used the land as a training ground for astronauts bound for the moon. Ah, but enter the ingenuity of the Icelanders! The rivers and icecaps have been made popular touris t sites, the geysers are used to heat buildings, and the surrounding sea provides a major industry for the inhabitants -- fishing.

Icelanders have also retained their cultural heritage far more than other peoples -- including, perhaps, the somewhat more internationally commerce-minded Swedes, Norwegians, and Danes. To find an Icelander in a local telephone directory, you need to know his or her first name. Icelanders relish their pre-Christian-era Irish and Norwegian antecedents. They pore over old Norse sagas with the care of biblical scholars. And they continue to eat foods only a battle-seasoned (and hungry) Viking could enjoy.

Sanders and Beny well capture this happy association of past and present. Sanders, the wife of an American diplomat, has written a scrappy and often particularly amusing text. Beny, who died before publication of this book, has culled a remarkable collection of photographs. The book leans heavily toward rustic shots from out in the countryside and especially favors old churches. But that only adds to the charm.

This is a coffeetable book -- but an instructive one. ``Iceland'' shows how a small nation of some 200,000 people can tame a unique wilderness -- and do it in a way quite unlike anyone else.

Guy Halverson is a Monitor editorial writer.

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