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Heiða: A shepherd at the edge of the world, by Steinunn Sigurðardóttir and Heiða Ásgeirsdóttir

28 June 2019

Hannah Malcolm on a woman and her sheep

“WE HUMANS are mortal; the land outlives us.” A fitting parable for our increasingly fragile earth, the international bestseller Heiða follows the true story of an Icelandic shepherd fighting plans for a power plant on her family’s ancestral land. The eponymous Heiða talks about her year in her own words: blunt, unpolished, and unapologetically repetitive in describing what life is like to be a woman with 500 sheep, thousands of acres, and an unwanted political career.

Her co-writer, Steinunn Sigurðardóttir, initially presents Heiða as a proudly independent person: Heiða talks frankly about her solitude and jokes about the men who have made proposals (sometimes on behalf of their sons), making clear that living and working by herself is not a way of life she wishes to change.

Curiously, though, it is her deep connectedness to others — whether her family, her farmer neighbours, her dog, or the land itself — which drives the emotional heart of the book. As we follow her and her sheep from season to season, her long days of labour interspersed with sheep-shearing competitions, poems, and family history, it becomes clear that Heiða is not an island. “Haymaking in general is never a one-person job. That would be impossible.” Nor is lambing, or repairing fences, or even her often apparently lonely battle against corporate greed.

The story pits the calculating and detached “pen pusher with soft hands” against Heiða’s deeply emotive plea to honour the land with which she has been entrusted. And it is the land itself that is her constant companion, the relationship that she is willing to sacrifice everything to save: “No one can own land in the same way as you own a car. A car is a short-lived machine; you can do with it what you want. I don’t own the land. The land owns me.”

Hannah Malcolm is the co-ordinator of the project God and the Big Bang, working with children, young people, and teachers on science and faith.

Heiða: A shepherd at the edge of the world
Steinunn Sigurðardóttir and Heiða Ásgeirsdóttir
Philip Roughton, translator
John Murray £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.30

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