This book has an interesting history. It was originally published in Icelandic in two volumes, in 1931 and 1932. It was translated into Danish in 1934. The Danish edition was translated into English and revised by Laxness, and published in one volume (1936). English editions are in short supply and typically very expensive, and there weren't any copies at any nearby libraries. I was fortunate to borrow a copy from Professor Batty.
Salka Valka is the tale of a precocious little girl named Salvör Valgerdur. Salka's mother, Sigurlina, has fled the north to seek a better life in the south of Iceland, but they stop off in the tiny town of Oseyri and never leave. Sigurlina is as weak as her daughter is strong. Sigurlina desires to be a good woman, but fate and love seem to conspire otherwise.
Unlike her mother, Salka learns: she learns how to read books, how to read people, and she learns from her mistakes. We meet Salka as a rough, uneducated, illegitimate girl, who speaks her mind with complete honesty even when it means being rude. She isn't afraid of anyone, and her imposing looks and strength inspire admiration and yearning in those around her. Salka's hard work and determination bring her out of poverty and earn her independence, and throughout her hard life she finds the resources to help others along the way, through friendship and material means. Her only weakness turns out to be her lifelong love for a weak man.
Laxness brings his familiar irony and humor, pathos and tenderness to this work. When Salka fears that her mother is dead, the old man they live with comforts her in the only way he can, with his honesty:
...it's no use crying in this place; there's nobody to console one but oneself. I've lived in Oseyri now for over sixty years. Perhaps you young people will be able to become human beings, even if we older ones haven't succeeded. But it's late already. And there's nothing so good as sleep, both for those who are blind and for those who still have their sight. So we'll look after one another a little, so far as we can, if we should wake again to-morrow. There's so little people can do for each other in this place. Good night.Salka Valka's story is the story of loneliness, despair, politics, power, compassion, lust, poverty, fish, and the Salvation Army. Most of all it is the story of a love strong enough to make the ultimate sacrifice; a noble, strong generosity of heroic proportions.
A Swedish movie version of Salka Valka was produced in 1954. It is largely unavailable in the U.S. Have you seen it? I would love to! There was also a Finnish TV version done in 1979.