SPANISH FORK, Utah — For most Icelanders who are not members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the novel "Paradise Reclaimed" by Hallidor Laxness is all they know about Mormonism.

Brigham Young University Professor Fred Woods gave the descendants of the Icelanders who settled Spanish Fork a peek behind the fiction on Sunday, June 27, at the annual Heritage Fireside, the culminating event at the yearly celebration of their heritage.

In the 1850s, Spanish Fork was the first Icelandic settlement in the United States, and for more than a century on the last weekend in June, the descendants of those 400-plus pioneers have celebrated their heritage.

Expelled from Iceland because of their conversion to the church, they were sent by Brigham Young to settle Spanish Fork along with other immigrants. However, unlike the other pioneers, the Icelanders kept their identity.

After two visits to Utah in the 1950s, Laxness, a Nobel prize-winning author, penned the book, first published in Icelandic in 1960 and English in 1962.

In the plot itself, a 19th-century Icelandic farmer, Steinar of Hlidar, thinking he will obtain a promised land for his family, gives his children's white pony to the visiting King of Denmark, and then his family sends him off to retrieve it. Along the way, he converts to Mormonism, migrates to the "promised land" of Utah and sends for his family to join him, which leaves the family in ruins. Later, he returns to Iceland as a missionary and eventually ends up back on his farm and the paradise he left behind.

Laxness had visited Utah as a young man in 1927, but was invited to visit again in 1957, despite his branding as a "notorious Communist" during the height of the Cold War, Woods said.

The author and his wife met an LDS bishop, John Bearnson of Springville, on that visit. A couple of months later, he sent the Bearnsons a note thanking them for their hospitality and expressing his interest in writing a novel about Icelandic Mormons.

In 1958, Laxness met David B. Timmins, a member of the church and the new American consul at the U.S. Embassy in Reykjavik. At a gathering in Laxness' home, the two talked LDS history and doctrine, and Timmins paved the way for Laxness to return to Utah in 1959 to research his novel, Woods said.

On that trip, he wrote several probing questions about the church in his daybook on points of doctrine and practices.

After returning to Iceland, he developed the plot of his novel and based Steiner on the writings of an Icelandic immigrant, Eirikur Olafsson a Brunum, who eventually returned to Iceland and left the faith.

Laxness based a bishop in "Paradise Reclaimed" on Thordur Didriksson, another Icelandic immigrant to Utah, who influenced Brunum. Didriksson later returned to Iceland as a missionary and wrote the first known LDS missionary tract in that country, Woods said.

When Byron Geslison and his wife, Melva, reopened Iceland to LDS missionary work in 1975, they gave Laxness a copy of that tract, Woods said. Byron Geslison then told Laxness that some things in his novel about the church were not true, to which Laxness responded, "You know, we writers have a poetic license. You know that I didn't mean all those things I said in there that weren't complimentary to you."

He apparently had been troubled by the reception of his book in Utah, Woods said, and once wrote, "I thought my book was free from malice towards Mormons… Of course it is a book by a Gentile, but a friendly one, I hope."

Visiting an ancestor's farm in Iceland

Icelandic descendant Rebekah Mason visited the farm of her ancestor, Elofur Gudmonson, during her Snorri 2009 tour, she reported during the 2010 Icelandic Heritage Fireside on Sunday, June 27.

Snorri is a six-week Icelandic government-sponsored event for the descendants of Icelanders who immigrated to America or Canada to return and learn about their ancestral homeland, which she described as a "beautiful, peaceful country."

She and 11 others arrived in Reykjavik and attended classes at the University of Iceland for a couple of weeks, hiked the countryside and learned of the Icelandic culture while living with a family in the tiny town of Hvammstangi.

She also attended a small branch of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and she used translating headphones or someone translated for her.

Mason discovered that her ancestor was "well-off" when he joined the church more than a century ago and immigrated to Utah.

"It as truly amazing to see what he left behind," she said.

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Visiting an ancestor's farm in Iceland

Icelandic descendant Rebekah Mason visited the farm of her ancestor, Elofur Gudmonson, during her Snorri 2009 tour, she reported during the 2010 Icelandic Heritage Fireside on Sunday, June 27.

Snorri is a six-week Icelandic government-sponsored event for the descendants of Icelanders who immigrated to America or Canada to return and learn about their ancestral homeland, which she described as a "beautiful, peaceful country."

She and 11 others arrived in Reykjavik and attended classes at the University of Iceland for a couple of weeks, hiked the countryside and learned of the Icelandic culture while living with a family in the tiny town of Hvammstangi.

She also attended a small branch of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which she described as similar to church meetings in Utah, except for the language. She used translating headphones or someone translated for her, she said.

Mason discovered that her ancestor was "well-off" when he joined the church more than a century ago and immigrated to Utah.

"It as truly amazing to see what he left behind," she said.