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What seems like a lifetime ago, I lived in Iceland. This was long before it became a top tourist destination. It was a fascinating and mysterious country, and I still enjoy reading anything by Icelanders or about Iceland. While searching for books about women’s history, I saw that the country’s First Lady, Eliza Reid, has recently published “Secrets of the Sprakkar: Iceland’s Extraordinary Women and How They Are Changing the World.” In it she makes a case for gender equality through stories of women who have achieved improbable victories. The word sprakkar, meaning extraordinary women, is not a well-known one, so when she discovered it, Reid was delighted. She knew she wanted to use an Icelandic word in the title, “one that English speakers could say and didn’t look too intimidating.”

Reid grew up near Ottawa, Canada, and met her Icelandic husband-to-be, Gudni Johannesson, during graduate studies at Oxford University in England. They fell in love, she proposed, and they moved to Iceland so he could be closer to his young daughter. Gudni was an expert on the Icelandic Constitution, and when, in 2016, the Prime Minister was accused of concealing millions of dollars’ worth of family assets, the country realized it needed just such an expert as its president. “Our phone started ringing,” Reid writes. An election followed and he won. Reid, now 45, has been the First Lady ever since.

When she first moved to Iceland in 2003, she knew little more than its capital, Reykjavik. By 2010, it was better known internationally as having had a spectacular meltdown of the banking system and a volcanic eruption that grounded planes across Europe. During those years, she and Gudni had children, she free-lanced, and then started her own business. She also started up the Iceland Writers Retreat.

The book was written during COVID when the First Lady finally had some time on her hands. During those moments she wondered how Iceland is the world’s best country for women, leading in gender equality, providing generous parenting leave, abundant childcare, and free prenatal services. It is considered to be one of the most peaceful and happy countries of the world, with the highest proportions of women working outside the home, and a large part of this is due to community and familial support, networks, social clubs and associations such as the “saumós” (sewing clubs). But she admits the “world’s best doesn’t mean perfect.” Around this time, in April 2020, it was the 90th birthday of former Icelandic President Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, the world’s first democratically elected female head of state. The birthday celebrations were quiet, but that didn’t mean Iceland and its achievements couldn’t be celebrated. It seemed the right time, and Reid thought her perspective as an immigrant would help.

On one level, this is a deeply personal story. Reid begins the book with her own relationship – with her husband and with the country – and her adjustment to life as an immigrant. She had four children in six years, a feat in part made possible by the generous parental leave provided both her and her husband, and for the nearby and affordable child care. These personal stories gave her a way of getting into the political.

Because Reid is knowledgeable about her adopted and, in many ways, unique country, what interests her most is how her interviewees comprehend their own success. She intersperses her conversations with glimpses of powerful women in Iceland’s history, among them Olof Loftsdottir (dubbed “Olaf the Rich”), in the 14th century, who “bought and sold property in her own name and led sailing missions,” and President Vigdis, who, during her tenure from 1980 to 1996, hosted the 1986 summit between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev.

Reid, however, is also interested in regular women who understand their circumstances and do the best they can. There’s Ragnheidur Eiríksdóttir, who “has been a nurse, journalist, sexual health and self-confidence instructor, and, of all things, knitting tour operator.” How do knitting and sex connect? Ragnheidur remarks, “They’re quite similar in my mind. In both cases, I am trying to make people braver and encourage creativity.” Reid openly takes up the more complicated issues of open sexuality: “Does all the casual sex and partner swapping lead to moral decay or decreased outcomes on some quantifiable lifestyle indicators? Not at all.” She does acknowledge that there are dangers, including of infection and assault, but she insists that these problems will not be solved by tradition, but rather by increased education.

In one chapter, she interviews a woman who’s a shipping boat captain. In another she talks about the Icelandic sagas and legendary women such as Hallgerdur Long-Legs. She also explores how, in such a small country, gender equality is pragmatic. “Our island’s isolation and our natural surroundings, often perilous to this day, dictate that all human resources be used to their full potential,” she writes.

An important chapter is “Claiming the Corporate Purse Strings,” about how female entrepreneurs and inventors can work to claim what they have invented and be in charge of how it is produced, and who gets the money. A sad chapter, toward the end, is when Reid goes on a United Nations mission to a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan and talks with women in shelters at the camp. One of them has lost her brother in a bombing, and his last words to her were about not giving up her education. She works in a shelter, an “oasis,” where women feel safer and more empowered than they do in the rest of the encampment. When Reid returned from her trip, she resolved to raise funds for more oases, and she succeeded. And some of the most interesting stories are of those who have relied on grit and professional networks to succeed – like the Palestinian founder of a successful start-up, the lawyer from Jamaica, or the student council president of the University of Iceland who is from El Salvador.

“Secrets of the Sprakkar” is a thin book (297 pages) but packs an enormous punch: part history, part political science. The author’s style is witty, her observations are honest, and the issues she discusses are becoming more important by the day. Above all, it’s a charming love letter to a tiny country that should be an inspiration to the rest of the world.

P.S. Iceland has produced some outstanding mystery writers, too. For a start, try Arnaldur Indridason’s Inspector Erlendur Series, and Ragnar Jónasson’s Dark Iceland series.