Story of a life, the times, and the cultures
I came to this factual book by Geraldine Brooks hot on the heels of appreciation for her novel, People Of The Book. Brooks, now a Virginia resident novelist, was in a prior existence a globe-trotting, wanderlust-filled journalist originally from Concord, a suburb of Sydney, New South Wales.
Born in the mid-50s, Brooks recounts growing up in a deeply entrenched culture where nothing really happened, Australians felt second-class parochial citizens, looking to the ‘mother country’ with deep blue affiliations under Prime Minister Robert Menzies. The national anthem was even God Save The Queen. An underachieving, ‘don’t be a tall poppy’ syndrome was rife.
Brooks’ parents clearly had wider horizons in their souls, and she and her elder sister were clearly going to be taller poppies.
Desperate to know something of worlds beyond, Brooks began a series of correspondences with pen pals, from before her teens. Fed by initially a fascination with Star Wars, and then later with emerging socialist, internationalist and artistic interests, she had penfriends from firstly, a classier suburb of Sydney, from the States (where she always wanted to be) two pen-pals from Israel, a Christian Arab and a Jew, and a French girl from a tiny village.
Although she stopped writing to all of them bar her fellow Trekkie fan, the American girl, whilst still in her teens, a chance discovery of all the letters some 30 years later, led her to revisit her childhood, the zeitgeist of the times and the place, and trace the development not just of her own identity, life and viewpoints, but also look at how Australia emerged as a taller poppy.
She was also curious to discover what had happened to her several pen-pals, and set out to find them.
The several stories are moving, amusing, heart-breaking, and also surprisingly inspiring, not least for Brooks herself, who discovers that one life, which seemed on the surface to be the farthest away from the life she would want for herself, is one she comes full circle to most appreciate.
She is an excellent raconteur of the various stories and the changing voices from childhood to adult, ranging from Brooks, the budding young teenage scientist with a desire to solve the problem of world hunger through eating weeds – an experiment on mice which goes sadly wrong, to the much later discovery of a sad and long kept secret from her father’s life.
I can’t resist a little account from the exchanges between Brooks and her fellow Trekkie penpal, Joannie, about the mouse experiment :
I named one of the control mice Joannie, although since all were albinos I had difficulty in telling her apart from the others, Spock Rudolph and Margot (the latter two named for a balletomane phase I was passing through)……………..Unfortunately my Mr Spock met a grisly end, along with the noble attempt to alleviate world hunger…….The project fell apart when my mice – the control group, fed on the gourmet mouse mix – began eating each other. The day we gave away the sole – and very fat – survivor of my doomed experiment was a happy one for my mother. Joannie was consoling “Perhaps you just had paranoid mice.”
A lovely, absorbing read, which gave me some fascinating insights. And not just about cannibal mice.
Foreign Correspondence Amazon UK
Foreign Correspondence Amazon USA
This sounds like a fascinating read although my stomach churned at the thought of those cannibal mice; I can’t abide rodents and those that eat each other is just too grisly to contemplate. Seriously I love reading about other people’s lives although I have quite a lot of books to read at the moment 😉
Lady Fancifull said:
You’d just have to move very fast past the very brief mouse experiment letter and reply.
Sorry I alarmed you no doubt by a full frontal picture of a wee mouse, though he is obscured a bit by the cheese.
Me too (reading about people’s lives) I’m just intensely – I call it curious. Some might say nosey, but i would reject that! It’s the fascination of how alike and how very different, all at the same time, everyone is from each other!
Absolutely re the curiosity, I think it is amazing that we are all unique, even those that share fundamental areas of our life view life differently and yet sometimes there is a thread of commonality where you least expect it. Same experiences doesn’t mean same outcome in a human’s life.
Lady Fancifull said:
Erich Rupprecht said:
Fascinating post, as always. Thanks
Jilanne Hoffmann said:
Love the idea finding a stash of letters from long ago, revealing the person I’ve forgotten. I envy those who can recall so many feelings from those years. The letters would really help that along.
Lady Fancifull said:
Yes. It was one of those rather bitter-sweet discoveries, following her parents downsizing and her father becoming too ill to unpack all the stuff from the move, with all the accumulated history a family accrues. So it was that she stepped in to do caring daughterly stuff, and her own forgotten history was what she unexpectedly discovered