Category Archives: Childhood

The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje

I listened to this lovely novel, read by the author. There’s usually a good reason why actors with trained voices read fiction, but Ondaatje, with his low, lightly accented voice, who often slurs or even mispronounces words, is a remarkable narrator for this very personal coming of age story. I can’t imagine that I could have enjoyed it more–or even as much–on the printed page.

The narrator and main character is named Michael and he shares some biographical details with Ondaatje, so it’s hard in a story that’s appears so personal, so psychologically true, not to believe that we’re reading something close to memoir. But we’re not; we’re reading literature written by a master hand.

The novel takes place for the most part on a ship, called the Oronsay. Eleven-year old Michael is traveling from Ceylon (Sri Lanka) to England to join the mother he hasn’t seen in 5 years. On the ship he is seated at the cat’s table–the opposite of the captain’s table–and there he meets 2 other unaccompanied boys his age: Cassius and Ramadhin.  For 3 weeks, trying to fill up the long days, they study their fellow passengers and cause trouble on the ship, but in the process they learn who they are. They come of age and Michael, in particular, reaches that moment between childhood and emerging adulthood when, for the first time, he has a sense of who he is.

Ondaatje’s evocation of that voyage, geographical and psychological, is lyrical yet precise. What at first seems like a catalog of the boys’ mischief turns into a story of intrigue, crime, passion, betrayal, and sadness so haunting that it leaves the reader longing for more. Ondaatje gives us a glimpse into the future for most of the characters but leaves us with an ambiguous ending–and nostalgia for a journey we’ve only read about.

Sink or Swim Parenting

In Norman Ollestad’s riveting memoir Crazy for the Storm: A Memoir of Survival, you’re not sure if  “survival” refers to the plane crash he walked away from, or the fact that he survived childhood at all. I’m sure the ambiguity is intended, since Ollestad’s parents were spectacularly unconcerned about pushing their son into life-threatening situations to toughen him up.
At age 3, he began surfing off the California coast clinging to his father’s back. His father also pushed him early into competitive skiing with training that took them only on double black diamond trails, or to those slopes that were pristine because no one else was crazy enough to ski them. Ollestad idolized his father and feared his accusations of wimpiness when Ollestad was frightened, frustrated, or expressed his own needs.
His mother appeared unfazed by the extreme challenges, unwilling to interfere with her divorced husband’s adventures with Ollestad, and also unconcerned about the sporadic violence her son suffered at the hands of her alcoholic boyfriend. For most of  his boyhood they all lived in a laid-back California beach community, where surfers were stars and the state of the waves was the most important news of the day. It was a world where a conventional childhood was unlikely.
For me, maybe because I’m a parent, this is a memoir about parenting and the way that children accept what they’re handed, at least when they’re young, too young to know how it could be different. Ollestad believes that his father’s regime of toughness saved his life when their small plane crashed in the snowy mountains. That’s a good thing for Ollestad to help preserve the myth of the charismatic father who only had his son’s interests at heart. The Talmud tells us that one of a parent’s 3 most important responsibilities is to teach a child to swim; but there are many ways to teach survival skills. Ollestad alternates chapters about the crash with chapters about his childhood, a good device that keeps the tension ratcheted up. This is an engrossing addition to the already rich genre of father-son memoirs.
The Three of Us: A Family Story,  by Julia Blackburn looks at frightful family dynamics from a daughter’s point of view. Blackburn’s parents had their own demons and didn’t have a clue how their actions affected their young daughter. Her father, addicted to sodium amytal and alcohol for decades, was a poet, whose non-poetic rages eventually drove her mother away. But as Blackburn says, she wasn’t afraid of her father since he never struck her. It was her mother, an artist, who took in male lodgers for sex and confided in Blackburn like a sister, who did the real damage. In 1966, when one of the lodger-lovers began an affair with the 18-year old Blackburn, it was too much for her mother, who drove her daughter away. Blackburn’s writing is dispassionate, almost clinical.Her words are made all the more effective by illustrations–family pictures that look almost like photos of happy times and her mother’s bleak paintings which reveal the ugly reality under the surface. It’s one of those memoirs that had me studying the author’s picture, trying to see in her face some indication of how she lived through it.

Very English Childhoods

I was snowed in this past weekend–we had an unusual 2 feet of snow–and I was lucky to have several fat novels and memoirs waiting for me. I chose to read A.S. Byatt’s new novel The Children’s Book, which weighs in at 675 pages; it kept me completely absorbed for 3 days. It’s a sprawling historical and family saga, set in England in the period from 1895-1919 and filled with a huge and diverse cast of characters–artists and writers; bankers and anarchists; upper and lower classes; children and adults. 
Byatt does a wonderful job juggling their intersecting lives and tying them together with the fairy tales Olive Wellwood writes for her children and to support her family.  At the beginning, the Wellwoods, their extended family and friends all seem like a warm and welcoming clan, but, like Olive’s fairy tales, things are not what they seem. Some of the characters will break your heart, some will make you angry. Pottery, puppetry, madness, the rights of women, and a devastating war all mix together in this absorbing tale. I sensed echoes of the Bloomsbury group–the shifting relationships and fondness for country house parties with elaborate costumes and playacting.  Byatt, the omniscient narrator, provides a running commentary on the cultural and social changes in this era. 
If you want to know more about this period, I would recommend  The Perfect Summer: England 1911, Just before the Storm by Juliet Nicolson. It’s an engaging romp through social, cultural, and political events in England in a pivotal season.
Byatt’s story exists very much within its time period and it made me think of memoirs I’ve read of English childhoods throughout the twentieth century. Click here for an annotated list of titles.