A Book Review: The Father Daughter War by Jennifer Armstrong

At the time that I began reading this book, a lot was going on in my life, and I didn’t have the time to get fully immersed and give it the attention it deserves. So I began again recently, and was very glad that I had the ability to really dive in, because it is the sort of book that is impossible to put down.

In The Father Daughter War, Armstrong describes her childhood in pre-Zimbabwe Rhodesia in such a way that the reader is carried back through time and given the chance to occupy the place of a child in a war-torn, colonial-African country during the late 1960s, and through the 1970s. Her descriptions viscerally depict the soul-nourishing, womb-like experience of growing up in the arms of the African wilderness, the certainties, and also challenges, of living in a society that was so isolated that it remained frozen in time, twenty years behind the Western world, and the utterly disorienting experience of having to leave her motherland behind and emigrate to Australia. In this book, she takes you along for the journey as her soul emerges into existence on the back of a horse, racing through the frontier of Rhodesia as it transformed into Zimbabwe.

Throughout this book of memoirs, Armstrong flashes back and forth between her own narrative and excerpts from her father’s perspective of his own life. The shift between the two perspectives illustrates the contrast in their personalities and experiences, and it also demonstrates the extreme disparity of living in a traditional patriarchal culture. She brings the focus well-past the thin facade of what the Western world is taught about Rhodesia and its transition to Zimbabwe, and reveals a largely unknown realm from the perspective of an inside-outsider– a white colonial with no power or agenda.

The portion of the book that describes Armstrong’s emigration experience truly gave me a sense of feeling one’s entire world being ripped away, but in such a manner that onlookers are completely oblivious to the trauma as it is taking place. It can be likened to being a caged wild animal, being jabbed and taunted, but all the while, having to appear tidy, polite, and civilized. She elucidates both the backlash she received for the accomplishments toward assimilating into the new culture she made, as well as the destructive process of being cut off from everything she had ever known before. The greatest conflict of all arose from her father’s reaction to the symptoms of her suffering from the loss of her previous life.

The Father Daughter War is not light reading, and for Western readers, I highly recommend you set all of your cultural norms aside before you embark on this journey. Nothing you already know can prepare you for this story, nor solidify your sense of orientation. This book is the most emotionally engaging one I’ve read in years. I cannot praise it highly enough. Jennifer Armstrong has captured the spirit of Mother Africa in text, and in contrast, has also revealed the emptiness of Western life that so many have accepted all their lives without question.

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Four Crows

Blog Drawing Four CrowsDuring moments like these, I can remember who I once was. Inside, I am silent, and outside, I am as still as stone. Like two gates to a common garden, my heart and mind have been left wide open. There is a deep sleep waiting behind my eyes, its weight increasing gradually and steadily. In the deep pool of shade beneath an ancient oak, I can feel my own roots growing from the bottoms of my feet, extending toward the earth below, burrowing into the soil.

In my youth, I would sit for hours beneath the trees, just observing the world around me. I was so quiet and still, the crows came to trust me. They would congregate along the chain-link fence that defined the churchyard, or sail down from the high branches of the oaks in the park to scavenge picnic leftovers. They weren’t threatened in the slightest way by my presence, and it seemed to me that they came to enjoy my company. Every morning, as I walked through the churchyard, cut through the thicket, and made my way to the bus stop, four crows followed. They would already be waiting for me on the fence when I emerged from the back door, and they would stay with me until my bus came. And when I returned in the afternoons, they would be there in the thicket waiting, and follow me back home. One might say that they knew something about me that no person knew, and rightly so. I had a relationship with them that a person cannot have with other people. They were the only others who existed within my narrative of solitude. They could come and go, speak freely, and carry on with their business of the day without breaking the connection between my senses and the world around me. When I couldn’t determine whether I saw them as a part of myself or a part of the world, it became clear that the three were bound together as one: myself, the crows, the world.

The noisy, unnaturally bright world of human beings came crashing through my walls of solitude, and for many years, I was held prisoner by a mob of people who talked incessantly, just because they felt compelled to always talk and hear each other talking. They were not the ones holding me against my will, actually, but the one they served. He was a vile creature who fed on the accolades of his followers. He charmed fools with his wildly exaggerated, or even fully fabricated tales of extraordinary strength and cunning. They were drawn to him like moths to a flame, and in their constant flapping of brittle, dusty wings, I could no longer find moments of silence and peace amongst my friends, the crows. As one year gave way to the next, and the next, I could feel parts of myself withering and dying away, like coal-black feathers dropping from my wings to the ground.

When I finally escaped the cacophony of idol-worship, it took a great deal of time for me to heal to the point that I could return to my peaceful silence. But one early-autumn afternoon, as the sunlight was tilting out of the west in a golden hue, I sat very still behind the building where I worked, and along came a crow from the cemetery nearby. He was at first cautious, because few people are to be trusted, but he began to widen the circles he paced on the pavement, bringing his path closer and closer to me. I very slowly reached inside my satchel and found some scraps of food to offer him. I gently tossed some crumbs his way, and he quickly ate every one. I threw down a few more, this time, closer to my feet. He hesitated, but eventually walked over, ate them, and hurried back to a safe distance. I waited silently. He kept watching me as he walked around the pavement, as if to say, “I’m waiting. Throw some more.” I sprinkled some crumbs right at my feet. I could see him struggling with the internal conflict of whether or not this food was worth the danger. He slowly walked over, stopping at intervals to assess the risk. Finally, he made his way over, right at my feet, and ate as quickly as he could. This time, he didn’t walk away, he flew. But he came right back. Again, he was observing me. I held some crumbs in my hand, and slowly bent forward, lowering my arm nearer to the ground. At first, he seemed to refuse to take food directly from my hand. I held it there until my shoulder began to burn, and my muscles began to cramp. He gradually crept closer and closer, watching me, but regularly looking away as if to convey that he had no interest in what I had to offer. But he crept right up beside my foot, and he clasped a pinch of crumbs right off of my fingertips with his beak. I had never been so close to a crow before. My heart leapt in my chest. But just as he snatched the benefit of his bravery, the rear exit door swung open, releasing the sounds of loud conversation, as a group of people came clomping out for their break. Before I could turn my head and look back at him, he had flown away.

Sometimes, in the dead of winter, I will sit in my grey-brown, slumbering garden, and listen to the crows talk. They call from tree to tree, from branch to branch. I leave feasts for them, but they never come to dine with me. I watch as small groups gather into a great murder in the bare, ink-slash branches that cut through the pale sky. The tallest trees grow so heavy with crows, it looks as though all of the leaves that fell throughout the autumn caught a wind and sailed back up, filling out the branches once again. To hear hundreds of crows in excited conversation together is a kind of music unlike any other. This is what my mind grows silent for. To take in this symphony of crows.

Reflection: A Year In Blog-Writing

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It has been a year since I created this blog. Although I didn’t do as much writing over the past year as I had intended, (not even remotely as much,) I feel pretty satisfied with the things I did write. The most logical challenge that I can set before myself at this point is to commit to writing more, while trying to maintain my personal standards for quality of entries.

I certainly don’t fancy myself to be an exceptional writer, but the things I write are all rooted in something that is profound to me. If it doesn’t stir some level of emotion in me, or it doesn’t translate revelations I have had into language that other people can understand and possibly even appreciate, it has no place amongst all the other entries. As deeply in love with the English language as I am, I have pressed into it with enough force to have discovered some of its limitations. There are some things I have experienced that I couldn’t even begin to describe. This year, what I want to do is write about those things. It will likely be an exhausting endeavor, and even as I write this, a small voice within me is saying, “Surely you must be kidding yourself. Surely this isn’t the journey upon which you intend to embark.” It isn’t exactly a kamikaze mission, but a significant challenge it may certainly be considered.

I have undoubtedly neglected my personal writing goals for the majority of the past year, and this indicates to me that I really need to set structured requirements for myself as a writer as I go forth into the future. If I don’t prioritize my writing, it will not flourish. And if I allow my writing to stagnate, I will be destroying a large and important piece of myself. My hope is that readers will grace me with their feedback, informing me of what they would like to read about, what knowledge of my own they would like me to share, and how they feel about various things I have written. I would like to expand my library of inspiration by whatever means possible.

To those of you who have accompanied me on this journey thus far, know that I truly appreciate you. I want to take you to new places, show you perspectives you might not have ever seen before, and possibly even inspire you along your own journey. May we all have a remarkable year for exploring our lives and immortalizing our experiences through writing. Thank you all.

Remembering Louise

Blog Entry LouiseShe never knew what it was to be a child. She was raising children by the age of seven- a sibling on her hip, and another following close behind, hanging onto her skirt as if she was their mother. Youth was not a time of whimsy and delight for her. It was a time of hardship, strife, and duty. She bore the weight of adult responsibility as soon as she could walk.

She kissed her young new husband on the lips, and watched him turn his back and go off to the war. She gave birth to their first child without him there to see her. She suffered through a crippling illness while she cared for her baby on her own, and worked her hands raw for the domestic war efforts.

When the war was over, she had to pick up and move forth as if none of it had happened. They raised their first three girls, then after a gap of time, a son and another daughter. She raised grandchildren, as well. She kept her gardens. She did the washing and hung it out in the sun to dry. She cooked every meal. She canned and froze what she grew for later. They bought a farm, but kept their city home. Now she managed two lots of gardens, two houses. She dried a million tears. She bandaged a million scrapes. She found a million kind words to soothe broken hearts. She snapped a million green beans. She baked a million pies. She stitched a million seams. She patched a million holes.

She took us to the airport to fly out to California. She wanted us to meet our aunt, uncle, and cousins there, and see the ocean for the first time in our lives. She kissed her husband’s lips, and they both had a tear in their eyes. I had never seen this between them before. This would be the last time she would ever kiss him. It was meant to be goodbye, but not goodbye forever. The very next morning, she and our aunt were on a plane home, leaving us in the capable hands of our uncle while they sorted out the business of our grandfather’s life.

Twenty years she went on without him. She still took every window out of its frame twice a year and cleaned them until they sparkled. She still fed her birds. She still watered her flowers, pulled the weeds, and picked the tomatoes. She never gave up, not even for a moment. She went on and on as if she would live forever. She mailed handwritten letters, wrapped Christmas packages, baked cookies, greeted guests, made tea, cooked holiday dinners, shared garden magazines. She did the newspaper puzzles every day. She watched the news and kept track of the weather forecast religiously. She went to Central Park for the band concerts every week in the summer. She beat Joe at Scrabble. She got most of the answers on Jeopardy. She told us stories of her life on the farm as a girl. She kept track of the life events of every member of our massive family. She told the cleverest jokes. She played along with Joe’s riddle games. She clapped in time to his songs as he strummed his guitar. She refilled the hummingbird feeder.

Rheumatoid arthritis gripped her neck and shoulders, her arms and legs, her hands and feet. She was getting closer and closer to ninety years old. Aunt Melody was there at her house much of the time, mopping, scrubbing, stocking shelves, dusting, any little thing she could do. Her mother had never let anyone sleep on stale sheets in her house, and so she wouldn’t let her sleep on them, either. She couldn’t get up and down the stairs very well anymore. We washed her hair in the sink. We took her list to the store for her when she was feeling particularly badly, and we gingerly helped her into the car and drove her when she was strong enough to get out and about. We took her out in the sunshine on her better days. I did what I could to help. She didn’t like letting other people do the work she had done for so many decades on her own. When the day was done, I always told her whether or not she’d see me tomorrow. One afternoon, I told her, “I’ll see you tomorrow.” She said, “Oh, but tomorrow is Saturday. Take the day for yourself. Spend time with your family.” I shook my head. “You are my family. I’ll be here, rain or shine.” She said, “Well, at least sleep in a little. You don’t have to come early in the morning.” I took my time the next day. I was just ready to head over there and see what she might need help with when the phone rang. It was my father. She was gone.