An American Childhood

Sarah Leavitt

When you spend time with someone you love whose mind is deteriorating, there is no rest or relief: it is like having your eyelids taped open. The intervals in which I can forget that my mother is sick, or just not think about it, diminish to split seconds before I know it. The moments when she laughs or tilts her head the way she used to, or fights back against some small indignity instead of bowing her head and acquiescing. During my last visit with her, I thanked God for the twenty-seven-inch colour TV and satellite dish that my father had installed, but also for a small stack of great novels. Fingersmith (Virago) is very heavy in hardcover but I packed it and took it along anyway. It’s the latest novel by Sarah Waters, author of the trashy-in-spite-of-itself Victorian lesbian romance Tipping the Velvet (since made into a BBC movie, with disappointing casting decisions, such as the sweet-faced, plucked-eyebrowed Nan, who in the book passed easily as a boy in the roughest part of London). Fingersmith kept me hooked through the early morning hours with crazy plot twists that I could never have predicted and satisfyingly over-the-top wickedness and deceit. In spite of a few excessively detailed descriptions of characters’ clothing, conversations and states of mind, Waters pulled me right into the gritty, dangerous world of mid-nineteenth-century London, in particular the petty thieves, known at the time as fingersmiths. Among the choicest characters are the badass teenager Johnny, who steals dogs and kills them when their owners refuse to pay ransom, and his long-suffering girlfriend, who is sewing him a coat from the skins of these dogs. The smell of the coat fills the kitchen, where some of the book’s most tension-filled scenes take place. To be honest, though, I could have used a bit more lezzie bodice ripping, beyond the one tormented scene that takes place in the dusty, pitch-black confines of a moth-eaten canopied bed. Why is it that the 18s are such a perfect setting for escapist books? I found English Passengers by Matthew Kneale (Anchor) in my parents’ collection, which lines the walls of a room that used to be their library. It is now their bedroom: they moved in when my mother could no longer go up and down the stairs. Their bed blocks the children’s books, but I can still get to my father’s shelves of seafaring adventures, including English Passengers. The story opens in the 185s in Yorkshire, where a vicar is determined to prove that the Garden of Eden truly exists—in Tasmania. He has been writing pamphlets against geologists who are denying the story of Creation: surely, they say, it took longer than seven days for the rocks of the earth to cool. A wealthy Londoner offers to finance an expedition to Tasmania, where the vicar knows he will find the special quick-cooling rocks that will prove his theory. He and the rest of the expedition find passage on a ship whose captain and crew are Manxmen smuggling tobacco, liquor and French porn, and who are involved in their own twisted story of customs evasion and swindling. English Passengers never once wavers in its fast pace and dry humour, even when the story unexpectedly deepens into a horrifying account of the torture and abuse rampant in Tasmanian penal colonies and the genocide of the island’s Aborigines. More than twenty different characters take turns narrating the story, a technique that never becomes confusing or irritating: the strength of the story holds all the voices together. And there is a wonderful bonus at the end of the book: a small section on the Anglo-Manx dialect, which, the author notes, reflects the Manx habits and preoccupations of that time: the sea, herring, superstition and “various types of character, all of them viewed with disapproval.” There are nine words for “smooth, slippery people” and ten for those who are showy or boastful. The English of Peevay, the Aboriginal narrator, is a mixture of the formal locutions taught by the missionaries and the dirtiest insults he overhears from the ex-convict settlers. This book is a complex mixture of humour and tragedy that I never expected from something described on its cover as a “seafaring yarn.” Also in the library/bedroom was a much-read copy of Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood (Harper & Row). Dillard’s childhood contained elements starkly absent in mine: a strong sense of history and home, focussed and intense interactions with her surroundings and, what I most wished for, skill at baseball and friendships with boys. But her parents, like mine, were odd and dreamy intellectuals who adored words and stories, creating their own language from savoured sayings, jokes and scraps of family stories. To read Dillard’s theories about consciousness was to be forced uncomfortably into present reality, I found, and to have to think about the meaning of my life, but to read her accounts of her own and her parents’ weirdness was to be reminded comfortingly of home. I curled up on my parents’ bed and lost myself in a childhood that was mine and not mine, while Will and Grace entertained my parents in the next room, Dad laughing on the couch, Mom wandering in front of the TV, her body blocking most of the screen.

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Sarah Leavitt

Sarah Leavitt is the author of the graphic memoir Tangles: A Story About Alzheimer's, My mother, and Me, which was a finalist for the Writers' Trust Non-Fiction Prize in 2010 and is currently in development as a feature-length animation. Leavitt teaches comics classes at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. Visit her at


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