Shaking the Bee Tree
Auckland University Press, $29.95
Almost as much autobiography as biography, Dennis McEldowney’s Shaking the Bee Tree is essentially a fascinating love story made possible by modern surgery. Since both he and his subject, Zoë Greenhough, were born blue babies, his descriptions of her medical experiences are often self-referential for comparison. Moreover, since Zoë ultimately becomes his wife, he naturally records his responses to her courage, love and commitment through difficulties and dangers. From his privileged insight, therefore, and from a variety of sources, he creates an illuminating, kaleidoscopic reconstruction of Zoë’s life and his part in it. Dennis’ writing is distinguished by a clarity of style, a richness of pertinent documentary detail, and a dry, subtle wit that precludes self-pity, false pretensions or sentimentality.
Blue babies – those stunted, cyanosed, breathless children – suffer from a narrow pulmonary artery and subsequent lack of oxygen in the blood. Exertion inevitably means exhaustion. Before 1940, few sufferers reached adulthood. Appropriately, the opening section of Shaking the Bee Tree proposes an image of dangerous living. As a child, Zoë delights in shaking a flowering shrub until the bees roared and swirled in a cloud around her butter-yellow hair. But they never sting her. Thereafter, shaking the bee tree indicates with luminous simplicity that Zoë, though unassuming, manages to live her life to the full, regardless of potential danger.
Two major heart operations provide a dramatic, structural pivot for the first half of the book. Using numbered sections for easy flow through time, Dennis devotes the second section to Zoë’s 1968 operation shortly after their marriage, noting he had the same operation in 1962. Section three moves back to 1950. At Green Lane hospital, Zoë from Auckland meets Dennis from Christchurch. He, at twenty-four, is the oldest patient to survive (later Sir) Douglas Robb’s new palliative surgery, and she, at thirty-seven, is about to relegate Dennis to the defeated title‑holder. She makes Herald headlines.
Dennis then fills out Zoë’s background and traces their slow-growing friendship through infrequent letters and reciprocal visits, all he feels they can expect as semi-invalids. Even in 1962, after miraculous open-heart surgery corrects all defects, Dennis cannot honourably declare himself yet as a fit and proper husband. But improved health brings him as editor to Auckland University Press. In section forty-four, his story comes full circle to 1968. The rest unfolds chronologically. Zoë unstintingly nurses her mother after a stroke, for three winters, three springs, three summers, but only two autumns, Dennis records tellingly. Zoë enjoys an overseas trip with Dennis on study leave. Zoë, her heart still technically in failure finds satisfaction in part-time work. More medical traumas, but three happy years after Dennis’s retirement precede her death in 1990 at seventy-seven ‑ unimaginable at her birth in 1912.
The variety of sources Dennis quotes from includes his own earlier writing, his and Zoë’s diaries, their letters and those of friends and relatives, and the transcript of a tape recording wherein Zoë and her brother talk of their comfortable life as children. The immediacy of these personal sources is enlarged by Dennis’s historical perspective and pen-portraits of many valued relatives and friends, especially the most remarkable – Zoë’s mother, Flo. Deserted by her husband and thus reduced to homeless poverty without maintenance or social security, Flo has to take on housekeeping positions and, later, walk to cleaning jobs starting at 3am. For over twenty years until 1950, to go shopping or visiting, Flo pushes Zoë in a wheelchair over Auckland’s hills, even to the top of Mt Eden. Not surprisingly, Zoë feels she owes her mother dignity in her last days.
The good times and the bad are enlivened by Dennis’s dry humour. After their wedding reception, for example, they went straight to bed – from exhaustion. Dennis also turns his humour against himself, confessing, when details elude him, that Zoë used to complain, You never listen. The same dry touch also makes clear his great loss after Zoë’s death, when he is often ambushed by recollection.
One might ask, however, to what extent Dennis’s view of Zoë’s life is found fiction. No doubt Zoë would have expanded her laconic remarks differently, but Dennis does acknowledge depressions and conflicts as well as joys and courage, and many small photographs, though sadly pale in reproduction, add supporting visual detail. Dennis himself confronts the issue in his concluding section:
‘Nothing you’ve written happened quite like that, you know,’ I can hear Zoë say. ‘You always did exaggerate to make a good story. Apart from never listening.’ ‘But I really have tried to tell the truth, essentially,’ I say. ‘Maybe,’ she says.
Exaggerated? Maybe selection suggests so. But what is essentially Dennis’s truth makes this ‘good story’ compulsive reading. The bee tree, indeed, is brilliantly shaken.
Diane Hebley lives in Taradale.