Brylcreem and black bloomers, Deborah Laurs

There Was a Time
Dorothy Butler
Penguin Books, $34.95,
ISBN 0 14 238285 8

Ever since Janet Frame’s An Angel at my Table, it has been difficult for readers to accept “autobiography” as a genre of non-fiction quite as readily as they may have done before. Attempting to convey “the truth” with words – ever a tricky task – as Frame acknowledges, becomes all the more so when the autobiographer is also a writer of fiction in her own right.

Dorothy Butler experiences similar reservations about recording her own life story. The cover description of There Was a Time states: “award-winning New Zealand children’s author recalls her own childhood with warmth and affection”; yet in the very first chapter she asks, “Do I really remember that event, or have I been told so often that it has become embedded in a kind of pseudo-memory which is a pastiche of the truly remembered and the acquired?” Such candour is admirable, necessary even, but nonetheless disconcerting.

“Pseudo-memory” or not, Butler strives to add veracity to her narrative at every stage. She has researched her topic thoroughly, citing family diaries and letters, checking details with family and friends. Fortunately, Butler’s love of story-telling soon overtakes her initial self-consciousness and she launches into an entertaining chronicle of family life. We learn that her mother was also a fine storyteller and we meet a bewildering, but fascinating array of relations with imposing appellations such as “Grandfather George Brown’s father, John Brown” (“a gentleman and a scoundrel”), and “my Grandmother Brown’s sister Kate’s husband, Uncle Tanner”, who was “a bona fide ‘remittance man’”.

Auntie Muriel’s diary recounts experiences in the 1920s, touring the country in a professional dance company; Uncle Norman had his leg amputated in the trenches, “there and then without anaesthetic”, and we see another uncle’s disembodied head (without any legs at all) superimposed in a family portrait after his death. The photos, aptly chosen, not least the cover shots, evoke as many memories as her words. They are well placed within the book to complement the text, despite the fact that captions refer to Butler as “Dorothy”, “Me” and “Curly” in the space of three photos.

In fact, it takes a while to get on to Dorothy’s own life, although the Prologue gives us a foretaste of “the golden weather” of beaches, boats and schooldays in the Auckland of the 1930s. Despite living through the Depression, Butler describes a childhood rich with everyday pleasures: picnics and soap-box trolleys, tree huts and marbles, aniseed balls and hokey-pokey, fresh Saturday morning bread, flour-and-water paste. These memories – when Butler really has a tale to tell – work best.

Like Frame, Butler savours language, and her descriptions evoke the senses. The close relationship with her father crystallises in the account of the two of them wading barefoot through the mudflats. A rainy-day school shed smells of fishpaste sandwiches; her first book has “thick leaves like blotting paper”; stewed apple, a family staple, is “glorious smooth fluff”; dance halls “reeked” of Brylcreem, and her new high school uniform includes “three pairs of capacious black bloomers”.

Like Frame, too, Butler sprinkles allusions to favourite literary texts throughout: much-loved books, the acquisition of each recounted in detail because as a child she was denied access to the public libraries, because her family were not ratepayers. Even the schoolgirl “deeds of bravado”, and the resultant encounters with the formidable headmistress of Auckland Girls’ Grammar, have a story-book flavour.

Education forms an important part of Butler’s life. She names nearly everyone – pupils and teachers – with whom she came in contact (she shifted school ten times), often appending edited highlights of their future careers as well, although two notable exceptions fortunately remain anonymous. Aged ten, Butler describes her unfortunate deskmate as “a large, gypsy-like girl who looked dull, and wore ragged clothes and actually smelled” and later she tells of the “luckless Miss Whatever” at Auckland Girls’, who, misinterpreting the bell calling for a period of silence on Anzac Day, organised a fire drill instead.

At times, however, this storytelling gives way to a more didactic tone, when Butler addresses her readers, often in parentheses, interrupting the flow of the narrative. Stating the obvious, she tells us that cotton reels were “(wooden, in those days)”; “tea [is] (New Zealand for dinner or supper)”; that “Yoey”, her baby name for her brother, “(rhyme[s] with Joey)”; and – inconsistently – that Standard 6 is “(Year 8 these days)”, while “Standard Five [is] (Form One)”.

Elsewhere, Butler feels the need to intrude even more directly. “In the early thirties,” she emphasises, “one learned at school … teachers were not expected to be social workers and psychologists.” In the good old days, apparently even the comics contained “substance … sadly lacking in their modern counterparts”.

She also comments with hindsight on gender and social issues, wondering unnecessarily why she didn’t resent at the time (in the 1930s) that “girls were not eligible” either to play the drum at primary school assemblies or to win the “Rawleigh’s Scholarship” to secondary school. On the other hand, while her 13-year-old brother must leave after only a year at Seddon “Tech” to join the workforce, Dorothy herself attends Auckland Girls’ Grammar, passes “matric” and goes on to university, surely a considerable achievement for a young “working class” woman in those days.

Ultimately, the success of this book lies in the fact that Dorothy Butler not only tells her own family’s stories, but also makes her readers conscious of their stories. Her autobiography acknowledges the need to record one’s family history while one can: not just the factual stuff, the dates and details, but the real memories: “Remember the time when …”.

We still know nothing about her adult life, as described on the jacket, with her husband Roy, raising eight children, founding and running a children’s bookshop, helping children with reading difficulties, working as a consultant editor, teaching children’s literature at university and writing her own books. There Was a Time ends, as all good stories should, with the promise of more to come.

Deborah Laurs teaches in the School of English and Media Studies at Massey University.

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Posted in Autobiography, Non-fiction, Review
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