Reviewed by Terez Rose (Gabon 1985-87)
The only ghosts, I believe, who creep into this world,
are dead young mothers, returning to see how their children fare.
There is no other inducement great enough to bring the dead back.
— J.M. Barrie, The Little White Bird
In Jamie’s Muse, author Bonnie Lee Black (Somewhere Child, How to Cook a Crocodile, How to Make an African Quilt) has created a luminous reimagining of her great-grandmother’s life, her emigration from Scotland to South Africa and its sorrowful ending. Black’s grandfather had been born in South Africa, spent time in an Edinburgh orphanage and stowed away on a New York-bound steamer as a teen, yet on his 1954 death certificate, under “mother” was written “unknown.” The story behind the story haunted Black, igniting in her a hunger to discover more about this unknown woman, her great-great grandmother, who “has become my own, insistent, muse.” Research conducted in Edinburgh produced a name: Helen Reid David; a birth date: 1862, and a place: a hamlet nestled beside the ancient town of Kirriemuir, Scotland. Where, coincidentally, two years earlier, “Jamie,” or James Matthew Barrie, famed novelist and playwright (as J.M. Barrie) and creator of Peter Pan, was born. Which meant a high probability that the two had known each other. With this information, Black, fictionalizing elements destined to remain unknown, has produced a deeply satisfying work of fiction, interspersed with history and personal musings, which comes together to resonate with uncanny truth.
The story’s opening paragraph is starkly compelling.
The day I died I was faced with a choice—either run with my son to safety, as my husband was begging me to do, or go to my husband’s defense. I chose to pick up my husband’s rifle, stand on our veranda, and take aim at his attackers. I shot one, but the others overpowered me. My husband and I died that day in front of our home in Natal. Miraculously, our child’s life was spared.
Narrator Helen laments her unanswerable questions. Should she have left her husband to escape with her son? Should she have never left Scotland for South Africa in the first place? The chapter ends with a plaintive, grieving, Will my spirit ever rest?
The story establishes itself in Kirriemuir, Angus, Scotland, the summer of 1881, amid the clanking, deafening, steam-powered weaving machines of a linen factory, where a young, spirited Helen David is being chastised for singing and dancing when she should be working. Nineteen and full of romantic impulses, dreaming of a future with her husband-to-be, Will Black, she nonetheless yearns to discover something more in life. When she confides in her lifelong friend Jamie, home visiting from Edinburgh University, he’s the one to propose emigration to South Africa, particularly since Will works with the railways, where job options would abound.
In Black’s story, Jamie has always enjoyed and recognized Helen’s theatrical talents of both singing and dancing. He made her his leading lady in a production when he was seven and she was five. Obeying Jamie’s mandate to “Dance as if you are flying in thin air!” and become the fairy queen of his dreams, Helen cements their relationship of creator and inspirational muse. The reader is privy to a charming foretelling of the characters Jamie will create in later years, the mystical Peter Pan and Wendy. And why not? In fiction, all is possible.
Natal, South Africa, 6000 miles from Kirriemuir, does indeed become the newlyweds’ new home.
The author, no stranger to Africa—two of her memoirs recount her experiences—eloquently portrays South Africa, with its rolling hills, vibrant colors, woodsy fragrances, beehive-shaped huts. Her descriptions of the people give us “tall, dignified, scantily clad black African—mostly Zulus, she was told—who walked like royalty; burly Boer farmers in worn-out work clothes, slouch hats and thick beards who moved furtively and spoke gutturally; and British colonials with pale skin, wide eyes and welcoming smiles whose regional accents pinpointed their place or origin.”
The reader knows, from the story’s opener, how Helen and Will die. Black chooses judiciously how much detail to elaborate on, when to summarize, or simply offer speculation. As a “less is more” approach, it’s highly effective. Particularly tender in this section is the introduction of a Zulu female named Themba. An albino, she was born with skin devoid of pigment, her eyes weakened and equally devoid of protective coloration, a dreadful plight in 19th century Africa, among a people who find great pride in their dark skin. Themba’s mother’s distraught prayers that “Unkulunkulu, Great-Great, would give her child the same rich, dark-brown color as all the other children in the kraal” went unanswered, and Themba’s father, the great chief, renown as “the one who is blackest,” shuns both his pale daughter and mother. Lifelong ostracizing follows, and when the reader meets Themba, her mother—her only advocate and companion—lies dying. But, in a heartwarming twist to the story, the very day Themba’s mother dies, Helen and Will’s orphaned infant son is brought to the compound. It is a perfect match: the albino woman in need of an identity, a child in need of a mother.
I savored every word of this section of the story, where rural Africa and its sensibilities, its feminine flavors, came alive through Themba’s narration.
In the early days after Great-Great had given her this infant, and the chief, Themba’s father, had ordered him fed, young mothers who had hitherto shunned Themba, believing she would bring them all bad luck, visited her hut with their own babies to share their breast milk with Themba’s ghost-child. They came dutifully at first, with long faces and slumped shoulders, reaching out to bring this hungry white child to their breast as though this were just one more burden in their already heavily burdened lives. But soon enough, that all changed.
Themba prepared the interior of her hut as though it were a palace. She pounded and rubbed her earthen floor with smooth stones until it shone like polished ebony. She laid out clean, woven mats for her new visitors to sit on. She fanned them with a round, reed fan she’d made, to cool them and keep the flies at bay. She kept separate calabashes filled with luxurious thickened sour milk, water, and corn-beer, offering whichever the mothers requested. She entertained their children while their mothers breast fed her Tande.
She told stories — the same stories her mother used to tell her—to amuse them all. She gave the women gifts of thin, beaded cowhide bracelets she’d made to thank them. [. . .] Before long the mothers began to visit Themba’s hut willingly and happily, and they grew to love Themba’s plump, hungry ghost-child—and the pale, slender Themba too.
In Black’s Somewhere Child (Viking Press, 1981), she poignantly transmitted deeply female impulses—to take care of one’s child, to search high and low for them when they disappear, to carry their absence deep in one’s heart. How fitting for this story, to observe from the perspective of two women, one whose life death has stolen and one who was gifted a child against all odds. And when British authorities discover the pale, blond Tande’s presence among the other children, years later, taking him away to “be with his own kind,” Themba, like Tande, disappears from the kraal. In her half-sister’s words, “the people say, ghosts do not die. They just disappear. Tande went off on a horse and Themba walked into the veldt that same night and never came back.” It’s a detail I find endlessly haunting, wholly African. In such a compact way, Black conjures so much. Her love for Africa, for her own unknown ancestry, her deep understanding of loss, death and spirituality, makes this a story that seems to shimmer with an unearthly energy.
Jamie’s Muse contains a remarkable amount of historic information and commentary, yet never feels bogged down. New narrators take over the story, each one contributing a puzzle piece to the equation. Each character is distinct, fleshed out, believable. Clearly Black has as deft a touch with historical fiction as she does with nonfiction, a trait I hope will compel her to return with much more.
Terez Rose (who publishes fiction as Terez Mertes Rose) is the author of the forthcoming novel, A Dancer’s Guide to Africa(Classical Girl Press, Oct 2018). Her writing has appeared in the Crab Orchard Review, Women Who Eat (Seal Press, 2007), A Woman’s Europe (Travelers’ Tales, 2008) and the Philadelphia Inquirer. A former ballet dancer, she is the author of Off Balance and Outside the Limelight (Classical Girl Press, 2015, 2016). She makes her home in the Santa Cruz Mountains, where she blogs as The Classical Girl (www.theclassicalgirl.com).