Anyone who researches their family history of the twentieth century is inevitably confronted by a wall of silence about something or other. These secrets are often about events that occurred before we were born and now that the holders of those secrets are dying the story of these tragedies becomes even more difficult to retrieve.
Kristina Olsson and her family have done the difficult task of unravelling their family secrets. They are exposed in her book, Boy, Lost: A Family Memoir. It won Kristina Olsson the nonfiction prize at the Queensland Literary Awards and has been shortlisted many times. Yesterday the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge published an interview I did with Kristina Olsson in which she gives insights into how she wrote her book. This book has impressed many people but it was a difficult story to tell.
Olsson’s mother, Yvonne had a short, unhappy marriage. Her husband was violent. Yvonne fled with her infant son, Peter. If only that was all that had happened. Yvonne’s husband entered the train and snatched Peter from her arms. That was it. Peter grew up without his mother. His life was difficult, very difficult.
Yvonne tried to find Peter and to claim custody of him, but Peter’s father had clearly and aggressively asserted his desire for custody. As so many other mothers can attest, women in this situation in the late 1940s and 1950s had no hope of gaining custody of their children in this situation. Olsson reports that the man at the public trustee’s office put it to Yvonne that Peter would have much better chance in life with his father than with a single mother.
Olsson connects Yvonne and Peter’s story to that of thousands of other mothers and children in twentieth century history:
In these years of rampant theft: the children of Indigenous families snatched from their mothers, the children of the poor seized and charged with neglect – as if they are wilfully, stubbornly, shamelessly poor – and thrown into children’s homes; the babies of unmarried women forcibly adopted out; those of disadvantaged British parents taken from their parents and brought alone to institutions in remote parts of Australia. Each family was told: Your child will have a better life.
Boy, Lost, pp. 75-76.
Peter’s life was hard and miserable. Yvonne resumed life but in a corner of her heart there was a sadness that she could not lock up. She knew her son needed her but she could never be with him. Yvonne and her family dealt with the hurt in the way that most families handled these issues at the time. They continued life and never talked about it. Never.
Boy, Lost: A Family Memoir goes further than recounting Yvonne and Peter’s story. There is a reason for the subtitle. Yvonne remarried and had more children after Peter was removed. Her second husband was everything that her first was not. On the surface Yvonne’s family life was happy but the sadness seeped from under the lid which sealed the secret. It affected her children even though they did not know they had a brother and did not know about Yvonne’s first marriage to a cruel husband.
This is just one of thousands of stories about family tragedies in twentieth century Australia. Children too young to understand or who were born after the sad events are also affected by the wordless secret. The secret becomes a burden these children have to bear:
We knew questions were off-limits. The story had its own force-field, our mother’s sadness as effective as any electric fence. So we learned to live alongside it, or rather, beneath it, conceding to its terms as we conceded to anaesthetic for our various childhood maladies – tonsils, ears and teeth. Learned not to notice – not consciously – the fierceness of her compensations: the pull and push of need, the nearness and distance of love. We learned, as children do, to behave in ways that might make her, if not happy, then less unhappy.
Boy, Lost, p. 3
While Peter finally reunited with his mother as an adult, Yvonne’s most painful memories remained untold when Yvonne died. There are snatches from the archives such as a birth certificate or a hospital record. There are the memories of Yvonne’s younger siblings who witnessed fragments of the story and heard voices behind closed doors. But they were excluded from the full story and too young to comprehend the wisps that fluttered their way. Little was written down and stored. Why would it be?
The issue of missing evidence is a common problem for those writing about historical crimes or people who were regarded as unimportant in the past such as women and indigenous people. Kristina Olsson knew the bare bones of the story behind the first marriage but she needed to provide more to in order to create a coherent story which effectively conveyed the issues Yvonne faced. As Kristina Olsson discusses in her interview for the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge, she decided she needed to ‘re-imagine’ some of the story.
Reimagining aspects of people’s lives is very difficult to pull off and fraught with ethical issues. Olsson makes it clear to the reader that while she sticks rigidly to historical evidence she fleshes out part of the story using her imagination. How much should be reimagined, particularly intimate details of somebody’s life is one for the judgement of the writer. A danger is that the imaginative recreation of aspects of a story can be overdone and take the form of a florid embellishment. Boy, Lost does not exhibit this problem. The reimagination is used with discipline to convey the emotional truth of the situation facing Yvonne. The pain felt by Yvonne and Peter reaches out from the pages and hits the reader. This is not a cosy read.
The other minefield that Olsson has to negotiate is the memories of family members. Each member has some fragments of the story, some of them tiny, each one not properly understood. These fragments have faded or been reinterpreted over time. Put simply “there was more than one version of the events” as Olsson explains in her interview. We might wish that one simple, definitive truth can be told in history. Boy, Lost demonstrates that imperfect memories and the desire to conceal painful episodes means that writing history can never be an exact task and requires what Kristina Olsson has given it in this book – empathy, fairness and a commitment to truth. How the writer applies these qualities differs from person to person.
Above all Boy, Lost is one small story that allows us to peek into a dark period of the history of women, children and families in twentieth century Australia. Those family secrets held by too many Australian families are an important part of our history but very difficult to uncover. Through Boy, Lost Kristina Olsson shows one way that families can deal with them.
Just as I was about to publish this I found that Boy, Lost has been declared the joint winner of the non-fiction prize at the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards! Last year it won the nonfiction prize at the Queensland Literary Awards and has been shortlisted for many other prizes.
This review is part of my contribution to the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge. Other reviews of this book have been written by Janine Rizzetti and Paula Grunseit. I enjoyed reading Jessica White’s personal observations of the book.