“My father’s escape was the yellow-painted metal mailbox on a post by the privet hedge. Almost every day it contained a letter for him from somewhere else — flimsy aerograms or heavy bond paper with official-looking seals. At the age of ten I learned that it was possible for me, too, to write to strangers and have them write back to me. Suddenly, I could see a way to widen my world by writing away to all the places where I imagined history happened and culture came from.”
A young Geraldine Brooks sees her life in a suburb of Sydney, Australia as lacking in adventure. She assumes that any place far away must be more exciting than her house on Bland street (yes, she really lived on a street named Bland) and when by chance her father encourages her to write to a girl in Australia, Geraldine finally gets a chance to “get out” of her small world.
Having the one pen pal though just sparks more interest for Geraldine in wanting to know what youths in other parts of the world are going through. As the memoir unfolds she recounts the changes in culture and atmosphere that are taking place Australia during the 60s and 70s and as she sets out to write letters seeking pen pals from the Middle East, France, and America she finds their differences are sometimes not all that great.
As the years pass by some of the letters become more infrequent and others simply stop, even Geraldine herself is increasingly becoming busier with her schoolwork and early career as a journalist, but for her these relationships meant something. Before she knows it, she is leading a fascinating career as a globe-trotting reporter and she finally gets to visit some of the faraway and dangerous places she often dreamt about. Her memories of her pen pals are with her as she sees some of these places and she decides to find her pen pals.
Of all her pen pals, it is a girl from America, Joannie, whose story was the most bittersweet to read about. Their friendship started over a love of Star Trek and was fueled by their idealism and rails against social injustices. Over the years though, Joannie transforms from a vibrant young woman to one suffering from depression and an eating disorder. I can’t help but think that although she enjoyed reconnecting with her friends it is this relationship that left a more lasting impression on Brooks.
It was lovely to see how some of her pen pals to whom she had stopped corresponding with for many years and finally tracked down where shocked to hear from their pen pal, not surprisingly, but though years had passed by they still seemed just like the boys and girls she communicated with so long ago. After the initial shock most of them were happy to share where life had taken them and reconnect with an old friend.
When I started the book I was expecting a lot of excerpts from letters to her pen pals but instead I got small but fascinating glimpse into an Australian childhood. Brooks is funny, charming and inquisitive. For anyone who loves travel, armchair or otherwise, and loves checking the mailbox for letters this is one not to miss.
Source: Library Copy