Finding Theodore and Brina



review by Donna Lee Brien





Finding Theodore and Brina
Terri-ann White
Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 2001
232pp, $19.95rrp
ISBN 1 86368 337 2


A number of recent books have taken family histories, real and imagined, as their subject. In the last two months I have read Beyond Duck River by Angela Martin (Hodder Headline Australia, 2001) and Remembering Malcolm Macquarrie by Maggie Blick (Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 2001) and now, Terri-ann White's Finding Theodore and Brina. Each of these writers stretches her story across a number of generations of an Australian family to write, in the process, a previously unexplored slice of Australian history. Perhaps it is a sign of the new millennium, or the end of the old, or all the talk of black-armbanding, or even the fanfare attending the opening of the long-awaited National Museum of Australia in Canberra, but the past seems firmly on the agenda in fiction as well as non-fiction prose. In White's work (as that of Martin and Blick) it is the narrator's own past, alongside that of her ancestors, who drive the story.

So I decide that the first story I will start with is mine: how I was formed and where I belong. It takes a little fortitude to absorb the details from history, the exclusions and hardships of those who came before me that have not been part of my life. (211)

This is history writing from the family level up, with national events (like wars) as the background, but individual stories to the fore.

The narrator of this story begins with a pair of relatives who travelled from London to Australia in the 1850s. Both were Jewish - Theodore, her great-great-grandfather, was a convict while Brina, her great-great-grandmother, was an unmarried emigrant on supported passage - and through their lives and those of their descendants, the narrator uncovers and reveals the transgressions and secrets that have remained hidden within her family. These people kept silent about many taboos, but her discovery of madness, crime, illegitimate births, loss of faith and miscegenation forces the narrator not only to confront the truth about her family and herself, but, looking outward, to Australia itself.

These personal, even private, stories are vividly, movingly and imaginatively told. Some can be contained in a paragraph, others spread across a chapter or more. Not wanting to spoil the pleasure of discovery, I will quote just one of these, a brief one.

There was another man named Theodore Krakouer who lived in Sydney in the 1970s and who had spent all of his money on the costs involved in preserving his parents' bodies in a funeral parlour... Eventually, the money dried up and the two long-deceased bodies had to go somewhere: into the ground or burned? The customer had been a firm believer in cryogenics, but this loving son could feed his habit, or faith, no longer. Those bodies had been stored in the funeral parlour for twenty years. So the story goes. (132)

As the narrator traces the branches of her family tree, she finds meaning in the recurring patterns of love, sex and shame, of pain and the fear of death, of madness, and especially in the cycle of pregnancies, births and deaths she discovers. These are all personal concerns but major historical events are also represented within these tales, and thus the narrative moves from why one woman gives up her baby to why another becomes a Fifth Columnist, her life animated by the passions of politics. Similarly, the narrator becomes emeshed in wider concerns:

I am in a fug from reading the discussions since the start of the nation, the counter-histories, the eyewitness accounts. I absorb catchphrases and could parrot back to you any number of theories about race and the establishment of Australia; it keeps me awake at night. (122)

This is also a story of Perth - although Theodore arrives on the Mermaid in 1851, moments of the Swan River Colony's history are traced from its shaky beginnings as an unsuccessful settler colony in 1829 until it materialises as the narrator's modern late-twentieth century city.

The narrator tells us she is the 'keeper of secrets, the family archivist, hiding behind a signature and a barrage of words' (20) and hers is certainly, at least in part, the story of the almost unwilling family historian who is increasingly drawn into this strange pastime as she pieces together fragments of the past:

My head holds these dead people. I have fallen unwittingly into a pastime about which I am sceptical. I see people in libraries and archives and Family History Centres, obsessed with finding traces of family in microform, in scraps of paper, officially, and sometimes arbitrarily, preserved for posterity. Going blind, forgetting about their own lives, learning to love a different intensity of light in this search for clues. (67)

Finding Theodore and Brina becomes also, because of this self-consciousness of the narrator, in part, a meta-discourse about the writer's process and progress, the difficulties and pleasures of research, the improbable coincidences, the secrets uncovered, the amazing stories found. The narrator discovers shame, amnesia and avoidance, but 'well aware of the dangers of desiring a dramatic family biography', is motivated by a desire to remember the forgotten: 'I don't want to forget Theodore and Brina but it appears everybody else in the world already has' (25). But the records are scant and the narrator has to make sense of these silences, 'what is found and what is not there' (23), as well as to deal with the fragmented nature of memory and how the past is sometimes misremembered.

I have carefully used 'the narrator' rather than 'the author' above, although often I was tempted to understand these as one and the same. Finding Theodore and Brina reads as a creative nonfiction rendering of family history/memoir which includes clearly signposted fictionalised and imagined sections alongside readily identifiable people (the footballing Krakouer brothers for instance) and quotes documents and references which can be (with slightly more effort) verified. But I am wary. Once, not that long ago, I mistook Carol Shields' The Stone Diaries (Fourth Estate, London, 1993) for a marvellous (fictionalised) biography of Daisy Flett. Just as the lack of footnotes or listed references did not signpost fiction for me in Shields' case, here the fact that White's book is listed by the publishers as fiction does not totally convince me that it is a wholly invented tale. The book works wonderfully as fiction, but all my instincts tell me Finding Theodore and Brina is White's innovative way of writing a version of her family history. This method certainly incorporates fictional imagined passages, the narrator revealing she is 'circling around fantasy and what I know, both from the present and the past' (159-60) and is '[o]pen to persuasion, to changing my mind, to imaginings, to seeing the world in entirely different ways' (160) but the result reads as somehow 'true'.

This weaving through of the real with the imagined makes engrossing and thought-provoking reading, whatever genre we might label the product.



Donna Lee Brien is a Lecturer in Creative Writing at QUT in Brisbane.

Terri-ann White's Finding Theodore and Brina is also reviewed in this issue by Molly Travers

In October 1997 Terri-ann White published an early extract of this work in TEXT.



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Vol 5 No 2 October 2001
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Tess Brady