Snakes in the grass

Bauxite, Sugar and Mud: Memories of Living in Colonial Guyana

By Ted Smith

A review of Bauxite, Sugar And Mud: Memories Of Living In Colonial Guyana by Patricia Wendy Dathan

Published on April 1, 2007

Bauxite, Sugar And Mud: Memories Of Living In Colonial Guyana
Patricia Wendy Dathan

Shoreline Press
$23.95
paper
240pp
1-896754-45-7

In 1928 Joshua Whalley left England for better prospects at a bauxite mining town in the Guyanese rainforest. His wife Gladys followed him, and took an instant dislike to the place. While there she gave birth to the author of this memoir. Wendy was the first white baby born at Mackenzie, at a time when people made such claims without feeling apologies might be owed to anyone. She loved the place. There were plenty of non-white babies at Mackenzie, but their parents were invisible in the white community: in daytime because they were labourers, and at night because they went home, away from the mine’s office staff, who had their own village.

Although this book is described as creative non-fiction, the author avoids inventing inner lives where she’s found no documentary support for them, so the labourers remain the sum of their activities. The inner lives belong to Wendy, to Gladys through an unpublished memoir, and to other colonials and visitors.

Challenging the colour bar would have been disastrous for Gladys and for her husband’s career. So she was resigned to a social world similar to The Jewel in the Crown, but on a microscopic scale: her arrival in Mackenzie made her the fourth white woman there. Perhaps it was because her community was so small that it was forever ritualizing its identity, from formal dinners at the managing director’s house (‘tails and orders to be worn’) to a ‘stork tea’ for Gladys’s pregnancy. Gladys was soon bored, with servants to do the work and time on her hands. She played tennis after the daytime heat declined, until the lights started attracting flying creatures and one couldn’t see the frogs underfoot. Then it was to the club for sundowners, where no one got drunk or misbehaved for fear of social death. (It’s instructive how quickly Gladys singles out Peachy as ‘not on.’) She looked forward to shopping trips to Georgetown, where you could go ‘without everyone knowing where you were, and with whom.’ By 1942, when the Whalleys left Mackenzie, some un-British loosening-up had arrived along with Canadians from Alcan’s Montreal office. But she was still glad to go.

It is a shame that Gladys never felt at home in Mackenzie, given her genuine frontier qualities. She bravely sucked venom from snakebites acquired on the company golf course; fer-de-lances were one of its hazards. She intrepidly fished on piranha-infested rivers. And although she never entered the jungle – no one did – she vividly described the animals that emerged from it. With Wendy’s arrival the narrative shifts her way, and while the details she provides on her own behalf are just as vivid as her mother’s (she is always sensitive to the domestic trivia that fix a time and place) the tension that went with Gladys’s alienation is missing. Wendy’s adventures will sound familiar to anyone who grew up in the English-speaking world before 1980, and have the appeal of nostalgia; but she rarely gets to play with children not of her own colour. She was cocooned within her white community. What verve the later chapters have comes from letters home to Canada by her teacher, another intrepid woman. They highlight a lack of certainty in Wendy’s own voice that reflects how hard it is to get your life down in print.

One of the perils of childhood memoirs by first-time writers, along with uncertain authorial voices and unduly depressing titles, is unresolved filial resentment. It is not avoided here, in repeated suggestions that Gladys favoured Wendy’s sister. The evidence is that Gladys endured much for her entire family. The truth is that jealousy is as much a part of an ordinary childhood as joy, and about as ephemeral. mRb

Ted Smith is an Ottawa editor and writer.

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