Wilmington’s literary community keeps gaining accolades (two National Book Awards nominees in 2015) and attention in the press. With multiple established publishers in the state (Algonquin, John F. Blair) and new smaller presses gaining traction (Eno, Bull City), it is timely to shine a light on discussions around literature, publishing and the importance of communicating a truthful story in our present world.
Welcome to Carpe Librum, encore’s biweekly book column. Here, I will dissect a current title with an old book—because literature does not exist in a vacuum but emerges to participate in a larger, cultural conversation. I will feature many NC writers; however, I hope to place the discussion in a larger context and therefore examine works around the world.
The Gerbil Farmer’s Daughter
By Holly Robinson
Harmony Books, 2009, pgs. 287
I like people who are uniquely themselves without apology. Perhaps that’s why “The Gerbil Farmer’s Daughter” caught my eye. It has been sitting in my “to read” pile for the better part of a year. It was worth waiting for.
Author Holly Robinson’s father was a naval officer of the old school (his children call him “Daddy Sir” in the book). Unexpectedly, he orders gerbils from a catalogue. Now, in most families with three small children, the arrival of gerbils would be geared toward the kids. Not so in this case: The kids are told it’s top secret. No one is to know about the gerbils—it would be very “un-Navy.”
Also, these are not pets but property of Daddy Sir. The innocent purchase spirals as the gerbils breed. Daddy Sir’s fascination leads him to write a book about gerbil ownership, publish several scientific papers, and even hold the distinction of being the first person to capture a gerbil having a seizure on film (an unexpected honor, to be sure). The gerbil situation continues to grow until eventually Robinson’s dad has over 9,000 gerbils on a farm and becomes “The Gerbil Czar.”
The idea of writing about the toll monomania has on a person is not new in literature—though perhaps the most well-known novel on the topic is Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick,” which chronicles Captain Ahab’s obsession for finding the white whale and what he puts his crew through as a result. As a book, it definitely captures the sense that aboard a ship is a world set apart from all others. What the captain says is law and it really follows only one storyline. That it holds one’s attention as well as it does (with such a specific group of circumstances) is a testimony to Melville’s talent.
But “The Gerbil Farmer’s Daughter” is real life, about an unwilling group of participants.The kids and mother did not willingly sign on for this ride. Mom married into the Navy, yes—but gerbils? No. The kids, meanwhile, are busy being kids: growing, learning, testing the world. It would be easy for Robinson to have turned the book into a series of iterations of the same joke based upon the title. What makes the memoir much more interesting is, instead, she chooses to write a touching story about her own coming of age against the backdrop of life with The Gerbil Czar. Slowly, Robinson begins to weave in additional threads: her jealousy of her beautiful younger sister, Gail; a child with a halo of golden curls, making Robinson’s basic mousiness even harder for a pre-teen to ignore:
“I longed to have my sister’s heart-shaped face, those dimples, those blonde ringlets, those bottomless dark eyes with their long, dark princess eyelashes.”
Even beauty doesn’t guarantee happiness. By age 3, Gail is sleeping in an oxygen tent. She has cystic fibrosis and passed away before her fifth birthday. As Robinson’s father’s operation grows to thousands of gerbils, he isn’t raising them for fun; he is raising gerbils to sell to scientific and medical research. Anyone bothered by the fate of the gerbils? What if they could help find a cure for cystic fibrosis? How many gerbils would one trade to have their sister back? The question hangs in the air around the family at all times—unspoken but unavoidable.
If the gerbils are tiny animals consuming interest on a large scale for Dad, then Holly and Mom’s interest is riveted by large animals: horses. Every mother-teenage daughter relationship is strained. It is a very difficult time for both parties to communicate and agree. For Robison the place where she and her mother could find common ground and a few moments to enjoy each other was horseback riding. The polar reaction of large animals to the small ones that have taken Dad’s attention from the family is a device so obvious that, were this a novel instead of a memoir, any editor worth their salt would have kindly encouraged the writer to think of something a bit more subtle.
Toward the end of Gail’s short life, when the Robinsons are expecting their fourth child, Holly recalls:
“What I didn’t know was Mom was deliberately, defiantly riding her horse during this pregnancy … she wanted to lose the baby … ‘I just wanted a nice little miscarriage,’ she confessed to me years later. ‘I didn’t think I could face another child being sick like Gail. I didn’t believe I was strong enough to go through that again.’ Dad, for his part, left Gail’s nursing to Mom and retreated deeper and deeper into his mysterious basement world [of gerbils].”
Throughout the book the Robinsons move cross country several times, eventually settling on a farm for gerbil-raising in Massachusetts. The gerbils pay for most of Holly’s college education, a comfortable lifestyle, and eventually bring dad the satisfaction of saying he and the governor of Massachusetts earned the same amount of money in a year. Robinson expertly paints a world where family is the ship they are all on—some more willingly than others—and gerbils are the whale her father chases with them as the crew. She manages to find humor in daily family life, rather than fall into the shock trap of many modern memoirs about how awful and abuse-ridden her childhood was. “The Gerbil Farmer’s Daughter” is an excellent example of what a memoir can be and how a book can be so much more than its title.