Miss Benson’s Beetle by Rachel Joyce. The Dial Press 2020. 234 pp.
Until she was around five, life had been good for Margery Benson. She and her father were very close and had just been looking at a book about different creatures. They were especially intrigued by a yet to be captured golden beetle, perhaps to be found in New Caledonia. Then her father died tragically, and shortly after that, her mother, and Margery was left to be raised by two not very nurturing aunts and their nasty housekeeper. She was a big and awkward girl with not much going for her. She was still interested in the gold beetle though, and spends some time at a museum researching beetles. After that though she ends up as a spinster schoolteacher and not very popular with her class.
Suddenly, and just on a whim, she decides to sell everything she owns to hire an assistant and go to New Caledonia to look for the golden beetle.
The time is just after WW II, and the first person she interviews is a man just out of a prison camp in Burma and rather damaged. She turns him down much to his disappointment and for most of the rest of the book he stalks her. Margery ends up with Enid Pretty – totally the opposite of Margery, with her pink suit and high heels. They are the most unlikely pair but yet a perfect match and become the best of friends.
While Margery has researched everything and brought along all the equipment they need, she really does not know how to use anything while Bile Enid just takes to everything like a duck to water. While hacking through the brush to reach the top of the mountain where they may find the beetle, Marge, as Enid calls her, realizes that with her bad hip and totally unathletic body, this all was a bad idea, and they should “pack it in.” But there is no stopping Enid, so the hunt is still on.
So much is still to happen. The book is at times tragic, sad, crazy and hilarious. It is not on any lists for some prize, but it should be. I just loved it and kept going back to reread it in places. C.M.
Three Came Home by Agnes Newton Keith. Little Brown and Company 1947. 316 pp
This is a book I read years ago and have just read again. It is the middle book of a trilogy about British North Borneo. The author, Agnes Keith, an American, married an Englishman who was a conservator of forests in North Borneo. The first book of the trilogy, Land Below the Wind, talks about life in Sandakan, the capital city with an interesting population including Chinese, Philippinos, and Malayans. Agnes Keith and her husband Harry took several trips through the jungle to visit different tribes, observing how they lived.
The book begins in the spring of 1940 when George, the Keith’s baby son, was born. It was a time when the people of Borneo were very worried about what Japan seemed to be planning. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the invasion by the Japanese army was inevitable. By 1942 all Europeans in Borneo were imprisoned, men and women in separate camps. A number of Catholic sisters were sent to a nearby island.
Colonel Suga, in charge of all jails and prisons in Borneo, ordered Agnes to come to his office. He had read her book Land Below the Wind and liked it very much. Now he told her she must write a book about being an internee. She agreed to do that and entitled it Captivity. But secretly she wrote a true story on scraps of paper which she secreted away, and this book was the result. She is also a good artist, and her drawings appear throughout the book. One reason I found this book fascinating is that I was born in Sandakan. I have always hoped to travel east and visit Borneo, but it’s too late now. P.M.