Keef and More Keef: Getting to Know Agnes and Harry Keith

When I was just a tyke, our friends the Keiths came to dinner, and I, the story goes, was at the door to greet them. “Hi, Keef!” said I as Agnes entered, and to Harry, after a moment’s reflection, “Hi, More Keef!”

The affable, worldly Keiths were particular friends of our family. Early on I appreciated that Agnes was an author; that they had lived in North Borneo; that they had, with their young son George, been in a Japanese prison camp during the War. Agnes Newton Keith’s several memoirs of life, travel and tribulation, published in Boston, occupied places of pride in our library.

mum Harry AgnesMy mother Virginia, Harry Keith, Agnes Newton Keith, 1950. Album of family photos by (and of) Harry Keith during this period.

Occasionally, during their infrequent returns to Canada from the far-flung places Harry was posted to — he was latterly a forester with the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization — we would go to their home on Island Road for dinner. They lived in a 1912 Craftsman house, brown-shingled, sitting on a rocky outcrop on one of those Oak Bay streets that resemble country lanes, surrounded by a regular arboretum of conifers (I was told Harry planted them), quite dark inside, with dark-stained wood, but with a hundred wonders — I recall a stool made of an elephant foot. I especially remember the charm, elegance and cosmopolitan aura of Harry and Agnes — he very British, always it seems to me in a tweed jacket, grey flannels and a tie, smoking Player’s Navy Cut cigarettes from a tin box, she in a silken sheath dress, her hair drawn back in a  tight bun. Harry had a twinkle in his eye and a distinctive laugh, and he laughed often — usually at human folly and vanity. Agnes’s dry voice was memorable for its slurred S’s. She and dad often quarreled over political issues. He and Agnes were, he wrote in his memoirs, “both addicted to speaking our minds.”* He  recorded an instance where she called him a sanctimonious son of a bitch. They always patched it up, I think. Agnes was liberal to a degree. She confessed to having smoked marijuana in her college days — “We all experimented; It was no big deal.” In 1965 we were introduced to their cook Lena, who they had hired while in Libya. Lena was from Sicily, and she served a full Italian dinner, with pasta to begin. I tucked in to that and barely had room for the main course. With a lot of good-natured ribbing Lena encouraged me to have more of everything. Over dinner Agnes and I debated the relative beauty of Japanese and Chinese women. I was fond of the Japanese visage, Agnes not so much.

* Musings on Medicine by Gordon Hunter Grant (Portland, Ore: Metropolitan Press, 1984), p. 124.

785 Island Road785 Island Road, April 2014. Courtesy Google Earth.

I recall Harry, some time after we moved to St. David Street in 1978, remonstrating, “Christ, why do you want to live in Oak Bay? You can’t sleep for the sound of cracking pelvises.”

Agnes and Harry died within months in 1982. More than 25 years later, Lena was still living at the Island Road home.

In this reconstruction of the lives and careers of Agnes and Harry, those fascinating people, a central narrative retraces the genesis and early life of their elder child Jean. Between 1939 and 1975, Agnes published six memoirs, three about Borneo, and the novel Beloved Exiles. Agnes’s books are scanty on Jean, whereas George did a star turn in Three Came Home while a little boy. When Jean  does turn up, Agnes’s writing takes on a veil of ambiguity. Erroneous information about the Keiths and their children floats around, meanwhile, as in a biographical sketch of the author by the Bancroft Library at the University of California at Berkeley, where we learn that Jean was born after 1950.* Information easily unearthed with the digital tools of genealogy can, with interpretive skill, clarify some facts of Jean’s early life. While the identity of her mother is not to be found here, it can be said with confidence that Agnes was not Jean’s mother.

* Experiencing Borneo with Agnes Newton Keith, Bancroft Library website, dated January 2009.

Herewith, a reconsidering of published versions of family history in the light of independent genealogical research. This article was motivated partly by a desire to sort out fact from conjecture.  Agnes Newton Keith, UC Berkeley Class of 1924, is owed a more truthful record.

I suggest there’s another story to tell: how Agnes married into an unusual, peculiarly British colonial, family structure; how she came to terms with it; how her adaptation is reflected in her writings, particularly the novel. From outside evidence we can glimpse how a mixed-race alliance is veiled in Agnes Keith’s memoirs and, in the novel, dramatized. Prevailing attitudes to sexuality and race and their depiction in published works doubtless played a role in those literary devisings.

2.

Henry George Keith — Harry — was born in 1899 in New Zealand.(1) His father was also Henry George, and so was his son. Henry, Senior was born in Kentucky state in about 1868 to a Scottish father and a mother born in West Virginia.(2) Harry’s mother Agnes Emma Beale was born in Ashwell, Herefordshire, England, in 1856.(3) When Henry, Senior and Agnes Emma were married in New Zealand in 1897, she had the name Scott.(4) Henry G. Keith turns up in the 1900 Wise´s New Zealand Post Office Directory living at the Criterion Hotel, New Plymouth.(5) In 1910 they were living in Miami, Florida; he listed his occupation as truck farmer. She (and likely the family) had immigrated to the United States in 1909.(6) In 1918 they lived in San Diego; Henry G. Keith was listed in the city directory as a mining engineer; Agnes was a maid in the U. S. Grant Hotel.(7) In the 1920 census for Santa Barbara City, California Henry’s occupation was collector of art. Agnes E. Keith was 54 (sic), born in England, as were her mother and father.

(1) List of Manifest of Alien Passengers for the United States Sailing from Hong Kong, China, April 1, 1934. Ancestry.com. ¶ (2) 1920 US Census, Santa Barbara City, California, ward 23, sheet 3A. Ancestry.com. ¶ (3) Province of British Columbia Registration of Death no. 55-09-001053. British Columbia Archives. ¶ (4) New Zealand, Marriage Index, 1840-1934. Ancestry.com. ¶ (5) New Zealand, City & Area Directories, 1866-1954. Ancestry.com. Indexed by Ancestry World Archives Project contributors. ¶ (6) 1910 US Census, Miami City, Dade County, Florida. Ancestry.com. ¶ (7) San Diego City Directory 1918, p. 517. Ancestry.com.

Agnes Jones Goodwillie Newton — Agnes — was born in Illinois in 1901(1) and grew up in California. Her father Joseph Gilbert Newton was born in England in 1866,(2) immigrated in the 1880s and listed his occupation as manager of a wholesale company in the 1910 census for Hollywood, California.(3) In one source he is associated with the precursor of Del Monte Foods, Inc.(4) Agnes’s mother, Grace Darlington Goodwillie, was born in Illinois in 1873. Her grandmothers Goodwillie and Jones came from Pennsylvania.(5)

(1) or 1902. On the manifest of passengers aboard SS Republic sailing Southampton-New York November 27, 1926, Agnes gave her date of birth as July 6, 1902. The Social Security Death Index for SSN 535-36-3715 gives Agnes’s date of birth as July 6, 1901. (Both from Ancestry.com.) ¶ (2) Baptisms in the parish of St Thomas, Camden Town, Middlesex County, 18 October 1866: Joseph Gilbert born to Mary and Albert Newton, seed merchant. Ancestry.com. ¶ (3) 1910 US Census, Los Angeles County, Hollywood Precinct 2, Sheet #8. Ancestry.com. ¶ (4) Keith, Agnes Newton page on ABC Bookworld website. ¶ (5) 1900 US Census, Cicero Township, Cook County, Illinois, on Ancestry.com.

In her memoirs, Agnes told the stories of her early years in bits and pieces.

Although my birth certificate has vanished, my parents are sure that I was born, and the evidence points to Oak Park, Illinois. While still helpless, I was carried to Hollywood, California …

When I was ten we moved to Venice [California] … for the health of my brother, Al….

Three Came Home by Agnes Newton Keith (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1947; an Atlantic Monthly Press Book), p. 6.

Agnes met Harry when they were kids:

One summer when I was a little girl I went on a holiday to San Diego with my mother and brother, Al. There we met an English boy called Harry who traded postage stamps with Al. Harry at fourteen had stamps from the King of Siam, a piece of porcelain from an Asian Empress, a prayer mat from a Baghdad bazaar, the accent of an English school boy, a beautiful smile and curly hair. If anything else was needed to win our approval it was supplied by his parents who had lived every place, acquiring rare stamps, Persian rugs, antique ikons, art items of much value and little use, and mining stock of neither.

Bare Feet in The Palace by Agnes Newton Keith (Little, Brown, 1955), p. 31.

My sister Virginia, who knew the Keiths far better than I, relates: “Agnes and Harry told me that it was when she whizzed down a water slide and into Harry’s arms that she knew she’d marry him.”

Agnes’s narrative traces an acquaintance  through World War I, during which Harry served in the US Navy, and into college at UC Berkeley:

The following summer [1914] we saw him in Los Angeles, and the summer after that in Santa Barbara, while he and Al became close friends, and little sister tagged along. With the third summer  we received a letter postmarked by United States Naval Forces. With the declaration of war by the United States [1917] he had enlisted in the nearest Navy. He was still under age and light-weight, he said, but he knew that he could fight as well as anyone!

A second letter reported that he was on a cruiser as gunner’s mate, and a third one came saying that we as stamp collectors should remove the stamps from his letters. We did so, and learned that the cruiser had sunk a sub.

Bare Feet in The Palace, p. 31.

I was a freshman in the University of California in Berkeley when Harry enrolled there in the Forestry School after peace came, and we met again. I had a King Tut bob and wore long green earrings, when at last I achieved my triumph and he saw me as a woman.

Bare Feet in The Palace, p. 32.

1924 sorority pix A J NewtonAgnes Newton’s sorority page in the Blue and Gold Yearbook, University of California at Berkeley, 1924, on Ancestry.com. Agnes is top row, second from R.

The relationship took a serious turn after they completed their studies, but she turned down Harry’s proposal of marriage, and he left for the Philippines:

By the end of four years Harry had a profession, and I an ambition to write. Through writing a series of articles in defense of Flaming Youth I landed a job as reporter on the San Francisco Examiner. Harry was to leave immediately for forestry work in the Philippine Islands. The night before he left he asked me to marry him. Having kissed the Prophet’s toe for years, I turned infidel — and let him go alone. A few months later he accepted a position in Government Service in British North Borneo as Assistant Conservator of Forests.

Bare Feet in The Palace, p. 33.

A ten-year (1924-34) hiatus in the relationship followed. Their separate lives were certainly eventful.

Agnes was attacked by a stranger on a San Francisco street, bashed in the head with a pipe and seriously injured:

From [the University of California at Berkeley] I graduated with two engagement rings, a sorority pin, a prize for essay writing, a respect for learning, and a promise of a job on the San Francisco Examiner.

I worked on the paper for eight months and two things happened: I was almost murdered by one man, and my heart was broken by another …

A loafer on the streets … crazed by drugs and alcohol … decided to kill the first person who came out of the Examiner office, and I was that person. He swung on me with a two-foot length of iron pipe, and struck my head twice before anyone could stop him, and fractured my skull front and back …

Three Came Home, pp. 6-7.

Agnes’s recovery was a long tribulation broken by rewarding travel:

After two years of illness, hoping that a change would help, my father sent me to Europe with Al, who was going to study an engineering project …

Al was the best travelling companion in the world because he let nothing interfere with enjoyment … we toured on foot, horseback, by ford and train throughout England, France, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Albania, Montenegro, and I ceased the need to forget …

Three Came Home, p. 7.

I rented a garage and typewriter and settled down to be a writer. Then without warning I lost the use of my eyes … and for two years I could not read a page of print … I tried modeling clothes, and because of a photogenic face I did bits in the movies …

Three Came Home, p. 8.

“… and my heart was broken …” Who broke Agnes’s heart? Not Harry. Agnes wrote of the episode only that “I learned through it what qualities I wanted in a husband when I married again.” * She is listed in the 1930 federal census living at home, single, age 28. Presumably her first marriage began and ended after that — and “married” may be metaphoric; no record comes up; there is no knowledge of it in my family.

* Three Came Home, p. 6.

In her first book, Land Below the Wind (1939) Agnes provided a crisp summary of the corporate British colony where Harry ended up working:

North Borneo is a British Protectorate which is administered by a Governor and Civil Service appointed by the British North Borneo (Chartered) Company, and it is the sole remaining country in the British Empire to be administered by a chartered company. …

The state of North Borneo lies between four degrees and seven degrees north of the equator, and covers the northern tip of the Island of Borneo, which is the third largest island in the world. It has a population of about 270,000 and its Civil Service numbers, all told, some seventy persons. …

Land Below the Wind by Agnes Newton Keith (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1939), p. 4.

Borneo N map on 8 c stampPostage stamp (1950) shows the colony of North Borneo and the location of its capital Sandakan. Sabah, as North Borneo is now known, became part of Malaysia in 1963. It encloses 73,631 sq km, more than twice the size of Vancouver Island but not quite one-tenth that of the island of Borneo. Thanks delcampe.net.

Harry’s work as Conservator of Forests in North Borneo is given context in Tregonning’s A History of Modern Sabah. The timber trade evolved in the 1880s, stimulated by Chinese demand:

In 1887 news of a probable great railway expansion in China, with sleepers needed for hundreds of miles of track, was followed by the installation in 1888 of the first efficient sawmill. Billian, the North Borneo hardwood, found a ready sale. The British Borneo Trading and Planting Company was boasting by 1890 that it employed a larger staff than the North Borneo government. In that year $44,584 worth of timber was exported, mainly in sailing vessels to China. Twelve years later … exports had risen to $374,911, and were second only to tobacco … 

A History of Modern Sabah (North Borneo 1881-1963) by K. G. Tregonning (Singapore: University of Malaya Press, second edition, 1965), p. 82.

The forest products trade, based almost entirely on raw log exports, continued to prosper until World War I, when sources of capital dried up. In 1920 the newly capitalized British Borneo Timber Company obtained a 25-year monopoly to “to cut, collect and export timber on all State land. This meant virtual control of all timber cut and exported from North Borneo, and forced the smaller companies to procure licences from, and to be directed by, this new colossus.” (History of Modern Sabah, p. 83) The export trade burgeoned:

Timber, mainly in log with a small proportion of cut planks, was exported now in ever-increasing amounts. The trade to Australia was revived, and 164,000 cubic feet was exported there in 1922, when timber exports totalled 1,919,159 cubic feet. After Hong Kong, Japan and the United Kingdom were the main markets. By 1930 this trade had increased to 3,525,452 cubic feet, valued at $2½ million. (ditto, p. 84)

The proprietary colony’s Forestry Department started to set aside reserves in 1923. Harry Keith was hired to manage the program.

By 1937 the Reserves totaled 291,307 acres, 1.55 per cent of the total land area, compared to Forest Reserves in Malaya which totalled 27 per cent. This figure was low in spite of the urgings of H. G. Keith, the erudite and outspoken Conservator of Forests, who attempted in face of much government apathy to protect and develop what was perhaps the finest asset possessed by the company. (ditto, emphasis added)

After entering the colonial service as Assistant Conservator of Forests in 1925, Harry was promoted Acting Conservator of Forests and Acting Director of Agriculture in 1926 and, in 1931, confirmed as both.(1) He spoke out about the forces eating away at the forest, be it high-grade logging of Borneo’s mixed hardwood forests or indigenous shifting agriculture.(2) To judge from the abysmally low percentage of area protected (1.55%), the company did a good job of locking its assets away from Harry the proto-environmentalist.

(1) Historical Sabah: Society and Community by Danny Wong Tze Ken (Kota Kinabalu: Natural History Publications, 2004), p. 147.

(2) Among Harry’s published works, invariably as H. G. Keith, all now scarce:  Forestry in the State of North Borneo: A statement prepared for the Fourth British Empire Forestry Conference (South Africa) 1935 (Sandakan: Conservator of Forests, 1935). ¶  The Timbers of North Borneo. North Borneo Forest Records No. 3 (1st: Colony of North Borneo, 1947. 2nd: Sandakan: Sunshine Printing & Co., 1954). ¶ A Preliminary List of North Borneo Plant Names (Government of the Colony of North Borneo, 1952). ¶ The United States Consul and the Yankee Raja. Monograph of the Brunei Museum Journal No.4 (Kota Batu: Brunei Museum, 1980).

Timber exports continued to grow to a record 6,272,011 cubic feet in 1937 when “Sandakan had become one of the great timber ports of the world.”

Sandakan was the capital of North Borneo, and in that city was the home of the erudite and outspoken Conservator of Forests.

http://mynorthborneostamps.blogspot.ca/2015_02_01_archive.htmlView of Sandakan circa 1939. Courtesy My North Borneo Stamps blog. Used by kind permission. See “Pre WWII Censor Mail.” The date of this  postally-used postcard view is inferred from the back, where the North Borneo mail censor’s frank appears.

3.

Harry’s daughter Jean Alison was born on August 30, 1927 in Sandakan.(1) Some accounts have it that Jean’s mother was Agnes. Counting back nine months from August 30, 1927 puts Jean’s likely time of conception in late November 1926. Where was Agnes? She and her brother Alfred sailed from Southampton, UK on November 27 aboard SS Republic, bound for New York.(2)

(1) USA Petition for Naturalization no. 53829. Seattle, 14 April 1960. Washington, Naturalization Records, 1904-1991. Ancestry.com. ¶ (2) New York Passenger Lists, 1820-1957. Ancestry.com.

In a recent study of North Borneo  society in colonial days we find this gloss on “liaisons with local women:”

During the period of Chartered Company rule in Sabah it was not uncommon for European administrators to form liaisons with local women. Such a practice occurred throughout the British Empire, though with local variants. Need of companionship as well as carnal needs saw this practice being condoned by most colonial administrations including the Chartered Company, albeit unofficially. Strictly speaking, it was considered improper, thus little written information is available for a proper treatment of the subject. The Chartered Company’s fortnightly newspaper, the British North Borneo Herald, for instance, is almost silent on this matter. …

Even the husband of the celebrated author Agnes Keith is known to have had a local girl before he married Agnes. …

Historical Sabah, p. 88. I wrote to the author months ago asking for the source of the information about Harry having “had” a local girl.

Soon Harry’s parents settled in Oak Bay. Harry arrived in Victoria on June 24, 1929 aboard SS Tyndareus from Hong Kong. Canadian Immigration Service notation reported his intention to spend “6 months in Canada, then to B N Borneo.”(1) The 1930 Wrigley’s British Columbia Directory lists Henry G. Keith, retired, living at 785 Island Road, Victoria.(2)

(1) Ancestry.com. Canadian Passenger Lists, 1865-1935. ¶ (2) British Columbia City Directories, 1860-1955. Vancouver Public Library. http://www.vpl.ca/bccd/index.php/browse/index

Harry returned to North America in 1934 with his daughter and her amah (nursemaid).

List or Manifest of Alien Passengers for the United States Immigration Officer at Port of Arrival

SS Asia Passengers Sailing from Hong Kong, China. April 1, 1934
Arriving at Port of San Pedro, California (in Transit to Vancouver, B.C.), May 2, 1934
Keith, Henry George, age 35; place of birth New Plymouth, New Zealand; last permanent residence Sandakan, North Borneo
Keith, Jean Alison, age 6 yr 6 mo; place of birth Sandakan, N Borneo; last permanent residence Hong Kong
Tsang Yin Kwan, female, age 26 yr 2 mo, calling or occupation Amah, place of birth Fan Yi, China; last permanent residence Hong Kong

California Passenger and Crew Lists, 1882-1957. Ancestry.com.

At San Pedro, California, the amah was, according to a handwritten note on the manifest, “ordered detained on vessel. Will be returned to Hong-Kong by the Steamship Co.” Yet  a stamp shows “shore leave San Pedro granted — 3.” — Three what, hours? days? Three people? There’s another hand-written note about  Harry and Jean: they had no transit visa. “Authority secured from State for department to waive blanket visa for Mr. Keith and daughter Jean. Aliens departed from this port May 3 on SS Santa Rosa en route Vancouver.”

1934 passengers Keith

It’s possible the amah Tsang Yin Kwan, travelling with Harry and Jean, was really the girl’s mother. The amah and the girl both lived in Hong Kong. Of course, Jean could have been at a residential school in Hong Kong. But then why would a Chinese amah be travelling to North America? Surely cosmopolitan Harry was aware of the US Immigration Act of 1924, which rigorously denied Chinese people entry to America. Canada had a similar law, the 1923 Chinese Immigration Act. My guess is it was an act of desperation. Who would have been so desperate? Or else it was intended she would be returned. I’m stumped.

Column 17 on the manifest contains information that a scholar might find meaningful. For the “name and complete address of nearest relative or friend in country whence alien came,” the amah gave Mr. J. Grose, 55 Conduit Road, Hong Kong. John Francis Grose was a Hong Kong share broker. He was principal of J. F. Grose & Co. He appears on the Hong Kong Jurors Lists from 1924-41, living at 55 Conduit Road.(1) He left a couple of possible linkages with Harry Keith. Grose and Keith both show up in the annual reports 1927-30 of the Hong Kong Botanical and Forestry Department as donors and/or recipients of “seeds, plants &c.”(1)  More telling, Grose was a founding member, in 1930, of the Welfare League.(2) The league’s founding statement asserted “the existence of a Eurasian community on whose behalf they should act.” By “Eurasian” was  meant “the offspring of a union where the mother is Chinese and the father is Occidental.” The league’s aims were “focused on charity.”(3) Grose was Eurasian himself, and he enjoyed the best of it, cultivating identities as the European depicted above — he seems to have prospered by his Anglo connections in the British colony — and as the Chinese gentleman Ko Po-Sham.(4) Both show up on a list  of masters at Queen’s College, Hong Kong in 1905.(5)

(1) Hong Kong Government Reports Online. ¶ (2) Eurasian: Mixed Identities in the United States, China, and Hong Kong, 1842–1943 by Emma Jinhua Teng, University of California Press, 2013, p. 234.
¶ (3) Eurasian, p. 243. ¶ (4) Henry Ching, comment on Gwulo: Old Hong Kong website, 2015-04-21, re: “Ernest E GROSE [????-????]”. ¶ (5) Hong Kong Public Records Office catalogue entry for RID PH003810, Call No 08-33-024.

For what it’s worth, here’s a photo of 55 Conduit Road, since demolished:

55 Conduit RoadThanks to Gwulo: Old Hong Kong; see 55 Conduit Road [????-2005]; also an interesting note about J. F. Grose and family.

From these bits of information one can construct a scenario where a Chinese mother and mixed-race daughter might have been provided with accommodation in a sympathetic environment.

Harry settled Jean with his parents in Oak Bay and probably stayed a spell before (I guess) returning to Los Angeles.

Beginning in 1934, Jean’s permanent address was Victoria.(1) In 1941 she made a two-month summer trip to California to visit her [step]uncle, Al Newton.(2) She seems to have stayed quite a while. Asked on a 1950 manifest at the US border, “[Have you] Ever [been] in [the] US[?]” Jean answered Yes, from July 21, 1941 to July 13, 1944.(3) During that interval her grandfather Harry died, leaving Agnes Emma Keith an 86-year-old widow in Oak Bay. (4) On July 17, 1944 Jean showed up at the Port of Seattle aboard SS Princess Alice from Victoria, destination as before (Alfred Newton, 401 – 14th St, Santa Monica, California). She stated that her previous visits were “T[emporary?]S[tay?] only,” and her intention was to reside permanently in the US. (5) Seems that didn’t happen, or wouldn’t it have been counted in her 1950 answer to “Ever in US”? It’s a puzzle. For an indeterminate period Jean attended, likely in residence, Queen Margaret’s School in Duncan, B.C. (6)

(1) Manifest [at] Port of San Ysidro, California, August 6, 1939. Border Crossings: From Mexico to U.S. 1895-1964. Ancestry.com. ¶ (2) Manifest, Port of Seattle, July 25, 1941. Ancestry.com. ¶  (3) Manifest, Port of Seattle, Sep 12, 1950. Ancestry.com. ¶ (4) British Columbia death registration nos. 1942-09-611675, 55-09-001053. BC Archives. ¶ (5) Manifest, Port of Seattle, July 17, 1944. Ancestry.com. ¶ (6) The Daily Colonist, Victoria, February 10, 1946, p. 8. The British Colonist Online Edition 1858-1951, University of Victoria Libraries (britishcolonist.ca).

Somewhere in there — during Harry’s first night in Los Angeles, when he and Jean and possibly Tsang Yin Kwan had shore leave? — Agnes and Harry had discovered they were for each other. They were soon married.

Harry came to the U.S. on leave from Borneo on his way to Canada, where his mother and father had settled. He stopped at our home in California. This time we knew as soon as we met that we would now marry.

Bare Feet in The Palace, p. 34.

A young Englishman who had been a friend of my brother’s and mine since childhood came home on leave from British North Borneo, where he was engaged in Government Service …

We had not seen each other for ten years … we made up our minds to be married …

Three Came Home, p. 8.

That must have been one busy night. One busy year, 1934. There was an operation for Agnes’s impaired vision. Then they were off to North Borneo.

We were married, I had an operation on my head which cured my eyes, and we returned [sic] to Borneo …

Three Came Home, p. 8.

“We returned to Borneo” — meaning Harry returned and she ventured there, for the first time, with him? The imprecision of that is puzzling. In Land Below the Wind (p. 175), Agnes put it this way:

I left home one bright autumn day and traveled across the waters for six weeks to a land on the other side of the world …

They left Southern California on September 27, 1934 and landed at Sandakan on November 10. (Ditto, p. 3.)

Agnes later compiled a droll résumé of Harry’s appointments, interests, connections, accomplishments and idiosyncrasies:

My husband has been in Government service here in North Borneo for fourteen years. As well as being conservator of Forests and Director of Agriculture he is Honorary Curator of the State Museum, Game Warden, collector of strange beasts for distant scientists, patron of pauperized natives, and the repository for unwanted animals. He collects old Chinese porcelain, writes papers on scientific subjects, is recording a Murat vocabulary, speaks Malay well enough to be distressed by mine, and cites Oxford Dictionary English to the confusion of my American.

Before we were married he told me that he hated cars, letters of introduction, leftovers, people who cut down trees, coeducational schools, bombastic phrases, and women in shorts.

Land Below the Wind, pp. 6-7.

Harry Keith in Hist Sabah lo“Harry Keith, the Forest Conservator and husband of Agnes Keith” Scanned from Historical Sabah: Society and Community, p. 136. Collection of Sabah State Museum.

An amah at the Keith’s home in Sandakan was named Ah Yin. Agnes made much of her:

Ah Yin, our number-one amah, is known to us as the Pearl without Price, for among the local amahs of Borneo she is the jewel of the Orient set in the ear of the sow. Ah Yin is young, attractive-looking, scrupulously well-groomed, and she has two expressions; one is that of smiling very happily, and the other that of weeping sadly. Thus the impassive Oriental.

Land Below the Wind, p. 35.

Why the sad weeping? The text does not offer a reason, only the odd comment, “Thus the impassive Oriental.” Meaning? Impassive, not so much? It’s ironic? That’s a bit of a straw dog, isn’t it? to veer away from a subject that just got quite interesting? and drag up a stereotype of racial character? Could there be some animus in those words? Like, “I am sworn to secrecy and must veil my narrative”?

Ah Yin enjoyed high prestige in the Keith household:

Ah Yin is very feminine, very wily, very yielding, and very forceful. She is immaculate, she gives grace to each duty, and performs every service with a craftsman’s hand. There is no job in the house which she does not have better ideas about than anyone else, which she cannot perform better than anyone else if given an opportunity to, and no job in the house which she does not sternly dictate. (p. 37)

Ah Yin behaves almost like a number-one wife. Agnes made a drawing of her (p. 36):

Ah Yin lo

Ah Yin the amah of Sandakan seems to share several points of personal history with Tsang Yin Kwan, given name Yin, Jean’s amah. Amah Yin of Sandakan:

We first discovered her four years ago in Hong Kong when she was working for friends of my husband, and we asked her to come to Borneo with us then. She said that she would, but that she must go first to Canton to say good-bye to her mother and father. This she did. That farewell was, we now believe, a last good-bye. The small village near Canton in which her parents lived has since been destroyed by the Japanese, and when we telegraph for news of them there is no answer.

Land Below the Wind, p. 35.

Leaving aside the question whether Agnes had anything to do with the “discovery” of Ah Yin, could Ah Yin’s employer have been Mr. Grose as on the 1934 passenger manifest? Could Ah Yin’s village of origin have been Fan Yi as on the manifest? Is it possible that in Land Below the Wind we look through a veil at Jean’s amah … or her mother?

There are two veiled references to Harry’s daughter in Land Below the Wind.  Both are puzzling.

The first describes a photo and details of “our little girl.” In the following passage, I assume “by us” to mean near where we sit/stand/lie:

A picture stood on the table by us of our little girl at home in her party dress. She took piano lessons, and had a wrist watch and a stamp collection. Her round face smiled, and her underlip was sweet and quiet. She also liked to go to the pictures. When my eyes ceased following Usit they came home to her picture. But I could not see it very clearly for the salt in my eyes. (p. 174)

This comes with no background, context, time or location, halfway through a book that is hugely about families. I tripped over two phrases: “our little girl” … Meaning Jean? In what sense Agnes’s little girl? Her step-daughter, I suppose. Was it wishful thinking? Or was there another child? Don’t think so. Also, “at home” … Meaning Island Road, Oak Bay? When before 1945 was Agnes there? For sure 1939, see below. She may have visited Victoria in 1934 en route to North Borneo or before.

I read the sketch as impressions of Jean from a brief acquaintance.

What brought tears to Agnes’s eyes? That Harry denied the child his parental care? That Agnes could not be a parent to her step-daughter? Contemporary thinking about children in the English ex-pat community is related in Chapter 3: What Do the Women Do?:

If a woman has children their care and responsibility are to a great extent taken over by Chinese amahs. And at the age of four or five they must, in any case, be sent home to England, as there are no European schools in North Borneo. … (Land Below the Wind, p. 49)

Or was the salt in Agnes’s eyes the bitter tears of one rueing the day she agreed to join fortunes with the father of a Eurasian child who by her absence was heartbreakingly present? The evocation of a relationship with the child is clouded by such ambiguity.

The second reference comes a few pages before the description of the girl. Agnes and Harry were discussing little Usit, who appears in the passage about the picture. He was the small-boy* in the Keith household in Sandakan. Agnes proposed to send him packing. Harry says: “But I thought you liked having him!” Agnes responds:

I do. But not this way. We must either give him time and attention and discipline, and make a good job of it, or send him back to village life. Sandakan is bad for him. And I’m afraid I’m too lazy to take on the job of being a parent again” (Land Below the Wind, p. 171).

* “The steward’s assistant or deputy steward in European households in west Africa” (Dictionary.com)

(Thanks to the Wikipedia article on Agnes Newton Keith for the two references.)

“… too lazy to take on the job of being a parent again”? I am at a loss to understand “again.” It seems to refer to Jean but if so is barely credible in the light of the chronology of Jean’s early life. When exactly had Agnes “taken on the job of being a parent”? Perhaps it is merely an ironic comment on their childless state?

A six-year interval passed before the Keiths started a family.

We had always wanted a son. On our honeymoon we had fed coppers to the golden Buddha in the temples of fecundity all over Japan … it took six years from prayer to answer.

Three Came Home, p. 3.

Why so long to wait for a child?  I received in the mail a biographical sketch in manuscript, “Spare Ribs and Gravy”(1) by Lloyd Jones,  a Canadian teacher in Sarawak in the late sixties and early seventies. It purports to quote Jean saying that “My mother had three miscarriages before me.” In light of the family history record, I take “before me” to mean before their son George was born. The uncorroborated statement suggests a likely reason for the long wait.(2)

(1) The phrase Spare Ribs and Gravy is from Land Below the Wind (p. 9). In the San Francisco newspaper office where Agnes worked was a glamorous colleague nicknamed Kissy-wissy. “She ran the Beautiful Baby contests and the Thought Symposiums, and irate parents and persons who thought their characters had been maligned were turned over to her to be placated because she was fluffy and sweet. Her body was molded in beautiful curves, and mine was not, and we were known in the city room as ‘Spareribs and Gravy.'” It was the name of a newspaper comic strip. ¶ (2) In a telephone conversation (July 22, 2016) Mr. Jones said he did not recall the source of the statement. It was not Jean. He said he has not met or even communicated with her. I am grateful to Mr. Jones for sending his sketch.

Agnes and Harry returned to North America in 1939.

We flew from the Pacific coast to Boston for Harry to deliver some Borneo bones to the Harvard Museum, then back to Los Angeles where we purchased a secondhand car, then … we drove down into Mexico, then up north to Canada. By August 1939 we had arrived at Victoria, British Columbia, where Harry owned a small house.

Three Came Home, p. 9.

Jean actually went with them on the auto trip to Mexico.* She simply does not appear in Agnes’s narrative.

* Manifest, Port of San Ysidro, California, Aug 6, 1939. Ancestry.com.

Here [at the small house in Oak Bay] we intended to wait for our sailing date to England. Harry had been given extended leave in order to take a refresher course in Forestry at Oxford, and we were looking forward to three months of study and play … (Three Came Home, 9)

Then the dreaded war broke out and everything changed.

But before we sailed, September third came; war began … and the British Empire mobilized … Our leave in England was cancelled, and he was ordered to report to Borneo immediately. He was enjoined not to enter the armed forces; his job was Borneo, his war was there.

Every war has its tune, a song to make forever sad the hearts of those who have listened. “Roll Out the Barrel” was the enlistment tune in Victoria, played by the Canadian Scottish on every street corner then. It followed us everywhere — into the Canadian Pacific steamship office getting our tickets changed, into the telegraph office writing cables, standing on the streets looking up to read the news bulletins above our heads, news which made our hearts stand still. Into the bakery and the liquor store it followed us, onto the bus and the train. (Three Came Home, 9)

We boarded the Empress of Russia, the first transatlantic steamer to sail after the war began … (ditto, p. 10)

By which time Agnes knew she was pregnant.

4.

Land Below the Wind, Agnes’s first book, was published in November 1939 with a distinctive cloth cover design:

Land Below the wind front cover

Each of her books had a cover of fabric and pattern native to their residence at the time. The back of the dust jacket:

Land Below the Wind back cover

Land Below the Wind ranked Number 5 on the 1940 Publishers’ Weekly list of non-fiction bestsellers in the US.

The Books of the Century: 1940-1949. Curiously, Land Below the Wind made the New York Times non-fiction bestseller list for only three weeks. Thanks to Arlene Hawes Petersen, Hawes Publications, for researching the New York Times lists before 1950 for this project and for web-publishing the lists from 1950.

Henry George Newton Keith was born on April 5, 1940 in Sandakan, North Borneo. April 5 was also his father’s birthday.  (Three Came Home 3, 13).

For the Keiths, January 19, 1942 was a day like no other:

The storm-battered Japanese launches had anchored offshore the night before in the dark. Now they came to the wharf, they were landing …

From that day until September 11, 1945, we were to live in captivity.

Three Came Home, pp. 31-2.

January 1943 found them being transported to another camp:

A very small, very old coal-burning steamer was travelling down the west coast of North Borneo from Sandakan to Kuching, Sarawak. On board were a number of Japanese troops and a few officers, as well as forty-seven miserable women and eleven seasick, half-starved children, prisoners of the Japanese. George, not three years old then, and I were among these prisoners on our way to a new prison camp.

White Man Returns by Agnes Newton Keith (Little, Brown, 1951), p. 259.

After they were ensconced at Kuching POW camp, Sarawak, Agnes was ordered by commandant Colonel Suga (who had studied at the University of Washington and read Land Below the Wind in translation) to write The Life and Thoughts of an Internee for him. She was released from other work and given the materials. She submitted those writings from time to time. Secretly she was writing “the true story” of her captivity.

This story I wrote in the smallest possible handwriting, on the backs of labels, on old Chinese papers that our tobacco came in, on the margins of old newspapers … and when I could get it, on Colonel Suga’s paper. I stuffed George’s toys with these notes, I sewed a layer of them in his sleeping mat, I stuffed his pillows, and I put them in tins which I buried under the barracks.

The Japanese searched my things frequently, turning inside out my suitcases, reading my papers upside down … In time I lost everything with writing on it: documents, passport, wedding lines, bank receipts — everything except my notes.

Three Came Home, p. xv.

Three Came Home, the chronicle of the Keiths’ more than three years internment, much of it separated, is an almost unrelieved depiction of the worst in human nature, be it in the ritual of taking Harry out to be shot, then saying, “We won’t kill you today” (which may have been related by my father, since I can’t find it in the book now), or be it in the vicious fighting among prisoners for the tiniest scraps of food.

Liberation came a month after the end of the war. Australian troops had to wind up the struggle for Borneo before making their way to the remote camp.

After the surrender ceremony at Kuching, Brig T.C. Eastick, Commanding Kuching Force, 9 Aust Division, accompanied by Lt-Col A. T. Walsh, CO 2/10 Field Regiment, 8 Aust Division (a Prisoner of War) and Col T. Suga, Commandant of all Prisoner of War Camps in Borneo, visited the Prisoner of War and Internee Camp of Kuching, where a parade was held at which the Prisoners of War were informed of their liberation. Shown, Mrs Agnes Newton-Keith (1), author of the novel Land Below the Kind [sic - Wind] speaking with Maj T. T. Johnson, 2/6 Field Park Company (2) and Brig Eastwick [sic] (3). Note: Mrs Keith later wrote a book on her period of captivity called Three Came Home. Australian War Memorial #116941 https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/116941/

Agnes Keith with members of the Royal Australian Artillery liberating force at Kuching Prisoner of War Camp, September 11, 1945. Detail of photo no. 116941 in a collection of more than 300 images documenting the liberation of Kuching on the  Australian War Memorial website. At right is Brigadier General Thomas C. Eastick, commander of the 9th Division.

In due course the Keiths joined 1,500 other passengers aboard the US Army transport vessel SS Klipfontein* for the voyage from Manila to Seattle.

* Manifest of Alien Passengers for the United States Immigrant Inspector at Port of Arrival. SS Klipfontein Manila to Seattle, arrived October 28, 1945. Ancestry.com.

They landed in the arms of Agnes’s brother Al Newton and his wife Tiah (Three Came Home, p. 310) and soon returned to Victoria where, as documented in the local press, Harry’s mother and daughter were waiting for them:

Keith Family Returns

Although but five and a half of age, George Keith, son of Mr. and Mrs. H. G. Keith, the latter author of “Land Below the Wind,” has spent three-and-a-half years of his life in a Japanese internee compound.

The boy, with his parents, arrived here yesterday, following a trip by plane and boat to Seattle from Borneo where the three were held captive. They were met by Mr. Keith’s mother, Mrs. A. Keith, 785 Island Highway [sic], and their daughter Jean, 18, who has been residing in Victoria.

“We had to stop over in Seattle to purchase some decent clothing. All we had when we arrived were some army issue clothing and effects given us by the Red Cross,” said Mrs. Keith. She and her son were separated from Mr. Keith during imprisonment. Both agreed that conditions in the camp were terrible.

The Daily Colonist, Victoria, November 2, 1945, p. 8.

Jean was now eighteen years old. Oak Bay had been her home from the age of six. Agnes knew her only from visits in 1934 (maybe) and 1939. George was now five.

After six months Harry returned to North Borneo to take charge of food production:

With return to health my husband was recalled to Borneo after only six months at home …

British North Borneo has ceased to be the only surviving Chartered Company, and has come under the Colonial Administration, of which my husband becomes a part. He is in charge of food production.

And so he returns to Borneo. Again, as in prison, we say that we cannot bear it, to part. And again, we do bear it …

Three Came Home, pp. 314-5.

While Harry was settling into his new position, and building a new home in Sandakan, Agnes was a single mother of two at the home of her ninety-one-year-old mother-in-law Agnes:

George and I stayed behind in Victoria with Granny, Harry’s mother, in the little brown-stained English cottage behind the squeaky garden gate under magnificent oak trees which we loved.

We stayed here a year …

White Man Returns, p. 14.

There’s no sign of Jean in that part of Agnes’s narrative. But on December 29, 1945 Jean was at the Port of Seattle, en route to California from Victoria (perhaps to visit her uncle Al in California). She shows up in the 1946 Victoria city directory still living at 785 Island Road.

Somehow Agnes found time and energy to write the book of their imprisonment.

5.

That was when our families intersected. In his memoirs, my dad related how he met the Keiths as a doctor on a house call:

In my role as confused general practitioner, I was called to see a near-centenarian who obviously had pneumonia. She was huddled on a sofa and, being stone deaf, shouted down my suggestion that she go to hospital. I bowed to her senescent wishes and meekly prescribed an antibiotic. When I came back the next day, a tall, incredibly gaunt woman met me and apologized in a subdued voice for the intransigence of the patient. Suddenly things seemed to come into focus and I asked her if by chance she was the author of Land Below the Wind, a book my wife and I had read with vast enthusiasm.

Musings on Medicine, p. 124.

Someone said — it may have been my father — that he helped them out, bought a heater or furnace for their home.

Agnes’s inscription in the family copy of Land Below the Wind:

In memory of a land destroyed, a people slain, a way of life that is gone. The jungle will soon close over the bomb craters, and cover the abandoned jeeps and the rusty guns. The flesh of the earth will cover the hard bones of the slain. A new way of life will be born from the union of … weapons, lethargic victors, abandoned villages, and brown women clad now in UMRA’s pink satin slips, A way of life perhaps neither better nor worse, but new. Land Below the Wind has ceased to exist.
Inscribed on December first, 1946 to Ginny and Gordon Grant — with my love, because I have little else.
Agnes Newton Keith

Three Came Home was published in April 1947. The frontispiece and title page were designed by Agnes. As a child I remember being deeply impressed by the gaunt little boy:

Three Came Home title page lo

In his review of the book in The New York Times on April 9, Orville Prescott wrote:

[T]his is no ordinary book. It is a record of life in a Japanese prison camp, and there have been others before. But none that I know of has been such an unusual combination of expert reporting of exterior events and physical circumstances with as deeply moving an account of spiritual experience.

The inscription in the family’s copy:

For Ginny and Gordon:
There are many things I might write here in the effort to charm or be witty. But they wouldn’t say what is in my heart. For there is love for you and your children, pleasure in your company, joy in your approval, and pain in your rebuke. And gratitude to you always. If in this book or in future books, you find what you approve, then you will know that you are in them, that your comfort, sympathy, stimulation, are there — that our arrangements and not words have only been a means to the arrival at truth — and without you I would be less if at all.
I came to your home a year ago in great need, and I have never left it without an answer.
I can write a book, but I can’t say thank you.
Agnes
May 21, 1947
Victoria, B.C.

Three Came Home was on the New York Times non-fiction bestseller list for 19 weeks, one week reaching no. 4. It was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection.

In 1950 Agnes and Harry returned to North America:

… we landed in San Pedro, California for home leave. Our arrival was accidentally concurrent with the opening of the film version of Three Came Home in Hollywood …

… in Victoria … where we are spending home leave …

George goes to boarding school.

White Man Returns, pp. 303-4.

Three Came Home had been made into a creditable movie starring Claudette Colbert and Sessue Hayakawa. It opened in the United States in February 1950.

During that interval Harry took the photos of our family, and I greeted them at the door.

Jean married in Victoria in 1950. My sister was a “junior bridesmaid.”

Jean Keith Honored

Miss Jean Keith, August bride-elect, was guest of honor at a cup and saucer shower when Miss Donna Munro, 2119 Oak Bay Avenue, entertained recently at the tea hour. The invited guests were Mrs. H. G. Keith, Mrs. A. J. Knappett, Mrs. A. E. Keith, Mrs. G. H. Grant and Misses Dinny Grant, June Knappett, Gail Keyworth, Mae Conn and Peggy Pullen.

Daily Colonist, August 9, 1950, p. 8.

I believe Jean and her husband moved to Seattle a month after the wedding. I have no memory of ever meeting her. Then again, I was only two.

Agnes’s third book about North Borneo, White Man Returns, published in 1951, was dedicated “To my children, George and Jean.” I suppose she put George first because he was first in her heart. There was no mention of Jean in the text.

White Man Returns was scarcely less popular than Three Came Home, the book for which, arguably, Agnes is best known. It was on the New York Times non-fiction bestsellers list for 15 weeks, six straight weeks at no. 4. Agnes went on to write memoirs of living in the Philippines (Bare Feet in the Palace, 1955) and Libya (Children of Allah, 1965), the novel Beloved Exiles (1972), and the travel memoir Before the Blossoms Fall (1975). None of those four books, all published by Little, Brown, made the Times’ bestseller lists.

In January 1952 Agnes and Harry left Sandakan, where they had lived for more than twenty years in all — Harry 1924-34 and the two 1934-41 and 1946-51. Harry retired from colonial service and took a job with the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization in Manila, Philippines.* A similar posting took them to Tripoli, Libya, where they lived for ten years (1955-65).

* Bare Feet in The Palace, pp. 46-9.

George remained on Vancouver Island in residence at a succession of private schools. My sister says her friend Barns Guthrie related that he and his brother Nick, grandchildren of the Aclands (they’re in Harry’s photo album), were afraid of George. “He could shinny up a tree like a monkey and swear in Malay.” George was for a time almost part of the family. When we went to Europe in the summer of 1956 George came with us. There we are on the tarmac at the Vancouver airport:

002 plane lo

That’s George in the middle, mum and Ginny on the left, John and I to his right. George was going to meet his parents in Libya after a year in boarding school. Just before returning  to Canada six weeks later we met Harry and Agnes in the Amsterdam airport for drinks.

My sister reports:

Agnes and Harry thought George and I should marry. Harry, who was always my favorite man, used to do that rather tired, sighing thing when I said I loved the house. “All you have to do is marry George.”

Didn’t happen; as Agnes related in 1965:

We have two children: Jean, married, with four young offspring, and George, now in the United States Marines. Both are tired of being in Mamma’s books …

Children of Allah by Agnes Newton Keith (Little, Brown, 1965), p. 10.

That is the last mention of Jean in the Keith oeuvre. Finally, she comes first. But “tired of being in Mamma’s books”?

George was said to have completed two or three tours in Vietnam; to have counselled Vietnam veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder; to have married a police officer in California and fathered two children. Ginny saw him last in 1982. George died in California in 2001 at the age of 61.*

* Ancestry.com. Social Security Death Index. SSN 534-42-3680. Issued: Washington 1960/61.

6.

Agnes’s next book was the 1972 novel Beloved Exiles. It is a sweeping melodrama about mixed-race relationships and children in Borneo before, during and after World War II. Somehow it comes as no surprise to find that race- and sex-charged theme returning. The young American wife of a British colonial husband encounters North Borneo in the 1930s, where a revelation unfolds of the husband’s country wife and their Eurasian child, who resides in an orphanage. The wife rescues the child and takes him home to the care of the family. Their vicissitudes, and those of their child, born just after the outbreak of war, do not obscure the wife’s powerful advocacy, clearly also the author’s, for parental care. A thread develops around Yuki, the Sino-Japanese mother of the husband’s son. Yuki invests in the charms of a native sorcerer to turn her ex’s heart and loins away from his new wife and back to her. A dugong (large sea mammal) is slaughtered and the tear ducts extracted because the sorcerer’s love philtre called for tears from a dugong; all to no avail. Another plot concerns the husband’s British friend and his live-in country wife and their Eurasian child. The friend sends the child away with her amah to an English school, after zero consultation; in fact he lies to the child and the live-in country wife. She stays with her aunt until after the war, when she returns with her father to meet her mother and, to quote the Bard, all’s well that ends well. Parallel narratives trace the fortunes of all these people, European, American, Asian, Eurasian.

In the stories of those European and American “exiles,” I hear the voice of disclosure. I believe the novel echoes the realities of that life for Agnes Keith, albeit disguised. I can easily entertain a narrative of a British father taking his Eurasian daughter away from her natal home. It happened, but they went to Hong Kong instead of Singapore, as in the novel. Life was difficult for Eurasian people there, too.  If Hong Kong didn’t work out for Jean, that would explain her father escorting her to the safe haven of his parents in Oak Bay.

I believe that in 1972 Agnes was still coming to grips with the child from Harry’s past life. She edited that reality clean out of her memoirs. It’s not uncommon. When the Canadian-born musicologist Colin McPhee published A House In Bali in 1946, about the high old years with Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, he excised his rich American ex-wife, who had supported him, and wrote not a word about his sexual preference for Balinese men.* The issue of self-censorship is unavoidable here, too. To what extent was the veiling of Jean the outcome of Agnes’s deeper attitude to sexuality? Agnes and Harry were a few years older than my father, and he was very old-fashioned. How much was it the product of a repressive society?

* See “Bali H’ai,” a review of Colin McPhee: Composer in Two Worlds by Carol J. Oja and A House in Bali by Colin McPhee. Robert Craft, New York Review of Books, October 24, 1991.

When writing in dramatic mode, Agnes could acknowledge the repressed sexual-racial issue of the Eurasian reality within her family. In a novel, the writer was free to invent plots for those unusual family structures. The plots of Beloved Exiles were enough at variance with her personal reality as to be unrecognizable. Agnes came as close, I believe, as she could to disclosing that personal reality. We still do not see the story that genealogical research reveals about Jean. The veil covering Jean in the memoirs remains in place in Beloved Exiles. But there, unmistakably, is the theme, throbbing with life, that Agnes could not put in her factual writing. This passage is about the English husband’s friend Derek’s country wife Sita:

When she was still just a girl it had pleased her to be childless, chiefly because of her satisfaction with her own beauty. Her body was finely made — like a young tree, Derek thought, because she was so slender and strong and her breasts were like a tropical fruit, small, full, blushing and shapely—and her bottom was like the rounded behind of a young girl. Her hands and feet were beautiful, especially her feet. With straight, slim toes and scarlet-painted toenails showing in fragile, open sandals, they were delightfully different from the deformed extremities of European women. And in a community where life and vitality seemed limited, Sita burned with them, and her sexual joys brought satisfaction to them both. (Beloved Exiles, p. 67)

I am blushing now. Agnes dares to inhabit the male mind, and it comes out a medley of unfortunate clichés. She professes to understand the mind of the Indonesian woman, but it never rings true. The novel carried a lot of personal baggage, and the author had, I believe, a specific reason for opening up the bags, albeit for tiny glimpses. She wanted to let go of the whole matter, at last. The identity of Jean’s mother must be in one of those bags. My hunch is her racial complexion would be more like Yuki, the mixed-race (Chinese-Japanese) former country wife of the husband, than like Sita, the husband’s friend’s Indonesian country wife.

A subplot of Beloved Exiles is set in the prison camp where wife and son were kept separate from their husband-father. The wife has a sexual liaison with the Japanese commandant. She hopes to win the colonel’s promise to intervene to save her husband from the clutches of the military police. He does, and it saves her husband’s life.

Invention? or memory? —

Sitting together on the mat they drank cups of pale tea brought in by Koji, and she smoked a Kooah cigarette and then went to the bathroom to dress. Returning to Goto’s presence dressed in her old camp clothes, she picked up the green banana which always accompanied tea, and accepted the half-used package of cigarettes which he handed her, and tucked them into her shirt front. (Beloved Exiles, p. 258.)

How could that not be a confession?

My sister provides this bit of confirmation in an e-mail:

Oddly, I knew of Agnes’ relationship with Colonel Suga … met a woman while on a 1984 cruise in the far east who, as a nurse, had met Agnes when the camp was liberated. Her name was Hilda something … there didn’t seem to be any secrecy … think all the women in the camp knew, and there was some resentment …

“Relationship” is overstating … he was a kind man who loved kids and had always loved “Land Below The Wind” and gave Agnes food for George … think that was the motivating factor …

7.

Agnes’s Borneo trilogy is an estimable body of work. Three Came Home has a rightful place in the pantheon of prison literature, and the theme of the prisoner as living casualty of war remains so relevant today. I remain troubled by Beloved Exiles. It was an old-fashioned novel when published; its omniscient narration reflects the aesthetics of the 1930s more than the 1970s. Some of the values it evinced, like the frank contempt for many Asian people, are what we now call racist. The good guys are all white; some Japanese can be sort of good; the natives, especially the Eurasian society on the fringes of colonial life, are variously sickly, ignorant, naïve, unscrupulous — and the list grows. The racial and sexual issues Agnes wrote about so obliquely seem rather quaint now. Sexual values have changed very much since 1972, and since 1939 immeasurably — at least as represented in dramatic media. As for change in racial values, the third world has hugely de-colonialized. The exemplar of success possible for people of mixed races in the post-colonial world is, of course, U.S. president Barack Obama. Urban North American society, at least, has I believe become more accepting of mixed-race marriage. (Remember Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? from 1967?) In a quiet way the mixed-race Métis people in Canada, descendants of marriages between Scottish or French traders and First Nations women, have acquired status by lobbying for inclusion.

Since its confederation with the other constituent states of Malaysia in 1963, North Borneo has been called Sabah.(1) There, Agnes is the remembered Keith. It is her home one visits in Sandakan. A recent news item related that Jean and her daughter Leslie journeyed to Sandakan in 2007 to participate in a ceremony at the house built for Harry and Agnes in 1946-47, now known as Agnes Keith House.(2) There’s a photo of Jean at the ceremony. I found an interesting account of a visit to Agnes Keith House by a big fan here. Another blog of a visit, with many photos and several provocative reader comments, disappeared; it’s cached here. Agnes’s Borneo trilogy has been reprinted by a publishing house in Koto Kinabalu, Sabah. And Sabah has adopted the touristic motto Land Below the Wind.

(1) After its liberation in 1945, North Borneo was under British military rule. It became the Crown colony of British North Borneo on July 15, 1946, which on September 16, 1963 became the state of Sabah within the Federation of Malaysia. (“North Borneo,” Wikipedia). Kota Kinabalu, formerly Jesselton, became the capital in 1946 (“Kota Kinabalxu,” Wikipedia). ¶ (2)  Sabah News in Borneo Research Bulletin, Jan 1, 2008.

August 2015-August 2016

6 thoughts on “Keef and More Keef: Getting to Know Agnes and Harry Keith”

  1. Thank you so much for the information on the Keiths. We have been sailing along the coast of Sarawak and Sabah for about 7 months and just finished reading Agnes’s trilogy on the area. Unfortunately we did not sail to Sandakan — too dangerous these days with terrorist from the Philippines — but we still thoroughly enjoyed the books and they added to our understanding of this fascinating land. We were so curious to know more about the Keiths and your website provided very interesting reading. (Although it did not answer the mystery of Jean!) Thank you for your research and efforts.
    Best regards,
    Bruce & Alene
    s/v Migration

  2. [Forwarded from an e-mail]

    I came upon your website while researching Agnes Keith and family, wonderful job you did.

    We have translated into Chinese the 1946 book “Three Came Home” by Agnes Keith, and are adding a few pages of background material for Chinese readers. We would like to include two pictures from your website: “The Review in The New York Times”, and the one George leaving for Libya in 1956 at Vancouver airport. …

    Aleta Bent
    Translator
    Joint Publishing (Beijing)

  3. Mr. Grant, thank you for your wonderful account of the lives of Harry and Agnes Keith. I knew their son Henry George Newton Keith, “George” when we worked together at the San Francisco VA Regional Office. I found your recounting of his parents lives fascinating since I knew of them largely through young George’s stories – many of which were resentful. In those years he and I worked as Veterans Benefits Counselors. He was an extraordinary man. He had a tremendous flair for language, immense charisma, and extraordinary empathy for seriously damaged veterans. I knew him to give some of them money out of his own pocket. I found him so colorful that I asked if I might one day write his biography. He said yes, and his wife recalled George talking about giving me his permission during his memorial service and I have from time to time written a fair amount about him. I suspect you may already know that George died by his own hand and I still blame myself for failures as a friend to help him in his hour of need.

    He gave so much to so many, but could find no help for himself, and I believe much of his trouble rises from his own expectation of who he should be or should become after the extraordinary examples of his parents.

    He used to tell a story that may well be some part exaggeration. (He was a magnificent story teller).

    One evening when George was still an adolescent Harry upbraided him for his failures at school and announced that if George didn’t take himself in hand he would never amount to anything significant. The next day George wrote three letters of application for employment, one to the RCMP, one the Coldstream Guards, and one to the United States Marines. Six months later his Marine Gunnery Sergeant harassed him on the deck of an air craft about wanting to prance around in red fancy dress because belatedly the RCMP had written to accept his application.

    George had many beliefs about his parents relationship, and Jean which I do not wish to discuss on a public blog, but I would very much like to know anything your research might have revealed. I would appreciate an opportunity to share his beliefs with you in a private email in hopes that some of them might be affirmed or denied.

    1. I am Peter’s sister Ginny, and would very much like to be included in any discussions you and he have on the subject of George and his parents, whom I knew very well and loved.
      George disappeared off to join the Marines a very short time before Agnes and Harry returned from the Phillipines…I remember Agnes saying ‘I fear he felt that his recent past didn’t bear looking into’. Probably true….their primary relationship was with each other, and I don’t think George ever knew how much they adored him.

  4. [original by email]
    I am a Japanese writer publishing essays on Agnes Keith’s literary works.
    So far, I have finished writing on Land Below the Wind and Three Came Home and shall continue working on Whit[e]man Returns, Beloved Exiles, Before the Blossoms Fall.
    As a Japanese, I am most interested in her relationship with Japan and believe that Three Came Home was a kind of co-production between herself and Colonel Suga.
    However, so far I have been most shocked by what revealed in Beloved Exiles, the relationship between races and sexes, the treatment of Eurasians.
    All in all, thank you very much for your extensive research on the identity of Jean, and hope to read more about the Keefs in the future.

    Good luck and all the best,
    Hifumi HAYASHI (Ms.)

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