Reviewed by Ian Lipke
Even moreso than Ray Martin or Mike Walsh, Paul Hogan or Dame Edna Everidge, the name Jeanne Little is recognized worldwide. Mention her name and a certain look appears in your conversationalist’s eyes and you wait for an interpretation of Jeanne’s voice that always falls far beneath par or, perhaps there’s an anecdote. There is always an anecdote.
The biography of this wonderful icon, written by her daughter, takes up the story from when Katie M Little was old enough to form part of her mother’s life. If there is a downside to the biography it is that we have precious little knowledge of Katie’s Mum as a young girl growing into a woman. Fortunately, there are women around who knew Jeanne in those years who could supply that information to Katie. Jeanne’s daughter did not set out to write that book and cannot be condemned for its nonappearance.
But what a book she has written! Comprehensive and so full of facts and stories that one wonders how she ever found the energy to succeed at such an enterprise. From the Contents list one could expect a compendium rather than a memoir. A compendium is probably the correct word to use in a situation where, like the cluttered bedrooms that Katie describes and the incessant noise whose solution stymied the housekeeper Mrs Cairo, the Table of Contents, the bedrooms and the lifestyle are all one. Each feeds off the other. She is her mother’s daughter after all.
The book is enriched by memories of Jeanne’s high points and low, her extreme happiness and her depression as deep as it gets. Never once does the telling slip into slapstick or maudlin narration. Katie has had many enriching experiences with Jeanne as a Mum, but she has also had to cope with emotions out of the ordinary. With her mother now deeply immersed in Alzheimer’s clasp, she has a load that is exceptional. But the book does not show any sign of her breaking. She may be bruised and bent but she is as tough as the mother who bore her. And when her thinking goes a little off-track she has friends like Marcia Hines to gently show the way.
The book provides many, many snapshots of men in positions of power, of men whose egos did not succumb readily to the ribbing that Jeanne’s quick wit supplied. I remember Katie describing Mike Walsh in the barber’s chair. The one time that every hair dresser went about her work in total silence. This state of affairs came about because Mike Walsh demanded the exclusion of all extraneous noise so that the girls could concentrate while ever his hair was being attended to. The primitive conditions under which Jeanne Little practised and developed her artistry ring true. She had to compromise, to tackle an issue as she saw it. She was a woman, and a woman was more of an appendage whose elegant beauty made men look good. Somehow I cannot see Jeanne in that role for very long.
The subject of our story is portrayed by her daughter as a product that is specifically defined by her nation of birth, the same nation her family adopted when they reached Australia’s shores. Katie is reflective of her mother. When she lived in England there were the tales of a lot of teasing being directed at Katie’s accent and her mother’s work. A sour faced member of the school staff enquired about Jeanne’s unusual career, and asked what she was currently doing. “Making garbage bags,” was the quick response that was never questioned since this was a Colonial that the British woman servant was listening to. It was accepted as the sort of thing an Orstralian would be doing. In fact Jeanne’s idea of making wedding or ball-gowns out of garbage bags became all the rage once. Milk bottle tops got a look in too.
It is a fine feeling to skim-read a book and never feel the presence of evil or deceit among the characters who lead happy and fruitful lives in a world they make their own. I’ve not finished a close reading as this is a book that won’t allow me to do that. I have to read and stop and enjoy what is coming to me off the pages. I have to laugh out loud at the tale of the tapeworm. I had to think about Katie’s father with one in the basement and one in the bedroom. I know that heartache will come before the last chapter has been read, but somehow I know that these people have the fortitude to carry on anyway. Would Jeanne ever ask for anything different? This is a book about normal people – if I can stretch that label immensely – going about their lives and having a pretty good time while they’re about it. Highly recommended. (I’m never going to finish this book).
By Katie M. Little
New Holland Publishers
Catch a Falling Star, New Holland Publishers RRP $29.99 available from good bookstores or online www.newhollandpublishers.com