Monday, 28 December 2015

No Baggage by Clara Bensen / Empty Cradles by Margaret Humphreys / What Has Sweden Done For The United States? by Lars P Nelson

No Baggage: A Tale of Love and Wandering by Clara Bensen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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I received a copy of No Baggage by Clara Bensen from its publishers, Running Press, via NetGalley, in exchange for my honest review. The memoir is due to be released on the 5th of January 2016.

I was intrigued by the unusual premise of No Baggage - a young American woman takes off on a three-week trip across Europe with pretty much nothing other than a credit card, a toothbrush and the clothes she stands up in. And in the company of a man she met about a month beforehand via a dating website. What could possibly go wrong?!

Using the course of the three week journey as her book's skeleton, Bensen describes her burgeoning relationship with Jeff, the dating website find; the mental health issues that had put her life on hold for most of the previous couple of years; her close-knit family and Austin, Texas lifestyle; and a little about the cities she visits during the whistle-stop tour. While I think I would have liked more detail about the journey itself, I was unexpectedly fascinated by Bensen's candid discussion of her mental health - the problems she had had, their causes, and her post-recovery outlook. It is an odd facet of our society that allows physical ailments to discussed easily and openly, but still insists that mental ailments be hidden away. It must have taken a lot of courage to write this and she has done an excellent job of explaining her illness.

I was less taken with the repeated attempts to define and categorise her new relationship although the 'what are we' tension did lead to some of the more entertaining (for the reader at least!) moments. I was interested in Bensen's thoughts on places that I too have visited - Austin, Dubrovnik, Edinburgh - and now have more must-sees on my future travel list - Istanbul, Sarajevo. The Couchsurfing website - a way to get accommodation in local people's homes - was a new notion to me and sounds like a wonderful idea for independent travellers. In return I offer a find of my own for women travellers - get a mooncup. Bensen's period tribulations are funny in hindsight in a been-there-too kind of a way.

I enjoyed Bensen's easy-going writing style and would be interested to read more of her later travels. The couchsurfing particularly allows for a different view from the standard tourist angle and I loved the idea of leaving practically every arrangement to chance although I am not sure I could ever be brave enough to travel like that myself.

Empty Cradles by Margaret Humphreys
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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I saw the film, Oranges and Sunshine, which is based upon Empty Cradles, several years ago so was already aware of the human tragedy at the centre of this book. Nottingham social worker Margaret Humphreys discovered evidence of a massive resettlement scheme undertaken by the British government together with several then Commonwealth governments that sent thousands and thousands of unaccompanied British children to foster families, children's homes and institutions in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Zimbabwe. The scheme ran for several decades with the last children leaving the UK in 1967. Nearly always described as orphans in press reports, the children themselves were mostly told that their parents had died or just didn't want them anymore. Most weren't given any choice in their exile or destination and many were systematically abused, sometimes for years, in their new lives.

It is difficult to write a review of a book which deals with such an inhumane and emotive subject. Many of the former child migrants who spoke to Humphreys related terrible stories of their treatment. Isolation, desperation and long-term mental health problems have blighted many of these lives and the accumulation of these tales is harrowing. Not all the children were treated badly, but there aren't many of the happy tales in Empty Cradles. The book was written to help raise awareness and, ultimately, funds for the Child Migrants Trust - a charity set up by Humphreys to help reunite lost children with their families - so it does tug at heartstrings pretty much relentlessly. Also, this is Humphreys' story of her own efforts so we get to read a lot about her familial sacrifices, long hours, sleepless nights and manic globetrotting. I have no doubt that Humphreys and her family did give up a lot and the irony of her own frequently left-behind children wasn't lost on me, however the mixing of history and personal biography didn't sit well for me and I frequently found myself wondering who I was really supposed to be felling sorry for.

What Has Sweden Done for the United States? by Lars P Nelson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

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An odd little pamphlet, What Has Sweden Done For The United States? by Lars P Nelson was published in 1917 as the author's attempt to instill some ancestral pride in second- and third-generation Swedes whom he believed were dismissing their heritage in favour of their new American identity. I downloaded a copy when it was offered from ForgottenBooks. Nelson briefly discusses the first Swedes to arrive in the New World and their refreshingly honourable attitudes to the native populations; Sweden's role and an interesting subterfuge during the War Of Independence; and the ongoing support from the Swedish government and crown to her former people. Even Swedish women get a mention as there are two potted biographies of the singers Jenny Lind and Christine Nilsson. The importance of religion is repeatedly mentioned and special emphasis is placed on the Swedish tradition of religious tolerance - although, of course, this is only seen in terms of the various types of Christianity.

The pamphlet is an interesting read for the impressions it gives of early twentieth century priorities in how a section of the American people saw themselves. My only real complaint is that the work is far too short! At less than thirty pages for such a presumably huge subject, there really isn't enough said.

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