Friday, August 10, 2012
Canal Zone Daughter by Judy Haisten, reviewed by Su Zi
…Where the Heart…
In American culture, the archetype of the hometown has a certain secular but sacred aura. Since the middle of the twentieth century, when first military then corporate influences created a subsection of society that was middle class, but transient, the reality of people living within a hundred miles of their place of origin has gone from a prosaic expectation to something a bit more quaint. Still, an individual’s place of origin gives identity to their personae; also, understanding another’s place of origin is an intimate but not indiscreet key to knowing someone. Hence the classic inquiry “where ya’ll from?”
Even when an individual is foreign-born, understanding key aspects of personality will grow from understanding key aspects of an individual’s originating culture. Sometimes, though, countries get changed, torn up, and their indigenous cultures become ghosts carried in a diaspora of global immigrants who must also adopt the culture of their new lives to survive.
What seems beyond consideration is an American diaspora: American citizens untethered from their home towns, strangers in the country of their own citizenry. Yet, Judy Armbruster Haisten’s memoir Canal Zone Daughter concludes with that very reality: for the first two-thirds of the twentieth century, Americans lived and raised families on a strip of land surrounding the Panama Canal without being directly connected to military operations. When this land became relinquished territory, the home town area to multiple generations of Americans induced a diaspora of “Zonians” who are American citizens by birth but foreigners to the culture.
Haisten’s memoir is both a coming of age journey and an anthropological delineation of Zonian culture as seen from the eyes of a child. Details of the influence of the architecture on family life, of the influence of the tropical jungle that surrounded the Zone, of the historical places dating back to early colonialism, of interactions with the pre-colonial indigenous people become the anecdotes that structure Haisten’s chapters. As Haisten comes of age, the intrusions of global politics come more to the fore of the narrative, because these intrusions become the reason for the exodus from Haisten’s obviously beloved home town.
The primary concern in this memoir is not politics, it is the wistful longing for a literal paradise lost. Among chapters of prosaic childhood events such as needing glasses, memorable accidents, and family outings, there is the obvious difference due to the influence of the everpresent tropical setting. A Girl Scout camping trip suffers a sudden rain, which could be the memory of any thousand Girl Scouts, except:
We’d all heard the sound at the same time, a peculiar chittering sound we didn’t recognize. Then in one horrifying moment, the ground came alive with squarish red-and-black land crabs about the size of quarters. Thousands of tiny crabs seemed to emerge out of the dirt to swarm over every inch of the campground, crawling over everything in their path, sparing nothing (183) .
The Panamanian jungle is highly influential in this memoir, not only for its topography, its insistent history, but because the Zonians in this narrative existed without the expectation of either air conditioning or twenty four hour television that has framed American life for two generations.
Towards the end of the memoir’s narrative, when our protagonist is a slightly alienated American college student in Kentucky, she takes advantage of a summer of study in Mexico:
Our second day in Mexico, I repacked my gray leather Dr Scholl’s sandals after buying a pair of soft Mexican leather huaraches at an open air market. Mexico was good for me. […] I happily boarded the garishly colored buses that clogged the busy streets. I basked in the familiar blaring sounds from honking horns […] and enjoyed eating delicious freshly picked tropical fruit ( 262).
Because of her Zonian upbringing, Haisten’s character—Haisten herself—is far more comfortable in a culture that is quintessentially foreign to mainstream America. The petting parties of Kentucky in Haisten’s text probably still exist wherever American teenagers converge; however, in stark contrast to this activity is a recounting of a visit to a Panamanian waterfall called Goofy Falls, where Haisten :
swam behind the strong swirling current that fed the largest part of the falls.[…] halfway across the wall, a small shelf protruded from the bedrock. Working my way into that hidden space, I sat and watched from behind the main torrent, amazed and exhilarated by the awesome force plunging only inches from my nose (227).
That Haisten paints not only herself, but all Zonian children as active, as engaged in the outdoors, makes this memoir a worthy parable for future generations—for how would a generation have any sense of their local culture if they never play outside, never experience the peccadilloes of place, are always in a generic franchise commercial establishment or parked in front of a commercial electronic transmission?
Haisten’s memoir depicts a day gone; gone because the middle of the twentieth century is a time gone, gone because the very place no longer exists in the way Haisten experienced it. While the evanescence of time and place is true for each of us, Haisten’s memoir is also a moment in global reality that might not even find its way to a mere mention in history texts. Haisten seeks to inform this is what it was like, to explain this hometown so that we might all understand.
You can order the book Here.