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“My mother wasn’t the sort of person biographies are usually written about. She wasn’t famous, had no public life beyond one letter published in the Sydney Morning Herald, did nothing that would ever make the history books. Just the same, I think her story is worth telling.”
After her mother passed away in 2002, Kate Grenville discovered fragments of a memoir her mother had been determined to write – “Up til’ now I’ve never had the time or the right pencil, but now that I have one foot in the grave, it’s time to get on with it.” She never did finish, or properly start.
Any parent’s story is worthy of a biography, if we took the time to learn it. Most of us do not have the resources or indeed the skill to do what Grenville has for her mother in One Life: My Mother’s Story. Fortunately, Nance Russell’s story is one of 20th-century struggle and success that will resonate with many.
Born in 1912, Nance’s early life was one of a constant pattern – settle, upheaval, settle, repeat – until she was able to determine her own life path. Transient parents made for a tough upbringing, and this struggle to freedom is beautifully portrayed. The breaking of this cycle, a determination to be a woman with a career, is liberating to the reader, and made me admire Nance and the countless others like her who fought to be their own person.
There are many truths in One Life that would be hard for any child to know about their family. However, Grenville’s handling of Nance’s story is professional – there is no underlying beatification of her mother, nor is there any mention of Kate herself until near the end (this really is an entire life story). She has simply taken Nance’s fragments and created a memorial to her mother that will live on for many years.
An award-winning author writing a biography about her not-so-famous mother could have been a disaster. It’s easy to assume the book would need to rely on Grenville’s famous status to sell copies, but One Life doesn’t do this, and shouldn’t. Nance’s life is engaging without her being Grenville’s mother, and her love of her children and the life she made for herself will connect with any reader.
“What other people did was up to them. Your job was to live – as richly and honestly as you could – your one life.”
Reviewed by Kimaya McIntosh
One Life: My Mother’s Story
by Kate Grenville
Published by Text Publishing