When I was small I avoided non-fiction the way other children avoided vegetables. I skipped the history in the School Journal and went straight to the fiction bar. In my reading habits, I was fact-averse. There was, however, one non-fiction book that I swallowed whole: The World of Pets.
I was given it for my birthday when I was eight years old. It was a large, hefty book with full-colour plates and chapter headings such as How to Care for Mice, Keeping Guinea Pigs and Which Breed of Cat Is For You? I loved its grave and factual tone. There were animals in that book that I could only dream of having – cats with pedigrees, silky rabbits, chubby hamsters, voles, and even chestnut horses with long manes. My animal-loving obsession was tolerated by my family. They nicknamed me Daktari, and banned all pets inside the house.
Perhaps it was being the youngest of eight siblings that made me want to be the boss of others, but it was true that whatever was able to be caught and brought up in a cage, I had at some stage tried to be the master of. As Seamus Heaney put it, “I would fill jampotfuls of the jellied /specks to range on window-sills at home,..and wait and watch until, the fattening dots burst into nimble -/swimming tadpoles”.
I bred mice in different colours in a four-storey cage built by the caretaker at the school my mother taught in. The cage allowed me to partition off floors and separate the babies from the males, who sometimes ate them. I also owned a cat, some goldfish and an axolotl. I kept guinea pigs named Wilbur (but of course) and Charlotte – and all of their offspring. I had an aviary which housed ring-necked doves, quails and finches. I managed this whole animal kingdom alone, with the book as my guide.
One day, the caretaker at my mother’s school arrived in her class with an orphaned baby possum and my mother brought it home for me. It was a tiny pet furball, the cutest thing imaginable, and it clung to me. Whenever I picked it up it climbed up on to my head and sat spreadeagled in my hair. One morning I woke to find the possum was missing from its cage. I remember crying in the morn-ing before school.
There was no chapter in The World of Pets titled How To Look After Your Pet Possum. It could only have contained the unhelpful sentence ‘It doesn’t belong to you’. The writing in that book was prosaic and encyclopaedic but at the age of eight it gave me my fictional life: Hamster Trainer, Rabbit Keeper, Horse Owner.
Susanna Andrew is co-editor with Jolisa Gracewood of Tell You What: Great New Zealand Nonfiction 2015 published by Auckland University Press RRP $30.00 ISBN 9781869408244