Pilgrim State by Jacqueline Walker

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Pilgrim State by Jacqueline Walker

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Category: Autobiography
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Trish Simpson-Davis
Reviewed by Trish Simpson-Davis
Summary: This is a strong memoir of a mother surviving mental illness and leaving Jamaica for South London in the early 1960's. It's a part of the development of Black Britain, and I was totally hooked.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 352 Date: March 2009
Publisher: Sceptre
ISBN: 978-0340960806

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I was intrigued and touched by Jacqueline Walker's beautiful memoir of her childhood in Jamaica and London in the 1960's. This is a book inevitably compared with Andrea Levy's Small Island. It follows similar ground, but the main difference and great strength, is that it's the real narrative of mother and daughter. As a girl I was familiar with areas of London where Jackie Walker lived and heard some members of my family denigrate Caribbean immigrants. From this memoir, I've garnered much about the lived experience of my less advantaged contemporaries.

The author has two voices, one of which is a leap of empathy. She writes about her relationship with her mother from her small girl's point of view. Interleaved with that account, Dorothy, her mother, recounts these years from her viewpoint. The author speaks of her great devotion to her mother. To 'be”' the mother is probably not a leap of empathy most daughters would feel comfortable taking until middle age. An enquiring daughter of her own seems to have inspired Jackie Walker to look at her childhood with different lenses. As a book for the market, the author invested her mother's inner world with verisimilitude and fluid writing that had me totally hooked.

Dorothy Walker spent nearly a year in a mental asylum in 1950's America, called Pilgrim State because of its huge size. She was diagnosed with schizophrenia and treated with electro convulsive therapy, which permanently dented her confidence in authority. Jackie was born after her release. She was deported and fought to regain custody of her two children, but only Teddy, Jackie's much-admired older brother, rejoined his mother when she emigrated to the UK.

Dorothy's experience in Pilgrim State was so disempowering that she denied any mental illness thereafter. Jackie pieced together her story by obtaining documents from the US and UK under Freedom of Information legislation. These reports are drip fed to the reader, much as the family history was first revealed to Jackie. We are left with the disturbing feeling that schizophrenia was just a convenient label for whatever problems Dorothy experienced with a new culture, new husband, and medical school training.

When Teddy, Jackie and Dorothy first arrive in Britain it's difficult to find a home as a black family. Jackie is disturbed by her own 'half-caste state', where black people see her as a pic'neen and pretty white girls screech, You smell wog; not to mention the peculiarity of white people making up their faces as the Black and White Minstrels to entertain TV viewers. It was like that in those days. Being a logical little person, Jackie settles her colour forever by drinking a jar of black paint.

Jackie prizes her mother's love as the most important richness in her life. The candour of a child, rather than sensationalism, informs the account of their life in Brixton, Deptford and Greenwich. Jackie reports her mother leaving the family alone, along with a rich detailing of their home circumstances that leave us in no doubt that Dorothy's little family live in squalid poverty. Teddy, Jackie and Roy are taken into care and for once social workers aren't vilified but shown as trying to do their jobs sympathetically. That integrity of reporting makes the occasional bullying Jackie encounters totally believable.

I mentioned beautiful writing. In particular I enjoyed the descriptions of people and everyday places, observed with a child's eye and remembered down the years. The best picture of all is of Dorothy, the beloved mother. What a incredible achievement for a first time author.

The Bookbag would like to thank the publishers for sending this book.

Suggestions for further reading: A recent novel about the struggle of a black family to make a living in South Dakota in the 1930's is The Personal History of Rachel DuPree by Ann Weisgarber which comes highly recommended by The Bookbag. If you are more generally interested in the immigrant experience, Brick Lane by Monica Ali is the classic Bangladesh to East Ender novel/film or the less well-known, Greetings From Bury Park by Sarfraz Manzoor has plenty of telling details about the cultural differences between Pakistan and Luton.

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Buy Pilgrim State by Jacqueline Walker at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Pilgrim State by Jacqueline Walker at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy Pilgrim State by Jacqueline Walker at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Pilgrim State by Jacqueline Walker at Amazon.com.


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