Joan Colebrook

A House of Trees

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A House of Trees Summary

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The 1987 memoir A House of Trees recounts author Joan Colebrook’s childhood in 1920s Australia. Her memories are defined primarily by the stark contrast between the rugged and raw beauty of the land and the demands it put on European settlers who wanted to make it their home, and the buttoned-up affectations and values of England, the place white Australians of that time still thought of as their mother country. In this conflict between literal natural and nurture, Colebrook finds parallels between the “civilizing” of the land and her own process of growing up. Critics praise the writing as otherworldly and lyrical, summoning back into existence a lost time and place.

Colebrook grew up the fourth of six children in a rough-hewn house surrounded by the rain forest on Atherton Tableland in the North Queensland region of Australia. Her parents were of the first generation to come to the continent after the first wave of Europeans—deported convicts and other relatively desperate immigrants—had forged a culture of daring and adventure marked by outside torments like monsoons and acts of deprivation, such as cannibalism (one of Colebrook’s uncles recalls seeing a stewpot with human remains in it in a particularly distant settler camp). Her father was a pro-union businessman with a romantic streak, and her mother was a dedicated and extraordinarily hard-working woman with a generous and friendly demeanor. Both straddled the divide between English propriety and the realities of living in the bush with aplomb, ready at all times to welcome nobility into their house or handle wildlife in the bush.

Colebrook chronicles what she remembers of the family’s daily life, all of it rich in juxtapositions between English decorum and pioneering unruliness: taking afternoon tea in a traditional Aboriginal shelter called a gunya, discussing social issues over dinner with her politically involved and idealistic father, interacting with a variety of visitors to the house, attending dances featuring Victrola music, and going to the Great Barrier Reef with her family for exhausting but exhilarating vacations, where Colebrook remembers scenes like floating in a little boat while a shark and a swordfish fought each other. A lot of the book deals with the vast distances and isolation that marked Colebrook’s life—it was a four-day train ride to the nearest large city, Brisbane. News of the rest of the world would have to cross the ocean from England, then approach from larger Australian cities by ship and by local train.

Colebrook first attends a small local mining town school, where British methods of education and discipline prevail. Eventually, she and her sisters make their way to a slightly less brutal Church of England boarding school in the highlands, where Colebrook develops her voracious love of reading.

After school, Colebrook attends university in Brisbane but quickly learns that simply being an enthusiastic reader isn’t the same as having the preparation necessary to be a successful student. She has no idea how to study for her classes and, eventually, fails out.

By now, it is the early 1930s, and the global effects of the Great Depression have affected Australia in general and Colebrook’s family in particular. In order to make ends meet, she takes a room in a Brisbane boarding house and gets a job writing for a local newspaper. When that falls through, she has a terrible experience selling medical supplies to doctors. The realities of life outside the almost magical bubble of her childhood are soul-crushing and make her feel unseen and unwelcome.

To fill some of the sense of loss, Colebrook has an affair with a married man she meets on the ferry she takes to work. Although it is clear that for him, this is a meaningful and deeply felt relationship—he tries to find her years after the affair ended—the way she writes about him has little of the descriptive power of earlier scenes from her life in the bush.

After leaving her married lover, Colebrook meets a younger American diplomat, whose courtship of her is successful. They marry and have a baby, eventually leaving Australia in 1937 in order to settle in London for a post he will hold there, even as she registers a few qualms about becoming completely “civilized” and giving up some of the innate wildness that her childhood cultivated in her. Nevertheless, Colebrook and her husband are happy, even though we can see that she will never lose the wistful longing for the place from which she came.