Wednesday, September 23, 2009
Book Review: The Gerbil Farmer's Daughter
I really hope the title of this book, The Gerbil Farmer's Daughter, doesn't deter people from buying it. But then again, given how many people, including myself, kept gerbils as pets when they were small children, perhaps it was a good idea for Random House to give Holly Robinson's memoir of her eccentric childhood this name. Robinson grew up when childhood fads were still common--hula hoops, paint-by-number kits, BB guns, and yes, keeping small animals you ordered from the back of comic books. Robinson's father, a navy man, sought to capitalize upon this trend. First, he kept the gerbils mainly to be sold as pets and even produced one of the first books on gerbil-keeping, using young Holly and her siblings as models. In fact, there is a good chance I may have read his book--I was an careful reader about my various obsessions as a child, and when I was interested in a subject, had a habit of reading my library's shelf left to right, cover to cover. However, I can't remember his name, of course, given that most of those pet books were quite anonymous then, unlike today, when pet experts have their own TV and radio shows.
Robinson's father and mother hated hippies--but also hated the Vietnam War. Robinson's father wanted out, so, planning for his retirement he began to breed gerbils for laboratory use. The family finally settled in a dilapidated old farmhouse in rural Massachusetts, where the 9,000 gerbils Holly's father eventually kept remained, if not unnoticeable (although gerbils have less of an odor than most small animals, 9.000 members of any species apparently gets a bit whiffy after a bit) than less noticeable. The stable of riding horses, pygmy goats, peacocks, cats, dogs, and other animals the family collected over the years provided camouflage--different kinds of weirdness covering up the weirdness of the gerbils, on which Holly's father hoped to make the family's fortune.
The gerbil farming of specially inbred species for medical research made money, although not the sums hoped for originally. As well as the chronicle of a truly, wonderfully weird family (I particularly enjoyed the stories of Holly's mother, an unflappable woman who gave riding lessons, during which the horses were dive-bombed by cats with bared claws, and learned to dance on pointe in her late 30s) the book also illustrates the strange emotion of people who are carefully raising animals to die--a curious mix of identification, protectiveness, love, respect, cruelty, and distance.
What is so spectacularly endearing about Robinson's parents is their failure to understand how profoundly eccentric their lives were--they follow Robinson's every boyfriend, every brief foray into normal teenage sexuality with hawk-like vigilance, even while collecting animals like knickknacks. Robinson's mother can ride the wildest horse and take down walls with a crowbar, but her husband still insists on the greater competence of males, too--while raising tiny, fragile creatures in the basement.
This book is a must-read for anyone with romantic longings about starting their own farm, and I would recommend it to anyone who ever thought their parents were weird and embarrassing.