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then … we drove down into Mexico

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t Sabah family history agnes newton keith harry keith

When I was just a tyke, our friends the Keiths came to dinner, and I, the story goes, was at the door to greet them. “Hi, Keef!” said I as Agnes entered, and to Harry, after a moment’s reflection, “Hi, More Keef!”

The affable, worldly Keiths were particular friends of our family. Early on I appreciated that Agnes was an author; that they had lived in North Borneo; that they had, with their young son George, been in a Japanese prison camp during the War. Agnes Newton Keith’s several memoirs of life, travel and tribulation, published in Boston, occupied places of pride in our library.

mum Harry Agnes

My mother Virginia, Harry Keith, Agnes Newton Keith, 1950. Album of family photos by (and of) Harry Keith during this period.

Occasionally, during their infrequent returns to Canada from the far-flung places Harry was posted to — he was latterly a forester with the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization — we would go to their home on Island Road for dinner. They lived in a 1912 Craftsman house, brown-shingled, sitting on a rocky outcrop on one of those Oak Bay streets that resemble country lanes, surrounded by a regular arboretum of conifers (I was told Harry planted them), quite dark inside, with dark-stained wood, but with a hundred wonders — I recall a stool made of an elephant foot. I especially remember the charm, elegance and cosmopolitan aura of Harry and Agnes — he very British, always it seems to me in a tweed jacket, grey flannels and a tie, smoking Player’s Navy Cut cigarettes from a tin box, she in a silken sheath dress, her hair drawn back in a  tight bun. Harry had a twinkle in his eye and a distinctive laugh, and he laughed often — usually at human folly and vanity. Agnes’s dry voice was memorable for its slurred S’s. She and dad often quarreled over political issues. He and Agnes were, he wrote in his memoirs, “both addicted to speaking our minds.”* He  recorded an instance where she called him a sanctimonious son of a bitch. They always patched it up, I think. Agnes was liberal to a degree. She confessed to having smoked marijuana in her college days — “We all experimented; It was no big deal.” In 1965 we were introduced to their cook Lena, who they had hired while in Libya. Lena was from Sicily, and she served a full Italian dinner, with pasta to begin. I tucked in to that and barely had room for the main course. With a lot of good-natured ribbing Lena encouraged me to have more of everything. Over dinner Agnes and I debated the relative beauty of Japanese and Chinese women. I was fond of the Japanese visage, Agnes not so much.

* Musings on Medicine by Gordon Hunter Grant (Portland, Ore: Metropolitan Press, 1984), p. 124.

785 Island Road

785 Island Road, April 2014. Courtesy Google Earth.

I recall Harry, some time after we moved to St. David Street in 1978, remonstrating, “Christ, why do you want to live in Oak Bay? You can’t sleep for the sound of cracking pelvises.”

Agnes and Harry died within months in 1982. More than 25 years later, Lena was still living at the Island Road home.

In this reconstruction of the lives and careers of Agnes and Harry, those fascinating people, a central narrative retraces the genesis and early life of their elder child Jean. Between 1939 and 1975, Agnes published six memoirs, three about Borneo, and the novel Beloved Exiles. Agnes’s books are scanty on Jean, whereas George did a star turn in Three Came Home while a little boy. When Jean  does turn up, Agnes’s writing takes on a veil of ambiguity. Erroneous information about the Keiths and their children floats around, meanwhile, as in a biographical sketch of the author by the Bancroft Library at the University of California at Berkeley, where we learn that Jean was born after 1950.* Information easily unearthed with the digital tools of genealogy can, with interpretive skill, clarify some facts of Jean’s early life. While the identity of her mother is not to be found here, it can be said with confidence that Agnes was not Jean’s mother.

* Experiencing Borneo with Agnes Newton Keith, Bancroft Library website, dated January 2009.

Herewith, a reconsidering of published versions of family history in the light of independent genealogical research. This article was motivated partly by a desire to sort out fact from conjecture.  Agnes Newton Keith, UC Berkeley Class of 1924, is owed a more truthful record.

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