Two sisters have written books about their father. One feels betrayed
I wrote a book about my father, the great Tauranga aviator Oscar Garden. Then my sister Annamaria did. My father’s epic solo flight from London to Australia in 1930 is featured in my book Sundowner of the Skies: The story of Oscar Garden, the forgotten aviator, published by New Holland in 2019. But I first heard about my sister’s book Oscar Garden: A tale of one man’s love of flying in October last year, the day before it was published. A cousin sent me an email: “Have you seen this?”
It was a complete shock. I felt like I’d been stabbed in the back.
I discovered that no one in the family, apart from my brother Robert, knew she was writing it. She told me later she didn’t want me to know in case I tried to stop it from being published: “I didn’t know what the grounds for stopping it would be. I thought you could do anything.”
Robert told me, “She got me to swear I wouldn’t tell you. She did it pretty quickly, after your book was out, and I suspect she wanted to put a different perspective on it keeping away from family issues, as she didn’t like that.”
A part of me felt embarrassed. I had grown up feeling shame around my birth family, how strange we were. I couldn’t wait to leave home, to get right away from my odd, dysfunctional family. “The mad Gardens”, Mum called us.
My father was born in 1903 in Tongue, in the far north of Scotland, and emigrated to New Zealand in 1921. In 1937, he married Greta Norlén who he had met in Stockholm while doing night-flights; she was a receptionist at the hotel where he stayed. Their daughter Margareta (who later married novelist Maurice Gee) was born in 1940. They separated in 1944, and he met my mother Helen Lovell in 1945.
When I began to dig up my father’s story in 2005, there was virtually nothing online – a Google search revealed a single entry on Oscar Garden, in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. My father was an unsung and forgotten hero of pioneer aviation until Sundowner of the Skies was launched.
Then I found my younger sister Annamaria had whipped up a book behind my back. She mentions in her author’s note: “It took only eight months to write the basics…My brother, Robert, supported me totally in this.”
Why, then, did my sister write this book? In the author’s note, she writes: “I read my sister’s biography…This was good but it was her version not my own. I needed to write my own. I wanted to tell a story that gave a complete picture of my father’s life showing what an extraordinary man he was. Having had a good relationship with him I feel I am in a good position to write his story.”
Fair enough. We are all entitled to write our own stories, our own versions. Her rendition of our father as a dashing, courageous aviator is actually not much different from mine – but miles apart in her rendition of Oscar Garden the man.
She recalls Dad telling “exciting stories” about his flying years when she was a child. My recollection is different. Dad worked long hours, seven days a week; when he came inside, we were not to disturb him. After our evening meal (no talking at the table) we were shooed outside. Although I was vaguely aware of Dad’s life as an aviator, I don’t recall him talking to us about his flying adventures. He seldom talked to us about anything, except to bark orders. He commanded our family as if he was still the captain of a flying boat.
A week after her book’s release, Annamaria wrote on the NZ Booklovers site, “I disagreed so strongly with my sister’s rendition of my father that I put pen to paper and wrote furiously putting together my tale on Dad. When my brother read it, he said ‘You and my sister had two different fathers’. He agreed with my version as being a closer picture of Dad.”
I felt devastated reading their public attack on their own sister. I thought we’d always been on the same page about our father. Annamaria and Robert had both read the draft manuscript of Sundowner of the Skies that I sent to family members. I was relieved when no-one came back and said, that is not correct, that did not happen, Oscar was not like that. No-one said, don’t write about family issues.
But now she and Robert are saying my book is, in effect, a lie.
My sister’s book makes no mention of Dad’s gambling addiction, his abuse, his mental struggles, including depression. No mention he was a miser – in Mum’s words, “the meanest man I’ve ever known.” No mention that Dad recoiled from human touch. He never hugged or kissed my mother, not even a peck on the cheek. He never held her hand, though sometimes clutched her wrist, even her throat. Mum said: “He had a cold streak, yet when a bird flew into the side of the glasshouse he would sit there with a saucer of water and some crumbs and stroke it. He wouldn’t do this with humans.”
Annamaria says he was “occasionally moving house”. That’s an understatement. Mum said, “There was always something wrong. Nothing was ever right for Oscar. On the move all the time.” In their first 35 years together, they moved 23 times. Sometimes he sold up within nine months. Once he bought the place next door. Mum said that was an easy move. She just chucked stuff over the fence.
In Sundowner of the Skies, I interviewed many people, including relatives, friends of Mum, and pilots Dad trained. I included Mum’s story, too. She was still alive when I began working on my book and wanted it to be a ‘warts and all’ account. She recalled: “He was excellent at everything he did, being a pilot and growing tomatoes, but not a father or husband.” She’d say, “He was a bastard of a father. And a bastard of a husband.”
Our half-sister Margareta and her husband Maurice Gee were a huge support during the research and writing of Sundowner of the Skies. We exchanged hundreds of emails. When the book was published, Maurice wrote, “I read with huge interest and admiration. What a story, what a character, (almost said what a monster?). He’s an enigma, his poles are so far apart it’s hard to believe he was just one man. Congratulations on a great story well told (How the hell did you survive?)”
Throughout her book, my sister emphasises Dad’s positivity, “his optimistic nature”, how much he “loved” this or that. But he was a negative and bitter person. His first marriage was acrimonious: Margareta recalls her mother Greta screaming and crying. His marriage to Mum was miserable: “We often fell out and went for days where we would not speak to each other. He had a lump on his shoulder that coloured and soured everything.”
Annamaria’s book mentions the “great houses” we lived in. When I was eight and she was six, we moved to a plain white stucco building with only two bedrooms. Annamaria and I had to stay in a small wooden hut about 100 yards away from the house; we’d go to the main house for meals and to have a bath. The hut had no internal walls or doors, only curtains. It had an outside dunny that stunk and was shrouded with spiderwebs; Dad would not let us use toilet paper, only newspaper. During storms sleeping in the hut was terrifying. I’d hide under the bed covers listening to the sound of the wind shaking branches of the large willow tree hanging over the roof.
My father would not have liked my book Sundowner of the Skies. My sister’s book Oscar Garden: A tale of one man’s love of flying is the book he would have wanted. He didn’t just soar through the skies: he crash-landed the journey of his life on earth. And we are still picking up the pieces.
Sundowner of the Skies: The story of Oscar Garden, the forgotten aviator by Mary Garden (New Holland, $32.99) is available from the author and Oscar Garden: A tale of one man’s love of flying by Annamaria Garden (Mary Egan, $45) is available in selected bookstores nationwide.