NEW ZEALAND had been in a two-month-long drought that had frizzled its characteristically green hills to a crackling brown. However, when I drove from Dunedin to the fishing village of Oamaru, the skies unleashed a furious rainstorm, as if to make up for those past two months.
The chief attractions of Oamaru (accent on the “u,” population 13,000) are its Victorian architecture and a troop of adorable tiny blue penguins who trek back and forth between the ocean and a nature reserve.
Chilly and wet, I checked into my hostel, where I explained to the young man at the counter why I had come to town.
“You’re the first person who’s ever said that, and I’ve worked here for a while,” he told me, even though I’d passed several signs marked “Janet Frame Heritage Trail” on the road, as well as a stack of Janet Frame Walking Tour brochures as I’d entered the front door. “I’ve never read Janet Frame myself, though I know I should. I have watched part of the movie, but it wasn’t high quality enough to finish.”
I recommended a few of Frame’s books for him, but he grinned guiltily.
“Maybe I’ll just read your article.”
It was St. Patrick’s Day, and though I stayed in that evening, reading Frame’s novel Scented Gardens for the Blind, most of the other guests braved the gloomy weather to hit the bars. They were still fast asleep the next morning as I headed for the Oamaru tourism office, where I had a 9 o’clock appointment with local historian and Janet Frame expert Ralph Sherwood.
“Ah, there’s my man,” said Ralph, a dapper older gentleman with a tweed newsboy cap, a neat bowtie, and a trim snowy white beard. After eagerly pumping my hand, he explained our morning’s agenda: a four-hour walking tour of the town where Janet Frame had spent her formative childhood years, a town that for good or ill informed almost everything she wrote after leaving it behind for good.
As we walked up the main drag of Thames Street, and then turned onto Eden, and then Chalmer, Ralph quoted periodically from Frame’s stories, novels, and autobiography. Though the signs had changed, much of the architecture was just as Janet would have seen it back in the 1930s and ’40s.
Here was the cheap theater (now an opera house) where as a child she had gone to see B-movies and dream of being a movie star. Here was the chiropractor’s office (still a chiropractor’s office, still run by the same family) where Janet’s mother used to take her brother in vain attempts to cure his epilepsy. Here was the government building (now closed) where as an adult she had slunk with some embarrassment to collect her disability pension from the government. Here were the town baths (now a skateboard park) where Janet’s first sister had drowned.
None of the movie An Angel at My Table had been shot in Oamaru, a source of great disappointment. “It was all on the North Island of New Zealand,” complained Ralph. “There’s a unique light on the South Island, because it’s reflected off the Antarctic polar ice caps. So the light’s all wrong in the movie, and people here can tell.”
However, Janet Frame wasn’t always so popular in town. When the Frame family moved to Oamaru from the very southern hinterlands of New Zealand, because of the children’s wild manners and the family’s somewhat lax notions of hygiene, they were known as “the feral Frames.”
As Ralph put it, “Janet Frame’s mother was no Martha Stewart.”
A visitor to the Frame household at 56 Eden Street, now a museum, would have encountered a noisy as well as dark, dirty house stinking of chamberpots that hadn’t been emptied in days. This at a time when good New Zealand housewives were expected to devote different days of the week to various household chores (Monday for washing, Tuesday for ironing, Wednesday for sewing, etc.).
Today, however, 56 Eden Street has a stately calm. Walking through the now silent rooms where Janet, her three sisters, and her brother used to play, squabble, and dream, I felt much more of the warmth and nostalgia with which Frame wrote about her childhood than I did its other darker side, which I had to imagine.
In the back bedroom, which used to belong to Janet’s grandfather, there was a blond wooden desk that Janet used as an adult and which she’d donated to the museum. “Have a seat,” Ralph encouraged me, and so I did, looking out at the garden, with the same pear and plum trees I’d read about in her writing. Beyond that was a steep hill Janet used to climb and look out over her town, the one she’d dubbed her “kingdom of the sea” after a line from Edgar Allen Poe’s “Annabel Lee.”
After I’d had a look around, we were served tea and cookies in the kitchen by Lynley Hall, the gracious current curator of the museum. (Her predecessor was Ralph, who occupied the position during the museum’s first seven years of existence.) As we drank our tea next to the coal bin where Janet used to sit happily for hours, curled up with a book, the two curators talked of the visitors to the house, who came from as far away as China, Poland, France, and America.
“You have to want to come here,” said Ralph. “You have to know about it. Many people are moved to tears. Others walk by the front walk, stop, take a picture, but don’t dare to come in.”
I saw what he meant when I returned the next morning to get a look at the house in the sunlight. Just as I parked my car, I saw a woman and man get out of theirs and approach the house. The woman took a picture, stood there for a minute, and then followed her husband back into their car and they drove off.
Taking a last look at the house from the other side of the fence, I felt something stir in my chest. Such a small, simple, non-descript, pale yellow house, in a small, simple New Zealand town that few people had ever heard of. It was from here that Janet Frame had drawn a lifetime of inspiration. She was perceptive enough to notice its everyday magic that everyone else had overlooked.
If such an ordinary place could have served as the foundation for such an extraordinary career, then surely there was enough fodder in my own life to sustain me if I was just willing to look hard enough.
So what was it that I was not seeing? And why wasn’t I brave enough to try to see it?
My final stop on my Janet Frame tour was the mental hospital at Seacliff.