A Visit To The Agnes Keith House: In Which I Meet One Of My Favourite Ghosts

January 9, 2013 in Asia, Malaysia, Travelogue

I was about sixteen years old the first time I visited Borneo

I arrived via steamer with an eager young wife, accompanying her husband who was the Commissioner of Forestry and Agriculture in British East Borneo. They stepped ashore in Elopura, which the Brits had restyled as their regional capital of Sandakan. I was swept into the Land Below The Wind with an optimistic Agnes, who battled the forces at work that were bigger than her in colonial Borneo, in the form of the other wives, a lifestyle completely foreign to her American nature, the sweltering heat, and monsoon rains that were punctuated by moments of clarion perfection that belonged on the front of a postcard. I sailed the coast of her equatorial island with her and battled hard upstream, portaging waterfalls and hiking dense jungles in an overland expedition surveying the forest with the Keiths.

A green dot on my globe, a world away, came alive to me through her words. 

When she was taken captive by the Japanese and interred on Berhala Island I struggled with her to make sense of it. When she and her young son were separated from their husband and Daddy and moved to a prison camp in Kuching I wept with her. It was through her eyes that I first saw the faces of the Japanese front in Southeast Asia, and she who helped me see that politics must be separated from individual people, even in wartime, when individual people do terrible things in the name of political gain. I read every page of Three Came Home with my heart set on the hope of the title. They had to survive.

I’ve closed my eyes and sat in her garden with her baby orang utan and stared out across the Sulu Sea above the bustling port of Sandakan while she’s told me stories of a place I only dreamed of and a time that was written into history when my grandmother was still a girl.

Family Travel Borneo

Climbing the hill to her house on a moss covered path with palms and mangrove trees meeting overhead and grey green light filtering through in the warm of the day made my heart race. It’s almost a kilometer straight up the hill from the wharf to her house. I imagined her Amah’s feet on the same path, with little George’s feet padding next to hers between the market and home on a similar afternoon.

The Newlands, the Keith’s house on the hill above Sandakan was the first building the British rebuilt after the war. The original was destroyed completely by the Japanese, and in her beautiful garden she found a human skull grown into her orchids with a sword rusting in the earth next to it. It is a house that is full of ghosts, literal and figurative.

I think this may be the only museum I’ve ever been to in which I read every single word.

A casual observer would think $5 USD too much to pay for a sparsely decorated home of an ex-forestry officer. But year after year, a steady stream of people who, like me, first saw Borneo through Agnes Keith’s eyes make the pilgrimage. Her ghost met me at the door. She walked quietly through her rooms with me, telling stories in snippets from her books. There were the dolls she’d sewn for George in the prison camps, from scraps of her dresses, which had been stuffed with the notes for her book, written on cast off bits of paper in her tiniest script. There was her typewriter, the magic vehicle that let’s a person reach through space and time itself to show her world to someone she cannot imagine walking through her house eighty years later.

My children were duly impressed. Ezra wanted to know if those were the actual dolls that George had carried through the prison camps, staring at them solemnly through the glass. “Do you think the notes are still in them?” He asked in a serious whisper. It’s hard to say. I hope so.

They too are on the edge of their seats as we pour our hearts into the Keith family again and read about their frightening ordeal on this island that we’ve come to love, as they did:

  • Will General Suga beat Agnes for her passive resistance, or will he provide the few eggs that George so desperately needs to survive in his malnourished state?
  • Will they die of this round of malaria?
  • Or will Harry find the drugs they need in the men’s camp?
  • How can she continue to see the Japanese guards, her captors and sometimes tormentors as just men who are also trying to survive?

I’m thankful for the glimmers of humanity, even in the worst of wars, that some of those nameless, faceless fellows, who surely perished on these shores, preserved within their ghosts on the page.

We’re about halfway through the book.

I’ll keep reading it to the children and pass on the legacy that my Dad handed to me with his quiet encouragement, “This might be of interest to you…”

Once the story is written on our hearts we’ll have to let the hard copy go; we cannot carry books in our backpacks over the long haul. Normally I just leave the books on a swap table in some hostel’s common room, but this book is important to me.

Instead of abandoning it to it’s fate, I’d like to lovingly pass it on to a friend; someone who will read it with love and reverence. Someone who would appreciate the ways that a story writes on a life and changes the course of history. Someone who could understand why a person would carry a book up a big hill, to the place where the story starts and where the author’s ghost could write her inscription. Someone like you, perhaps? 

Leave a comment on this post if you’d like to have my book.

We’ll choose a name at random in about a week, and we’ll mail you the book from somewhere in Indonesia. No charge, you just have to promise to read it and be a good steward of the story.