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Book Review: Three Came Home

“I knew that if I practiced long enough, I could live on air, with a pinch of salt. But the time came when I didn’t have the salt.”

Hunger wasn’t the only thing Agnes Keith had to battle with during her three and a half years spent in a POW camp under the Japanese Occupation of Borneo. Loneliness, worry, physical abuse, sexual abuse, and illness all played their part in making life miserable, without the added pressure of providing emotional and physical sustenance for her infant son and coping with the awful reality that each moment might be her last.

When I first heard about Three Came Home, an account of American expat wife Agnes’s years in internment camps under the Japanese, the historical details sounded intriguing. What I hadn’t anticipated was the beauty and honesty with which she writes, and that her words would draw me into her appalling existence and create so vividly that surreal, terrifying calm of waiting – waiting for the invaders to reach the house, waiting to be ordered away from her husband, waiting for the food to run out, waiting for liberation… or death.

But this is no morbid tale, despite its alarming content; Agnes has a way of dashing every sentence with her positive strength, and wasted no adjectives on pitying herself. She made the decision to stay with her husband – British Director of Agriculture Harry – despite repeated warnings to leave, and thus faced what would come with stoic strength of mind. “If we were born to war in our time, then we would face it together,” she writes, “all three.”

By the time she was interned in the prison camp, Agnes was already an established writer – indeed many of her captors had read her previous memoir, Land Below the Wind, and she was often singled out for attention, both good and bad. Her belongings were routinely searched for evidence of her writing, and Three Came Home was initially written on scraps of paper that she would sew into the lining of clothes or hide within her son’s toys.

Despite the risk to be keeping notes at all, Agnes was compelled to write. It was a passion that started when she was in her youth, and an interest that was derailed dramatically when she was just 21.

Post-university, Agnes secured a job with the San Francisco Examiner, but after just nine months of work she was attacked when leaving the office and left with serious head injuries. She describes it with characteristic matter-of-factness in Three Came Home: “A loafer… crazed on drugs and alcohol… decided to kill the first person who came out of the Examiner office, and I was that person.”    

Two years of illness and depression followed, before Agnes was sent to Europe with her brother to recuperate. She returned to the US refreshed and with an enthusiasm for travel, only to then lose her eyesight – a delayed reaction to the head injuries – for two years.

Life was finally back on the right track when a visit re-introduced her, for the first time in a decade, to a childhood friend who was to become her husband. Agnes and Harry were married just three days later, and their devotion to each other never wavers, bringing them strength during their time of imprisonment.

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It was Harry’s job that took them to Borneo (Sandakan) soon after the wedding. Agnes adapted to her new life (documented in Land Below the Wind) with pleasure, and her descriptions make delightful reading: “In the warm, sticky, sweet-smelling heat of the Equator, Borneo was more fantastic than fiction,” she writes. Dividing her time between “the life of a lady” in Sandakan town and trekking into the forest with Harry on his various assignments, pre-War life is “a joy to remember.”

It is also a joy for the reader to have the Borneo of that era described so evocatively, and Three Came Home brims with phrases that will have you imagining and hankering for the Sandakan in which Agnes spent her days, “under a moon like a yellow melon, under a sun like a pale grapefruit, on the equator, and in the impenetrable, [yet] much-penetrated jungle.”

The romanticism doesn’t last, and Three Came Home predominantly documents the awful years of imprisonment in a raw and appallingly real account that will startle and fascinate. The reader’s relief when liberation comes is overwhelming, and it is sobering to learn that Agnes emerges, not with a hatred of the Japanese, but a hatred of what men are forced to do to each other in times of war.

For the expat living in stylish comfort in modern Malaysia, Agnes’ book is a stark reminder of those who came before us and the people who never made it home. It is also a true insight into the people behind the numbers in the history book, and will no doubt leave you questioning how you may have coped in a similarly bleak position. Harrowing but fascinating, this book is filled with Agnes’s talent and tenacity for life, and you won’t want it to end.

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Three Came Home by Agnes Keith is available online at websites such as Amazon and costs will depend on delivery charges.  The two other books written about her time in Borneo are Land Below the Wind and White Man Returns. Visitors to Sandakan can visit Newlands, the final Keith home before the family left Sandakan in 1952.  

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Source: The Expat March 2013

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