In this tightly focused autobiography, Keneally looks back on this sixteenth year, a pivotal period of time in his life, signaling the end of his boyhood and the initial recognition of adult responsibilities. The narrative, filtered through the consciousness of the adult writer, manages to retain much of the flavor of youth. On the one hand, Keneally confesses to the reader that much of the energy that he expended on spiritual and aesthetic investigations during his teenage years was probably the result of sublimated sex, whose mysteries his rigid Catholic upbringing kept hidden from him; on the other hand, Keneally’s evocation of such landmark events as the first school dance summons up vivid images of adolescent wonderment, particularly the sights and sounds of what is generally perceived to be the relatively innocent decade of the 1950’s.
While acknowledging the sacrifices that his dapper father and ambitious mother made in sending him to a Catholic school, Keneally focuses much more attention on the contributions made by his teachers and peers to his adolescent identity. His teachers fall into two basic categories, defined by their ability to think outside the box. On the one hand, there are educators like Brother Buster Clare, who teach only to the test and discourage independent learning; on the other hand, there are those like Brother Dinny McGahan, English teacher and track coach, who introduces the author to texts outside the established curriculum, particularly the works of contemporary writers, and inspires Keneally to broaden his horizons, whether competing for the Newman Society Essay Prize or learning the true meaning of sportsmanship on the playing field.
Among his fellow students, Keneally singles out those whose idiosyncrasies lead him to question the status quo. Of special interest are Mangan, a stubborn, dreamy dilettante whose stated goal is to become a Trappist monk, and Matt Tierney, the first blind boy in Australia to attempt the leaving certificate, the tangible evidence of high school graduation, doubly handicapped by his lack of sight and his albinism.
It is Keneally’s volunteering to become Tierney’s study companion that introduces the author to the injustice that often besets those outside the social norm, a condition that he will rail against in later life. In Tierney’s case, for example, even though he possesses a keen mind and an athletic body, the authorities, by virtue of his blindness, restrict his participation in sporting events and initially deny him the right to pursue a public college education.
In presenting his own story, Keneally exhibits much of the same insight regarding human psychology that makes his fictional characters believable representations of their flesh and blood counterparts. A good example would be how he uses his own climactic decision to enter the seminary as an implicit acknowledgment of how complicated human motivation can get. In the last section of his memoir, Keneally accepts an invitation to study for the priesthood, partially out of a youthful allegiance to the church, partially in response to persistent coercion from the clergy, and partially because the girl of his dreams, Bernadette Curran, has taken herself off the dating market by announcing that she wants to become a nun.
By joining the author as he revisits a pivotal year in his own development, readers will discover some of the roots of Keneally’s subsequent authorial agenda and vicariously rediscover some of the innocence of youth.
Baumann, Paul. “Never a Question of Easy Grace: Thomas Keneally’s Fantastical Creatures.” Commonweal 116, no. 13 (July, 1989): 395.
Keneally, Thomas. “Indefensible Acts.” Interview by Judith Shulevitz. The New York Times Book Review, April 7, 1991.
Kennedy, David. “Poor Simulacra: Images of Hunger, the Politics of Aid, and Keneally’s To Asmara.” Mosaic 24, nos. 3/4 (Summer/Fall, 1991): 179-190.
Pierce, Peter. Australian Melodramas: Thomas Keneally’s Fiction. St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1995.
Pierce, Peter. “’The Critics Made Me’: The Receptions of Thomas Keneally and Australian Literary Culture.” Australian Literary Studies 17 (May, 1995): 99-104.
Quartermaine, Peter. Thomas Keneally. New York: Viking Penguin, 1991.
Ramson, William, ed. The Australian Experience: Cultural Essays on Australian Novels. Canberra: Australian National University, 1974.
Thorpe, Michael. Review of To Asmara, by Thomas Keneally. World Literature Today 64 (Spring, 1990): 360.
Vice, Sue. Holocaust Fiction. London: Routledge, 2000.
Willbanks, Ray. Australian Voices. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992.
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