Land Below the Wind

by Agnes Newton Keith
[Atlantic Monthly Press and Little, Brown, $3.00]
NOT too many books have been written about Borneo, for not many people go there and fewer stay long enough to write about it. Living in China, one knew Borneo as a great island somewhere off the southeast coast, an island which was a rich wilderness and a primitive jungle, and there came from it sometimes a few Chinese, looking only partly like other Chinese, for they carried in their blood a strain too dark and too impulsive for the Chinese frame to bear. Living in Java., one heard the Dutch overlords speak of Borneo as the seat of fabulous oil wells, wells of wealth that would be blown up with dynamite if the Japanese ‘came in.’ Living in the United States, one hears the old story of the Wild Alan of Borneo, born and bred in circuses, and the new stories of Martin and Osa Johnson. It makes altogether a not too coherent whole.
Now an American woman, Agnes Newton Keith, really writes about Borneo in Land Below the Wind an autobiography of the five years which she spent there. The viewpoint is peculiarly, and properly, that of a woman. The author even glories in her femininity. She goes to Borneo because she is a woman and is following her mail there. This in itself focuses her lens. A man goes to a far country for the sake of something outside himself, and he sees the country, and the thing he went for, forgetting himself. A woman goes with him, and she is always herself first, and everything she sees i through herself. The author of this book lives in Borneo as a woman and there meets the problems universal to women in the keeping of a home. She struggles as a woman with the intense conservatism that white people or perhaps all peoples inevitably develop when they are exiled to an environment not their own. But I have observed that this conservatism is most intense among white women in exotic surroundings. And even in the jungle she suffers from the special charm that the female human seems to have for mosquitoes and all noxious insects and small reptiles. And, as a woman should, she humbly, though with a nice accompanying humor, acknowledges the superior behavior of the male under trying circumstances of fatigue, wet, and hunger. It is not often in these modern days that one finds in a woman so graceful and complacent an acceptance of her traditional position. She is married to an Englishman, and perhaps English husbands have some magic, though this is not made entirely clear.
Humor, charm, an unpretentious wit—thse are all qualities present in this book, which first of all must be called eminently readable on every page. For myself. I found it most clearly unusual, however, not in its pictures of Borneo nor even in its details of the author’s life, interesting us these were, but in the passages which deal with animals. I am not naturally a great lover of animals, and yet I found all too short the chapter cutitled ‘Their Private Lives.’ I think it quite unsurpassed in the literature of its subject, and I wish it could be made into a book. The author wisely does not try to make her animals seem human, that mistake so common to nature writers. Instead, forgetting all about herself and even where she is, she leads us with an extraordinary beauty of words and a very delicate understanding into that other world within our own, whose citizens are beings only a little lower than the human.
Apes were repulsive to me always until I read of Jojo’s private life, and then, like his mistress, I thought, ’I had not known before having Jojo that people felt like that about animals. I had not known that the tissue-paper relationships of society were transparent and thin, hut the feeling of man for animals was body and bone and pain.
It is a feeling that has its roots in ages gone, a remembrance, perhaps, between man and animal of a common life source.
At any rate, this portion of the book especially is deep with overtones. Had it been missing from the rest, one might have wondered if the author had more to tell than the story of her life in Borneo, a story fascinating enough but not conclusive in its revelation of her powers. But she has more to tell, if she can feel and speak like this.
Land Below the Wind will be read by women because it tells what they may like to know about one of the few strange countries left in the world. It will be enjoyed by men because it is unpretentious in its manner of writing and the author makes no claims of unusual knowledge or large ambition for explanations and conclusions. And the general reader, regardless of sox, will find here a nice mixture of humor, good sense, varied observations, and delicate percept ions presented in a prose that is always clear and pleasant and very often beautiful.