Mexico Unknown by Lorna Whishaw ~ 1962. This edition: Hammond and Hammond, 1962. Hardcover. 256 pages.
My rating: 9.5/10 for sheer admiration of the cheek of this mid-20th-century intrepid traveller, plus for the extreme readability of her prose. If even half of this is true – and apparently, it all is, with some allowances for dramatic presentation – Lorna Whishaw gets my nod for the “Forge Ahead Regardless and Don’t Make a Fuss” award. Shaking my head and smiling, thinking of her adventures – in this case not an exaggeration of term. She loses .5 for not telling more. Infuriating book, because it’s such a teaser.
Lorna Whishaw only wrote two books – this one plus the earlier (published in 1958) As Far as You’ll Take Me . She barely lifted the veil on her fascinating life and many travels. Probably too busy living to sit down and write about most of it!
I did find record of a third piece of Lorna’s writing, her Master’s Thesis for the University of British Columbia Department of Creative Writing, a 1212 page (really? possibly a pagination misprint) work titled Blue Kootenay, published 1985. Most intriguing. I wonder what the possibilities of somehow accessing that one are? I’m thinking fairly slim.
Of my own free will I would not choose to live in Mexico, any more than I would take up residence at the bottom of a tropical sea, because I do not belong there, because I am not wanted there, and because Mexico can get along very well without me. But because through the Will of God I live in Mexico, I shall write of it, of day-by-day living in a land of vast beauty, of violence, and savage extremes, where the struggle of maintaining life is more terrible than death; a land which is trampled by the tourist with sightless eyes.
I have heard Lorna Whishaw’s two memoirs referred to, in her B.C. BookWorld biographical entry*, as creative non-fiction, and I suspect that she distanced herself somewhat from her narratives by tweaking names and certain personal details, and in her portrayal of order of events. There is no question that she was a real person, that she did travel widely and adventureously and that she based her books solidly in fact.
Lorna Whishaw’s perspective is at once soberly analytical and deeply personal. I am finding her writing intelligent and vivid; Mexico Unknown in particular is a unique work which rewards the reader in multiple ways. Sincerely passionate, continually smile-provoking, and unusually thought-provoking. Plus she was just a damned good writer, and not one mite afraid to voice her opinions in print, though it appears she was capable of maintaining a tactful silence when required in her real life.
On October 4, the day of the sputnik, we left the sanitary tranquility of the American way of life, and in total ignorance of things Mexican we plunged into the uneasy atmosphere where anything goes, where yes and no are as high as the sky and as deep as hell, and where nothing you can conceive of is impossible.
The Mexican experience starts with the culture shock of the border towns, and then the physical shock of the amenity-less workers’ community of a struggling Sierra Madre mine. The first half of the book is a dramatic tale of love and death, corruption and betrayal, nobility of character and inner joy found in the most unlikely people.
The portraits of the Mexicans and the American and European mine foremen, technicians and investors are generously but ruthlessly drawn with an artist’s flair for capturing personality and mood in a few well chosen words. The physical descriptions of the land and people are as good as photographs; I find myself perfectly able to picture each face and scene; an unusually difficult authorial feat to pull off as well as Whishaw consistently does.
Disaster strikes La Fortuna Mine, and the scene abruptly changes to Mazatlan, where the suddenly unemployed and quite broke family reassess their situation. The geologist husband goes off with the last of the ready money to attend job interviews, while the wife and daughter camp on the deserted beaches, invisible to the lavish tourist enclaves just down the coast.
A new job is found in a silver mine in Zacatecas in central Mexico,
…a rolling land, arid and beautiful, a vast panorama of golden grass rimmed by oil blue mountains; of joshua trees, lovely in scant clumps, but frightening assembled as they are sometimes to cover the land…as they march to the horizon black with their myriads…
and a life of relative luxury is settled into; school for the daughter, and endless days of lounging by the swimming pool, gossiping with fellow expatriate wives, and riding out in the surrounding countryside.
On to Guadalajara and then Mexico City, where the family experiences the major July 28, 1958 earthquake, then the geologist goes on to Nicaragua, while the other two return briefly to Canada, where a new car, a British-built Ford Zephyr convertible, is purchased and driven from British Columbia through the U.S.A., through Mexico and, over a technically “non-existent” road through the jungle, into central America. That trip is a saga all of its own, tacked on to this crowded tale as almost an afterthought.
The family is reunited yet again, only to discover that the Nicaragua job is being curtailed, and though by this time Canada is looking wonderfully attractive, Mexico is again the next destination…
And here I should end this story, but something happened on our drive to the mine on that black and silver night, that should be told. On the trail, lying insolent and beautiful under the headlights we saw two jaguars. Tony stopped the truck a few feet from them, and we watched in ecstasy as they rose and moved slowly away into the bush, throwing flaming glares towards us as they went.
‘Fancy’, Mary said. ‘Jaguars in driving distance from Canada.’
Did I saw “highly recommended” yet? I’m sure I did, but I’ll say it again. This is why I love used book stores, and glorious vintage books.
* B.C. BookWorld, 1992:
Born in Riga, Latvia to British parents in the diplomatic corps, Lorna Whishaw grew up in England and came to B.C. in 1947. She has lived in many countries, including South Africa where she worked on behalf of the civil rights movement. She speaks six languages and has published two books of creative non-fiction, As Far as You’ll Take Me (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1958) and Mexico Unknown (London, 1962). With degrees in French, English and Philosophy, she has taught for East Kootenay Community College in Golden and Cranbrook. She lives in Windermere.
Lorna Whishaw died in 1999.