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Home is Where: The journey of a missionary child, by Margaret Newbigin Beetham 

by
13 December 2019

Lyle Dennen finds the memoirs of a child of the Raj insightful

THE genre of memoirs of clergy children has often been dogged by nostalgia or anger. This is not at all the case with this remarkable and evocative book by Margaret Beetham. Home is Where is the reflections, even the stream of consciousness, of a wise woman who has led a complicated and interesting life.

Beetham does not prosaically trace out her history chronologically. Rather, she starts at the near-present, where her memories flood back through household objects, old letters, conversations, diaries, phone calls, or country walks. She offers up gentle but profound insights from ordinary events. Her life is like an eclipse with two main poles. One is the heartaching search for finding home. The other is the haunting hurt from a sense of abandonment.

Both her parents were missionaries to India. Her father, Lesslie Newbigin, was one of the most distinguished missionary theologians of the 20th century. But her book focuses on him as Dad, not as great man. Margaret Beetham, her sisters, and her brother were raised as children in south India. She gives the sense of the colour, the warmth, the excitement of their childhood in India: the chaos of the street scenes and the extraordinary life of the British in the hill stations.

Bishop and Mrs Newbigin in retirement in the 1980s. From the book

But there are also her adult reflections on the meaning of the last days of receding empire. Then there is the contrast when the family returns “home” on leave to the grey, cold, damp Britain. Here begins her search for where home is: India, Scotland, Manchester — where does she belong?

Although her parents are clearly loving, when they return to India for another five years, Margaret and her sister are left behind, sent to a boarding school in Kent, and moved like parcels over the school years from aunts to aunts. Here begins her lifelong sense of abandonment. She seems to deal well with it through literature and a gift for friendship, but her sister, because of this, is dogged by depression and its complement, anger.

When they were children in India, Margaret’s mother would say that, as she was the older, she ought to hold on to her sister and take care of her. So, when her sister in old age is dying of cancer and Margaret holds her hand and takes care, this seems like a metaphor for not being abandoned and finding home.

The Ven. Dr Lyle Dennen is Archdeacon Emeritus of Hackney.

Home is Where: The journey of a missionary child 
Margaret Newbigin Beetham 
DLT £12.99
(978-0-232-53408-5)
Church Times Bookshop £11.70

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