Book Review: Natasha Lands Down Under

Dr. Jessie Voigts's picture

I've recently read an extraordinary book, entitled Natasha Lands Down Under. Written by Katherine McCaughan, this book is an intercultural odyssey, set in China and Australia. Natasha Lands Down Under is a compelling read, exploring one Russian family's migration from China to Australia in the 1950s, through the eyes of a young girl. The book explores the cultural implications of migrating - and of being an outsider in not one, but two different countries. The intercultural adjustment of the family - and of Natasha - is one that many of us will recognize. Living in different places, learning a new language and cultural context, and figuring out intercultural differences is a challenge that I love to embrace, as difficult as it can be. Seen though a young girl's eyes, however, is to see it anew, with a fresh perspective that reminds us that kids often go through very different issues abroad.  I love this book - have read it thrice! - and each time I've discovered something new. Natasha Lands Down Under is a enchanting read, with a protaganist that we can't help but root for as she stumbles through - and thrives in - life in a new country.

Natasha Lands Down Under

Author Katherine McCaughan was born in Shanghai, China to Russian parents who fled to Australia in 1950 after the Communist Revolution. She graduated from the University of Sydney and Sydney Teachers College, and taught English and History at the high school level. In 1977, with her husband and children, she moved to Chicago, Illinois, where she worked in real estate and relocation. It was in Chicago that McCaughan began writing down family stories from the dangerous and tense times the family faced during the Second World War, the Japanese occupation of China and the civil war that followed.

In 1993, she and her husband moved to Hong Kong where they lived for ten years.  Here McCaughan wrote book reviews for B- International Magazine and personal essays for AWARE magazine. Also, for many years she taught creative writing at the Hong Kong YWCA. The nostalgia brought on by the Chinese and British cultures in Hong Kong inspired the interweaving of the family stories into a fictional novel, Natasha Lands Down Under.  Drawing on McCaughan’s experiences, the novel explores issues of migration and adaptation through the eyes of young Natasha.

We were lucky enough to sit down and talk with Katherine about her book, inspiration, research, personal history, and more. Here's what she had to say...

WE: Please tell us about your book, Natasha Lands Down Under...

KM: Natasha Lands Down Under is about a year in the life of a headstrong, quick tempered young girl who, with her Russian family, has to adjust to a new home in Australia when she cannot even speak English. Her previous life in China had been dangerous, but at least it had been familiar. Now her world has turned upside down with new family, no friends and a new country with a totally different way of life.

I have tried to show the feelings that immigrants face, from denial to acceptance, and the events that help and hinder Natasha's adjustment. The family's story during the Japanese occupation of China and the civil war years as well as the journey to Tianjiin, then Hong Kong and finally Australia, is based in a large part on my own family's history.

WE: What inspired you to write this book?

KM: Initially I began writing down family stories that I remembered from childhood. Some stories were true - my father was indeed nearly shot for having US dollars in his wallet - but others were half remembered sequences of events and sometimes maybe even old newspaper stories that impressed me as a child. The years of the Japanese occupation of China and after the Second World War were tempestuous ones in Shanghai where we lived and the feeling of danger lingered in my mind for a long time after we left. In many ways, it was cathartic for me to write these things down.

It seemed a shame that nothing more was to happen with these stories. The character of Natasha came to me as a vehicle for putting the stories into a book. She has some similarities to me, but she is a lot more brave and outspoken. So the stories became the flashbacks to the struggles of Natasha's first year in Australia.     

WE: You've written of three very different cultures in this wonderful book - why was this important to you?

KM: All three cultures that have influenced my life are very important to me. I speak Russian and am thrilled to run into another Russian speaker. I love its marvelous literary tradition and very colorful history. As I grew up in Australia, married an Australian and my mother still lives there, Australia has been and will always be a very dear place for me. And when we lived in Hong Kong (1993 until 2003), I visited China regularly and felt remarkably at home there, too. Now I am an American - a fourth culture - and appreciate everything that is around me in this great country. My family jokes that when the Olympics are on, I have so many countries to root for that I have a winner in every race. 

WE: Is writing of intercultural adjustment for a YA audience different than for an adult audience?

KM: A child's life is so affected by adult decisions, but there is not the weight of responsibility for financial well being that an adult has to cope with. In a way, young people can feel powerless when these important decisions are made, but in the new country, it is the younger people who adjust more quickly, learn the language and customs, and then they take over some of the adult functions - for example, Natasha leading her father and Babushka to the correct train. I found writing about a younger person is even more interesting because of the split that occurs between life at home and life in the wider community. An adult can choose to associate mainly with people from the same homeland, but a child is thrust into school immediately and has to work out a way to cope. Adult personalities are already formed when they move to a new country, but children are still malleable and the whole experience shapes their responses and helps form who they become.

WE: How did you research this book?

KM: My mother was my primary 'go-to' person to fact- check things I remembered. While we were living in Hong Kong, I took her back for a visit to Shanghai. At first I thought I had made a terrible mistake as she was so upset by the changes to the city she had known in the thirties and forties. But after a few days, she began to focus on the things that had remained the same, and would show me locations where historical incidents had occurred. We visited our old home and took a private tour of all the places she remembered, including the Bridge House that was such a terrifying place during the war years. As well, I have always read a great deal and enjoyed novels set in Asia. In Hong Kong, the Helena May (a private club) library contains a shelf of first person accounts and memoirs of the war years, and I think I read every one.  I read up about deafness and when I saw an article in the newspaper about a young boy who was deaf, I contacted the boy's mother for first-hand details, and she has become a good friend.

WE: Immigration is such an important topic to many people the world over. Was any of this book autobiographical? What have  been your experiences with intercultural adjustment?

KM: Many of the family stories are autobiographical but the story going forward after Natasha's arrival in Australia is fiction. However, although the events that occur in Natasha's life may be fiction, her feelings and reactions are drawn from my own experiences. These feelings of being an immigrant and the relation of immigrants to the wider community, their coping mechanisms, the little indignities they constantly suffer, and the belittling of adults when they have to depend on their children to translate the language and lead them in the new environment - these were all true to how I experienced them all those years ago, and are very likely true today.  I was only five years old when we arrived in Australia, but I still remember many things very clearly as it was such a momentous time in my life.
In some ways, I have been an 'outsider' my entire life. We were Russians in China, 'New Australians' in Australia, and came to America and Hong Kong as new residents too. My early experiences helped me to adjust later in life as I learned to watch carefully to gauge the 'correct' thing to do for the culture I was attempting to fit into. My life has taught me how culture specific so many manners are, and it is the deep-down goodness in a person that is important, not knowing which fork to use. 

WE:  Is there anything else you'd like to share with us?

KM: Someone said that my book would never sell in America because it is set in Australia, is about a Russian girl from China and there is not an American in sight. Your web site gives me hope that Americans are interested in other cultures and in the wide world beyond our shores.

WE: Thanks so much, Katherine. I love your book and highly recommend it to our readers!

 

Here are some discussion questions, for the book.

For more information, please see: www.katherinemccaughan.com

You can also follow on the Facebook Page!

 

 

 

 

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Comments (7)

  • farsighted girl

    7 years 11 months ago

    My 12 -year-old daughter devours books at a weekly rate so I'm always searching for girl-centered, adventrue tales like these. The cross-cultural setting is a particular interest. I hope you keep writing so it's a series!

  • Dr. Jessie Voigts

    7 years 11 months ago

    farsighted girl - this was an excellent read - i'd highly recommend it to your daughter! and, the author lives in chicago, too!

     

    Jessie Voigts, PhD

    Publisher, wanderingeducators.com

  • Sally Reed

    7 years 11 months ago

    This is a wonderful review. Thank you.

  • Lynn Garthwaite

    7 years 11 months ago

    What an intriguing topic!   A Russian family moves to China and after assimilating the Chinese culture, moves to Australia.   And all of the political intrigue that goes along with the history of that time.

     And of course it's all the more interesting because it's a true story.   These are the kinds of stories that are so valuable to get down on paper because for most of us we can't really imagine what a family would go through in these circumstances.   Thanks for highlighting the book on this site. 

  • Glinda

    7 years 11 months ago

    What a fascinating story! I can't wait to read the book and really enjoyed the author interview.  I am so glad K. McCaughan put these stories to paper! Thank you for sharing the information about this book!

  • Brian Miller

    7 years 11 months ago

    This is so interesting. I can't wait to get this for my niece. It sounds like an excellent book for her to read (and then pass on to me!). 

  • Dr. Jessie Voigts

    7 years 11 months ago

    Thanks so much to everyone that left a comment, to win a copy of this wonderful book, donated by the Author. Our randomly drawn winner is Glinda! Glinda - I'll be contacting you!

     

    thanks again!

     

    Jessie Voigts, PhD

    Publisher, wanderingeducators.com

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