Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Book of Hat by Harriet Rowland - review by Maggie Rainey-Smith

The Book of Hat
by Harriet Rowland
Published by Submarine Books, 2014 (an imprint of Makaro Press) - $25.00

When I was asked to review this book, I had some reservations.  I'd been following the progress of Harriet Rowland through mutual friends on Facebook, Mary McCallum, editor of the book and Fifi Colston who designed the cover.  Of course, you cannot help but be touched when you know a young woman is dying of cancer, that she is writing a blog about her experience and finally, that she does indeed die.   But, I didn't know Harriet, and so there was an element for me of the 'voyeur', my knowing so much about this young woman without knowing her.

                All this changed when I read 'The Book of Hat'.  It doesn't matter that I didn't know Harriet and I read on, not because of morbid curiosity, but because of true engagement with her lively, and most admirably of all, non-self-pitying updates.  Harriet began a blog called 'My experience of walking the dog' in 2011, when she was 17 and newly diagnosed with cancer.   'The Book of Hat' is a collection of these posts. The blogs chart her experience from the moment she discovers she has osteosarcoma, to pretty much the grim finality.  Even in some of her very darkest early moments, Harriet's voice retains humour, self-knowledge and generosity. It is heart-breaking to read her joy when after months of chemotherapy she is told the cancer is at bay... knowing the outcome of this book before I embarked on reading it, I found this joyful blog update touched me greatly.   Each update is Harriet living moment by moment, so it is intense, both joyful and raw. 

                How to recommend this book.    Firstly, it is a most engaging and intimate journey of a young woman in the prime of her life accepting the first diagnosis of cancer, to the facing the awful finality of this diagnosis.  I asked myself, is this a book for other young people with cancer?   Is it a book for the families of young people with cancer?     Each journey must be so different - it might be a big ask for someone to have the same insight, and generosity as Harriet projects.   Then too, Harriet rightly tells us how fortunate she is.  Her mother is given a year off work to look after her... she has two trips to Europe from the time of her cancer diagnosis before she dies, along with other spontaneous and not inexpensive  adventures.  Not every young person with cancer, comes from a family that could afford this.  

                Harriet was 17 years old and a student at  Queen Margaret College, when first diagnosed with cancer(she thought her knee was sore from a recent ski holiday).  It is the support and love of her friends from school that sustains her through some of her darkest moments.   I found one of the saddest blogs was when her friends were leaving school to go to university and Harriet writes 'What scares me more than the idea of being sick is the idea of being left behind."     And indeed, Harriet bravely leaves home herself to start university knowing that she will not be able to complete her studies.

                Yes, Harriet was blessed with an amazing family, great friendships and she packed a lifetime into the final two years - but, what shines through is her capacity to consider others., She often writes about the sadness she is inflicting on others, by dying - something I found very moving.  There's an endearing lack of ego in this story and compassion for others.  It is a tribute to all who loved Harriet, but more importantly, it is the courageous blog of a young woman who wasn't afraid to share her story, warts and all - about dying.

                Harriet's family commissioned this book and it was Harriet's wish that from every book sold a dollar will be donated to Canteen.  

About the reviewer:
Maggie Rainey-Smith is a Wellington writer and regular reviewer on Beattie's Book Blog.  http://acurioushalfhour.wordpress.com



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