“There’s no heavier burden than a great potential.” Charlie Brown
I’m usually a cheerleader for stories involving animals but this one lacked something, I’m not exactly sure just what… excitement, charm, humor, human relevance? The Gerbil Farmer’s Daughter: A Memoir is the true tale of a woman whose father literally raised up to 9,000 gerbils at a time. The publicity for the book made it seem as if the father did this to promote medical research for the condition (cystic fibrosis) that killed the author’s sister. But sister Gail died well before the mega gerbil farm was established.
It may also be that the author’s father – the prime character here, more than the author – is simply not someone the average reader will identify with. A retired navy commander, he comes off as gruff and argumentative; someone who uses and abuses his wife and children. (At one point he fires his wife from the family business replacing her with his mother.)Then there’s author Holly Robinson, who displays some odd contradictions. For example, at one point (pages 140-142), she asks her high school classmates, “Why do you hate me so much? I haven’t done anything.” She asks this as the victim of mean behavior and bad language. But then just one page later (143) she uses very negative language to make fun of some neighbors: “…the Albino children wore plastic bread bags wrapped around their feet instead of boots.” The Albinos, a derogatory term adopted by Holly’s mother, are poor – “The one thing they all had in common besides missing teeth was their white-blond hair and pink-rimmed eyes…”
As far as the reader can tell, the neighbors never did anything to the author and her family… So why did they hate their neighbors so much? Simply because they were poor?
Once we realize that there’s no nexus (connection) between the gerbil farm and life saving research, a lot of the assumed charm and relevance (if not romance) of the story melts away. Robinson might have been better off writing a straight biography of her life – with her family members as secondary figures – or a cute modern guidebook to raising gerbils (an updating of the books her father used to write). As it is, there was just something missing in this book’s 289 pages.