Sometimes life seems like a game, where throws of the dice move you upwards and onwards and others hurl you back down. Snakes and Ladders provides a nostalgic glimpse into a finely drawn pre-World War II era and beyond, starting with childhood memories of author Joan Krohn vividly brought to life.
Cocooned in the loving household of her Pa and Nan, Krohn was uneasily aware at a very young age of estrangement from her own mother. Following throws of a fickle dice master, she was eventually able to live with her mother, then with her gentle Pa, ending up finally in rural Victoria with less than welcoming relatives.
These were tough times in Australia, when widespread fear of invasion and shortages created by World War II impacted upon everyone. Even the tiny town where Krohn went to school while she lived uneasily with relatives was favoured by armed forces for bivouac training, bringing the war quite literally to her doorstep.
Home life for Krohn was a trial. She was treated as a servant by her formidable aunt and her mistreatment received no intervention from either her reticent uncle or the cousin who bore her no malice. Her aunt held strong religious convictions which created barriers along denominational lines, with everyone not on her own side consigned to perdition. Although simple times in many ways, tribal divides created by religion were not to be crossed and could inflict more harm than a serpent. There is aching poignancy in the religious issues so pivotal in the lives of Krohn’s parents’ generation which now rarely raise even an eyebrow.
At school Krohn was a clever student who made friends easily. Even as a young girl she was lauded for her beautiful singing voice wherever she went and her gift was an enduring source of joy. Music is everywhere in Krohn’s memoirs and echoes of meaningful songs punctuate the book. Like a musical score, the title of every chapter relates to a song, underscored with the composer’s name.
For a time Krohn experienced happy times in Melbourne as a young teacher, always finding ladders of kindness and opportunities to move ahead. She discovered that first love may sometimes never be really replaced, and endured difficult family life in an abusive relationship. When she finally located the right ladder she found the courage to leap towards opportunity.
Snakes and Ladders recalls a past era in both its harshness and its innocence. Krohn has created an exquisite time capsule of Australian history, complete with music, memories, joy and sadness which will resonate with many readers who identify in Krohn’s experiences the throw of the dice in their own family’s history.
Reviewed by Chris McGuigan
Kensington Review May 2016
Available from Sid Harta Publishers http://sidharta.com/au/