CHASING TARZAN, Catherine Forster’s memoir of her journey of self-discovery and growth, tells the story of a young girl’s struggles with bullying and its impact on her life and relationships. In the 1960s, young Catherine is subjected to relentless abuse at school. As a way to cope, she turns inward and creates a rich fantasy life in which she swings through the jungle with Tarzan, her favorite matinee action movie hero. At the same time, Catherine is overwhelmed by adult responsibilities as the second of eight children and burdened with caring for her younger siblings as “Mommy’s little helper.” Pushed to her emotional limits, she becomes angry and lashes out at her siblings, particularly her younger sister. Concerned with the person she is becoming, Catherine decides to escape for real before she ends up hurting someone or herself. She finds salvation in a high school exchange program that allows her to create a new identity in a new town, school, family, and country. She becomes a “passport celebrity” in New Zealand, where no one knows about her history. However, her host mother, or “Kiwi mum,” sees through Catherine’s façade, helping her find the strength and courage to face her fears and embrace her true self.
While its premise suggests a straightforward, inspirational memoir of overcoming adversity and the power of imagination, CHASING TARZAN tells a more complicated, challenging story. Catherine’s fantasy world may provide solace from her painful reality but ultimately changes nothing. And her journey to self-acceptance is no magical transformation but an accumulation of small moments of reflection and insight. Forster renders this journey with a natural storyteller’s gift for vivid details and beautifully evocative language, often to heartbreaking effect—as when young Catherine describes a family photograph, comparing her mother’s silky hair that “nuzzles her shoulders” with her “grotesque” infant self with “fat cheeks that rolled into more fat.” And Catherine’s arrival in New Zealand begins the book’s most entertaining section, full of little anecdotes, such as her first encounter with Maori culture, that could stand alone as a fine piece of travel writing. Forster notes in a preface that CHASING TARZAN began as a series of drawings, and the book includes striking color illustrations that provide an arresting commentary on the narrative. Readers grappling with similar themes of growth and self-acceptance will find it an insightful and resonant read.
A candid and keenly observed story of childhood trauma and its ripple effects, Catherine Forster’s CHASING TARZAN is by turns heartrending and inspirational, told with a straightforward honesty that never becomes trite or emotionally manipulative.
~Edward Sung for IndieReader