What it means to be an ‘Immigrant’

Sally Bennett shares the odysseys of her young life.

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Immigrant: A Memoir Across the Atlantic, by Sally Bennett. 181 pages, softcover. $15.95 from Prospecta Press, Westport, Conn. Available at Bunch of Grapes bookstore in Vineyard Haven and local libraries.

Immigrant seems a quiet little book, but it is not. Certainly not in the sense of being a placid read anyway, as it leaves the reader with crisp afterthoughts about the young girl who is its protagonist. And also because it quietly asks us: What if I were that little girl?

Island resident Sally Bennett has written a memoir, principally about her life as a child, shuttling to and fro across the gritty stage of pre- and postwar Europe and America, before and during World War II. The child version of Ms. Bennett had a big life in physical scope, but one that left her gasping for emotional peace, as she follows her mother’s wanderlust on multiple transcontinental odysseys.

Memoirs can be tricky reads. Public figures tend to self-aggrandize or to offer exculpatory works revising the not-so-terrific aspects of their lives. An accurate memoir — the story of one’s past life, truly remembered — requires a pitiless, objective eye, and a suppression of ego rarely found in people who choose to write about themselves. Ms. Bennett succeeds, putting her training and experience to good use in Immigrant, an honest memoir well worth your time.

Ms. Bennett has an M.A. in English Literature from Syracuse University and an M.F.A. in writing from Vermont College. She has published numerous poems, short stories, and essays in magazines such as Poetry, Seneca Review, and Martha’s Vineyard Magazine, as well as in American Fiction (Birch Lane Press, 1990). Since 2002, she has lived year-round on Martha’s Vineyard with her husband, Marshall Segall.

Ms. Bennett was born in Yorkshire in 1932 into a prospering manufacturing family with Victorian-influenced values.

Sylvia, her mother, was a reluctant bride, and asked for a divorce from Ms. Bennett’s father when the author was just 2 years old, to pursue a relationship with Jack Pratt, an American engineer. Ms. Bennett’s father was initially unwilling to end the union, but relented and arranged the divorce. When Sylvia and Mr. Pratt married, Ms. Bennett’s father sent flowers to the wedding and organized a stipend for the care of his daughter.

Ms. Bennett’s brother remained with his father as the Pratts emigrated to Spain, then to Portugal as the Spanish civil war heated up. Her sister Janine was born in Portugal. Mr. Pratt was employed by Ingersoll-Rand, and the family lived well. In 1940, Ms. Bennett, along with her mother and sister, was sent to New York to escape World War II, while Mr. Pratt remained behind and became a shadowy figure. This was related at least in part to his second job as a spy with the Office of Strategic Services, a precursor agency to the CIA.

From 1940, the family trekked through America, north and south, with stops in England and back in Portugal, before settling in reduced financial circumstances in Winchester, Va. There Ms. Bennett graduated from high school and began her own odyssey with Ronnie, her graduate student husband. The couple traversed North Carolina, Connecticut, Iowa, and Illinois. Their union produced two children before ending in divorce.

In recounting her travels and tales, Ms. Bennett blends a journalistic approach — detail that puts the reader in the scene — with a prose style that carries us through the chaos of change in her rootless young life, at a crossroads of time and place unlike any in history, really. This is a book about a child who was raised to regard herself as an immigrant.

Last week The Times spoke with Ms. Bennett about her book.

Q. Why did you write the book?

A. I had a compulsion to tell the story. I think I wrote it because I had been thinking about it and writing it for many years. I believe it’s worth telling for my family of origin, my children and relatives in England who would otherwise not get a complete picture of our lives.

Q. Does it represent an effort at self-understanding?

A. I think that’s true of most writing. We write things that are significant to us and to get perspective on what happened, what’s true. Also, as an immigrant, I’ve always felt like a stranger. No matter where I lived, something about being an immigrant always defined me. Now, that’s not necessarily a negative feeling, though as a kid I always had to relearn how to live where we were. I was good at it, but never felt at home, without thinking about it.

I think I learned to cope and adjust. I was good at modeling myself after others, but underneath that coping behavior was a degree of uncertainty and issues of self-trust and self-worth. There’s nothing like an unstable childhood to make you feel uncertain about yourself [chuckles].

Q. The book ends when you reach adulthood. Do you plan a sequel about your adult life?

A. I’ve never thought seriously of a sequel. A lot of people, including my husband, have asked me about it. A lot of this book is concerned with things that happened to me and my reaction to them. I wasn’t the agent [setting events in motion]. Another book would be very different; I would be [a] more active [participant].

Q. The reader does not sense that the author is self-pitying about little Sally’s childhood in Immigrant. I assume that was not the point?

A. You know, I’ve had three or four reading events about Immigrant, and I always found myself focusing and talking about being an immigrant, never feeling at home. I’m not sorry for myself. I really was fortunate. I got a lot of breaks along the way … and a bit of what we call luck.