The best books on 20th Century Borneo

Judith M. Heimann Author Of The Most Offending Soul Alive: Tom Harrisson and His Remarkable Life
By Judith M. Heimann

Who am I?

Judith M. Heimann grew up in New York City, where her father and both his brothers were newspapermen. She lived in Borneo in the mid-1960s with her American diplomat husband John Heimann, and their school-age children. In Borneo, she made lifelong friends of Tom Harrisson, his then-wife Barbara, and indigenous people she later wrote about. After a career in Europe, Asia, and Africa, as a US diplomat alongside her husband, in retirement she became a nonfiction writer and went back to Borneo several times to research her books, help on tv documentaries, and celebrate anniversaries of important wartime dates there; she still remembers the names of the people, the songs, the carvings and paintings, and especially the way the local people met her and her family more than halfway. 

I wrote...

The Most Offending Soul Alive: Tom Harrisson and His Remarkable Life

By Judith M. Heimann,

Book cover of The Most Offending Soul Alive: Tom Harrisson and His Remarkable Life

What is my book about?

Sir David Attenborough describes Tom Harrisson as a... “Explorer, museum curator, guerilla fighter, pioneer sociologist, documentary filmmaker, anthropologist--Tom Harrisson was all these things. He was also arrogant, choleric, swashbuckling, often drunk, and nearly always deliberately outrageous. In spite of these contradictions, he became a key figure in every enterprise he undertook. Judith Heimann describes how he did so. A brilliant and insightful biography.”  

Seeking to do justice to Harrisson’s remarkable life, Heimann interviewed hundreds of Harrisson’s friends, colleagues, rivals, and enemies on four continents. Harrisson won the DSO for running the most successful guerilla war in Borneo against the Japanese with the help of ANZUS soldiers and blow-piping, headhunting Borneo tribespeople.  

The books I picked & why

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A Town Like Alice

By Nevil Shute,

Book cover of A Town Like Alice

Why this book?

The first half of this book is a fictionalized account of a true story of colonial women and children who had been en route under Japanese guard to a World War II prison camp in Malaya. When their Japanese guard died before they found the camp, the women and children were now without an escort, and were in effect prisoners of their own inability to manage by themselves in the jungles of inland Malaya. Under a competent, courageous young Englishwomen, they found shelter in a Malay village, where they had to learn to make themselves welcome guests to villagers who had barely enough to survive on without these additional mouths to feed. The tact and forbearance on both sides is what makes this a moving, hard to forget, story by one of Australia’s best-loved novelists.

Land Below the Wind

By Agnes Keith,

Book cover of Land Below the Wind

Why this book?

A charming memoir by the wife of a British colonial officer of living with her husband and child in what is now Sabah and part of Malaysia but was then (the 1930s) known as British North Borneo. Keith’s writing voice has a gentle tone that shows off her tact and wisdom in helping her family lead a happy life where there was plenty of household help but also unabating tropical heat and humidity and almost none of the amenities they would have had at Home in England.

Three Came Home

By Agnes Keith,

Book cover of Three Came Home

Why this book?

Again, it’s Agnes Keith, but this time using her gentle voice to describe the trials that she, her husband, and their son and their neighbors and friends endured during their stays in Japanese World War II prison camps in tropical Borneo. One critic wonderingly comments about this book that it “records but never renders pain, observes human nature but never attacks any individual” and concludes “the author’s writing is restrained and touching.”

A Stroll Through Borneo

By James Barclay,

Book cover of A Stroll Through Borneo

Why this book?

This book, by a well-born English friend of mine, was written when he was young and fancy free; he was then (in 1978) accurately described on the book jacket as a cheerful young man “who greets each new acquaintance and experience with enormous enthusiasm” as he makes his way alone, without fuss (while making local indigenous friends along the way) for five months through what was then one of the last remaining wild spots in the world. 

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