“Just Me: The Life Story of a Nobody” – By Susan McKearney

“After reading through my tale, do not judge me too harshly. Remember the plain, old authoress, wrinkled and withered with the years.” — Susan McKearney

New Zealand grandmother Susan McKearney makes her literary debut with the stunning memoir Just Me: The Life Story of a Nobody. Crafted during the Great Depression, the book might be considered an Antipodean version of Little House on the Prairie. But it is not frozen in time. It contains pearls of wisdom, bitter truths, and defiant optimism — all acutely relevant in these dark days of 2020.

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Mrs. McKearney (née Hooey) was born to Irish immigrants in a tiny settlement about 50 km south of Auckland, New Zealand’s biggest city. Her mother died in childbirth, and Mrs. McKearney and her twin brother were raised by their abusive father until both ran away in their early teens. After working a succession of menial domestic jobs, she married a labourer and gave birth to seven babies, five of whom made it to childhood.

A lifetime of hard knocks provided plenty of fodder for Just Me, which is written in a fluid, conversational style belying Mrs. McKearney’s limited education. Part social commentator, part desperate housewife, she shares a potent combination of horror stories, light comedy, and revolutionary political philosophies.

Just Me is more than just her “life story.” It’s also a startling snapshot of ordinary folk who are being crushed by forces beyond their control or understanding. It recalls a time when people might earn just a few dollars a day for a long day’s hard labor. But they were the lucky ones, for the Great Depression shredded the world’s economic and social fabric. Recounting the catastrophe, Mrs. McKearney remains determined not to lose her humanity. “My aim is to show kindness and thankfulness until the very end of all things.”

Unearthing a buried treasure
Mrs. McKearney is not available for interviews, unfortunately. Born in 1866, a year after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, she came of age at a time when brave pioneers who had fled socio-economic stasis in the Mother Country eked out a grim, self-sufficient existence in a cashless society.

She died in 1950, aged eighty-four, a dozen years after Just Me was first published by a small Auckland printing firm. It received a glowing reviews, and Mrs. McKearney sold copies both in local stores and from her home. She also undertook promotional trips throughout the district, and was interviewed on national radio.

However, the sands of time inevitably turned Just Me into a buried literary treasure. It was uncovered by chance in 2019 by Los Angeles-based expat Dean Goodman, a journalist and author who was reading old newspapers online while undertaking genealogical research. His interest was immediately piqued. He managed to find a rare copy in Auckland, typed it up, and gave the manuscript a fresh edit. His extensive additional research included creating a McKearney family tree and visiting her hometown. Just Me is initially available on Kindle.

“Much has been written about both the Depression and colonial era, but relatively little from the perspective of a working-class woman on the front line. Susan McKearney is therefore somewhat of a pioneer in this field — even if she does persist in describing herself as a ‘nobody,’” he said.

“Hopefully this book will serve as a reminder of the sacrifices and suffering borne by settlers and their families. Sadly it’s also a reminder that the ‘good old days’ were often anything but.”

Dean Goodman