I often wonder why I still miss Bunga so many years after making his acquaintance.
Baby Boomers (47-66 years old) should have a clear memory of him. However, Gen Xers (28-46) and Millennials (12-27) not so much. Therefore, class is called to order.
Geography was one of the eight subjects I took in Grade 4 during the 1966-67 school year, the others being arithmetic, English, literature, spelling, reading, writing and art. My geography textbook is indelibly imprinted on my memory. “Visits in Other Lands” was written by Wallace Walter Atwood and Helen Goss Thomas. The distinctive green cover depicts a parade of children from various ethnic and cultural backgrounds spilling down across the surface of a stylized globe.
I can remember as though it were yesterday the very first paragraph in the book: “Bunga is a boy who is older than you would think from his size. He was 10 his last birthday, but he is only about as tall as you were at seven or eight. The reason he is so small is that he is a Negrito boy, and all the Negritos are small. If Bunga measures five feet when he grows up, he will be taller than most of the Negrito men.”
The 219-page book also has chapters on Netsook and Klaya in the far north, Suvan of the Steppe, Simba of the Congo, Pedro of the Andes, Abdul and Zakia in Egypt, Roshik and Moti in India, Sumai and Lota in China, and Erik and Inger in Norway, but none of these individuals arouse such keen interest in me and obviously others than Bunga the jungle boy. As someone notes on the internet: “(Bunga) was the only character from school that everyone remembered.”
We even knew what Bunga looked like, because Marjorie Quennell’s illustration of him adorns the centre of the first page.
The authors write about his forest home: “The far-away land where Bunga lives is never cold. It is never even cool enough for Bunga to need any clothes. The weather is hot the year round, and there is a great deal of rain. Almost every afternoon a heavy shower soaks the ground and leaves the air feeling steamy. Often there is thunder and lightening during the showers. At all times of year the weather in Bunga’s land is what we call ‘muggy,’ — warm and very damp.”
Apparently I am not alone in my preoccupation —obsession? — with Bunga. Witness, for example, the many references to him on the Internet.
Better still, a Newfoundland poet, Carl Leggo, memoralized Bunga, albeit with a twist: “In grade four geography / I learned about Bunga / the Malaysian Pygmy / who ate yams, / but I never learned / what Bunga learned / about Carl the Newfoundlander / who ate the tongues / of cod dipped / in milk, rolled / in flour, grilled, / light brown, crisp.”
The late Raymond Troke writes in Present, Miss! Memories of School Days in Cupids, “It was a curious thing about Bunga. No matter how good his eyesight was when we were first handed the book, within a few days we decided he needed glasses.”
Another Newfoundlander, Tony Collins of Gander, writes about Bunga in a recent edition of The Telegram.
“For reasons not entirely understood,” he says, “this unpresumptuous volume has left a deep and lasting impression on the prepubescent psyches of countless school children.”
He mourns “those innocent days of yesteryear.” Running across the book while decluttering his basement, he “was overcome with a sense of nostalgia.” The cover itself “was enough to evoke a cascade of bittersweet memories.”
Collins speaks for many Baby Boomers when he asks, but fails to answer, “how to explain this peculiar hold that Bunga has had over us for so long?”
One of my regrets is that my personal copy of “Visits in Other Lands” disappeared over the years. I am unable to contact the authors. Co-author Wallace Walter Atwood, an American geographer and geologist, was born in 1872 and died in 1949. And for sure Helen Goss Thomas is no longer with us.
I recently asked the proprietor of a secondhand bookstore to keep his eyes open for it. His response was telling: “I could sell a hundred copies of that book if only I could get my hands on ‘ em!”
Burton K. Janes lives in Bay Roberts. His column appears in The Compass every week. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org