The Miles Between Me: Essays by Toni Nealie

In The Miles Between Me, Toni Nealie shares essays in three parts - unraveling, bequeathed and the miles between me. She introduces herself as a foreigner in the United States, having left a successful career behind in New Zealand to follow her husband and sons to Chicago. There, she settles in, uneasily, feeling immobilized by her 'alien' status in the United States. Her first months in Chicago are marked by withdrawn freedom - no work permit, no driver's license, too many extra security checks at the airport and a longer wait for a residence permit than the rest of her family. 

She binds this narrative to the one of her grandfather's immigration from India to New Zealand decades before. He has left India behind at a young age to start a medical practice in New Zealand as an herbalist. Known far and wide, her grandfather had clients drive long distances to line up and wait for his services. He was an interesting character, noted in history as a charlatan and potential criminal, due especially to a death of a young girl that he was accused of causing with his treatment, which placed him in jail for a year. 

When we excavate the earth, what do we bring from our past into our future? How do the sediments connect us to our earlier selves, our heritage, our conflicts and rifts, our disrupted families?
— Toni Nealie, The Miles Between Me

His marital relations also created a sense of drama, marrying two white women one after the other. He was accused of leaving them both because they would not bear a boy, but history also tells a different story - one where he fought for custody of his girls. Nealie grew up with this mixed history - what she learned of her grandfather and what she was told by her mother, who missed him little but mourned for her mother. 

As an adult, a relative from her father's side contacts her from Pakistan and invites her to visit. She writes about the nervousness and eagerness to travel to Pakistan and India, to uncover some of these roots she did not know grounded her. But this is a story yet untold.

In many ways, this book presents a relatively clear picture of Nealie's grandfather, and her life in Chicago. Where I struggled was with the absence of certain core characters. She mentions lots of siblings but mostly discusses one particular sister and one particular brother. Her own father makes no appearance at all. However, Nealie's storytelling style did grow on me. While it started off feeling a bit shallow, unsympathetic even, I grew to appreciate that this was simply her way - telling her life as it was without any flowery language to alter it. This was especially true in the retelling of her brother's life and death.

I wept for Christchurch, not for my ill brother.
I wept for the nostalgia of childhood, of a warm home with my mother and the three siblings I was close to. It was easier to contemplate the city and its destruction, the deaths of strangers, rather than the demise of my own flesh and blood.
— Toni Nealie, The Miles Between Me

Through stories about change, scrutiny, family, love and loss, Nealie invites us to understand the miles between her as she knows them, with lives on two sides of the world, and her history further distanced because of a whole fraction of her heritage still not fully understood. For any expat with a diverse family history, her musings will resonate.