Sundowner of the Skies: The Story of Oscar Garden, The Forgotten Aviator (New Holland Publishers 2019) is author Mary Garden’s biographical account of the early life of her father, Oscar Garden, interspersed with her own personal memoir and memories of him in his later years. Complete with photographs, the book is an almost forensic examination of her father’s adventures and subsequent career as an early aviator, blended with the author’s own relationship with him, and the anthropological research she has conducted into her family history.
Oscar Garden achieved notoriety in 1930 when he became the youngest and most inexperienced pilot to fly solo from England to Australia, doing so with only 39 hours of flying experience to his name. He was one of the original daredevil pilots, in the company of peers such as Charles Kingsford Smith, Bert Hinkler and Amy Johnson, and went on to a 17-year career in aviation, in 1943 becoming the Chief Pilot and Operations Manager of Tasman Empire Airways, which subsequently became Air New Zealand. Mary Garden has traced her family tree back to her great, great-grandparents and beyond, and with meticulous detail has searched out information from family members themselves, from historical records, and from members of the public who knew of her father’s exploits as an early aviator and his joy-riding days, and his contribution to the air travel industry. For the last 20 years of his working life, Oscar Garden was a tomato grower, and Mary Garden knew little about his aviation career. But once she began researching, the truth of his fantastical antics and incredible achievements seemed completely at odds with her recollection of the father she knew as cold, distant and harsh. Everything she discovered was a new revelation. In the Author’s Note, Mary Garden says that her father would have only wanted the ‘good bits’ of his life known, as a pioneer aviator, and yet she claims that ‘…history … can be a healing process … digging up his past and going on this journey helped me, and my mother, understand in part why he became who he was.’ From the wealthy fortunes of her great-grandfather The Merchant Prince of Orkney, a successful businessman and trader, to the family secrets and many skeletons that she discovered in the cupboards, to Oscar Garden’s singular personality and unquenchable thirst for everything related to adventurous early air travel and record-breaking attempts, Mary Garden has written an account that is complimentary of her father’s achievements whilst also questioning the toll his nature took on his family and home life. Much like Melissa Fagan’s historical family memoir What Will Be Worn, Mary Garden sets aside her rose-coloured glasses and writes what she admits is a ‘warts and all’ biography of the most famous early aviator you’ve never heard of, and uses what she discovers to help her understand her own legacy of family trauma and to identify the patterns that continued through several generations.