SOME STORIES are just too good to die, and the life story of Anna Leonowens - better known as Anna, the English governess who tamed the wilful King of Siam appears to be one of them. Anna Leonowens died in 1915, nearly forgotten after her celebrated career in the 1870s and '80s, until Margaret Landon resurrected her with the sensational and "highly coloured" Anna and the King of Siam in 1944. Now, in Anna Leonowens: A Life Beyond The King and I (Pottersfield, 154 pages, $15.95 paper), the Halifax journalist Leslie Smith Dow makes a determined run at uncovering the whole truth about her wily subject's life.
Leonowens was not, as she claimed, a respectable officer's daughter educated in her native Wales; more plausibly, writes Dow, she was the daughter of an army-camp camp follower and "her childhood was spent in the fecund confines of an Indian barracks," Piecing her story together was like "painting by numbers, without the benefit of the numbers" Still, in the main, this is a convincing biography only occasionally marred by the sort of awkward scene-setting in which imaginary breezes riffle through hair and eyes meet irrelevantly in mirrors. Oh well. The big news Dow imparts is worth a hearing: after making herself world famous, Anna Leonowens settled down in Canada for 40 years, in Halifax and Montreal. The fascinating story of what she did in those places, and how she did it, would justify any amount of prevarication over an unsavoury upbringing.