The Gerbil Farmer's Daughter: A Memoir

By Holly Robinson
Publisher:Harmony, (5/26/2009)

Average Rating:
Mildly Unleashable
2.50 out of 5 (2 Clubie's ratings)

Buy Now From
buy it now from Amazon
buy it now from Barns and Noble
buy it now from Indie Bookstore

“What kind of Navy officer sits on his ship in the middle of the Mediterranean dreaming of gerbils?”

That’s the question that Holly Robinson sets out to answer in this warm and rollicking memoir of life with her father, the world’s most famous gerbil czar.

Starting with a few pairs of gerbils housed for curiosity’s sake in the family’s garage, Donald Robinson’s obsession with the “pocket kangaroo” developed into a lifelong passion and second career. Soon the Annapolis-trained Navy commander was breeding gerbils and writing about them for publications ranging from the ever-bouncy Highlights for Children to the erudite Science News. To support his burgeoning business, the family eventually settled on a remote hundred-acre farm with horses, sheep, pygmy goats, peacocks–and nearly nine thousand gerbils.

From part-time model for her father’s bestselling pet book, How to Raise and Train Pet Gerbils, to full-time employee in the gerbil empire’s complex of prefab Sears buildings, Holly was an enthusiastic if often exasperated companion on her father’s quest to breed the perfect gerbil. Told with heart, humor, and affection, The Gerbil Farmer’s Daughter is Holly’s ode to a weird and wonderful upbringing and her truly one-of-a-kind father.
Like this book? Then you might also like these...


Book Junky's thoughts on "The Gerbil Farmer's Daughter: A Memoir"
updated on:1/30/2012

Of all the books that I have read while being involved in book clubs, I think this would have to rank in the top 5 as being PERFECT for books clubs... and right now I can't think of what the other 4 would be... It is such a unique story that at the same time I think everyone can relate to. Holly writes in such an engaging way that makes you know her and her family and feel like they are your family. So many discussable points - growing up, fitting in, following your dreams, animal research, family dynamics, parenting styles - you name it, there is something good to discuss for anyone. 

Very Unleashable

Daboo's thoughts on "The Gerbil Farmer's Daughter: A Memoir"
updated on:1/14/2011

Pointless and meandering, this book is difficult to maintain an interest in for long enough to complete it.  Not only is there no great theme, moral, or point, but the author seems to find the most mundane events from her childhood worthy of immortalizing in this slow paced memoir.  While there are some events that are noteworthy, and the author tries her hardest to make them seem quirky and interesting, for the most part this book is an unsympathetic testament to a failed marriage and a run-of-the-mill childhood (albeit one which took place on a gerbil farm).  In the end, the parents seem depressed and catty, while the children come across as rebellious brats.  Even those traits might have been interesting if the circumstances of the book were more noteworthy, but unfortunately the book, just like its dysfunctional family, doesn't seem to have much of interest going on.

Do not Unleash

"The Gerbil Farmer's Daughter: A Memoir"
By Holly Robinson

Average Rating:
Mildly Unleashable
2.50 out of 5 (2 Clubie's ratings)

The Gentleman
The Gentleman
By Forrest Leo

 General reading guide discussion questions to be used with ANY book your book club or reading group might be discussing.
Clubie Submitted Discussion Questions
Have a good question? If your a clubie add one now.

From Publishers Weekly
Robinson, a former contributing editor to Ladies' Home Journal, wryly narrates this memoir about growing up with a stern navy father who abruptly takes up breeding the then little-known gerbil in the late 1960s. Though her mother equates the creatures with rats, and her father must keep his behavior hushed in his military circles, his hobby soon becomes an obsession that he believes will not only make him an income but allow him to retire. Robinson grew up as a fish out of water navy brat in the 1970s with a strong-willed mother and younger siblings—including her sister Gail who died of cystic fibrosis at age four. But her father is the true focus; he accidentally discovers that gerbils have epileptic seizures, a discovery that leads him to become the world's largest supplier of gerbils bred for research. Robinson intersperses her compelling narrative with accounts of gerbil mayhem, managing to milk a great deal of humor and pathos out of the rodent that eventually became a common children's pet. (June) 
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
From Booklist
Robinson’s traditional military-brat upbringing is upended by her father’s sudden and inexplicable fascination with gerbils. As she details the family’s dedication to this new project, her mother’s grudging tolerance, and the machinations required to keep the gerbils secret from the navy (which would frown upon such kitschy weirdness), Robinson makes her family seem ordinary in spite of this one bit of strangeness. And her father was no rodent dilettante, as evident in her chronicling of his years of research into using gerbils in lab experiments and his careful business plan. What keeps this surprising memoir from becoming a Lucille Ball/Henry Fonda parody is, sadly, the sudden death of Robinson’s younger sister from cystic fibrosis, a disease her father hopes can be cured through scientific inquiry. Suddenly gerbil farming isn’t so silly after all. Robinson writes with humor and honesty, creating a charming story, a reminder of how all the love and care in the world may not be enough, and a moving tribute to a father who, nonetheless, never stopped trying. --Colleen Mondor
“Wacky and tender, The Gerbil Farmer’s Daughter is as much a social history of the '60s as an intensely personal family memoir.  Holly Robinson handles the heavy issues of longing and belonging with wonderful honesty and a light touch.”
–Stewart O’Nan, author of Songs for the Missing

"Journalist Robinson cheerfully recalls growing up with a closeted gerbil-breeder....It’s a scenario that could have been lifted from a 1960s sitcom, but Robinson invests the narrative with pathos, good-natured moments of absurdity and plenty of keen humor....Daffy yet sweet and affecting."
Kirkus Reviews

“Robinson writes with humor and honesty, creating a charming story, a reminder of how all the love and care in the world may not be enough, and a moving tribute to a father who, nonetheless, never stopped trying.” 

"Robinson...wryly narrates this memoir about growing up with a stern navy father who abruptly takes up breeding the then little-known gerbil in the late 1960s....interspers[ing] her compelling narrative with accounts of gerbil mayhem.”
Publishers Weekly

“A delightful memoir about an unusual childhood, complete with a cast of characters led by an eccentric, forward-thinking father and his incredulous, rebellious kids. Think Cheaper by the Dozen--but with cute, furry rodents thrown in. I loved it!”
–Sandi Shelton, author of A Piece of Normal and What Comes After Crazy

“What a delightful, delicious coming-of-age story–filled with a cast of enchanting, eccentric, utterly memorable characters, and with what is most endearing: the author's affection for them.  This is an engrossing tale of family life, and of the extraordinary menagerie that lies at the heart of their adventures.  It is as if E. B. White, Gerald Durrell, and Calvin Trillin had conspired to write the funniest, most charming and unlikely of tales.  Holly Robinson's touch is sure, deft, and loving–and The Gerbil Farmer’s Daughter is a magical tale that will enthrall children–and readers–of all ages.”
 –Jay Neugeboren, author of Imagining Robert and The Stolen Jew

“What does one military man do when he retires from commanding a ship? Why not build the world’s largest gerbil farm? Holly Robinson’s memoir vividly tells of her life growing up in a military family, and of her teenage years as one of the ‘employees’ in her dad’s oddly successful, sometimes exasperating, often humorous livestock venture.”
 –Douglas Whynott, author of Following the Bloom and A Country Practice
“Holly Robinson reveals a fascinating, untold chapter in the history of the Mongolian gerbil in the United State as she brings us back to a time before play dates, bike helmets, or other adult meddling in private childhood affairs and tells with vivid clarity of growing up in America in the 60s - 70s, all the while struggling to hide a terrible family secret–the barns in the backyard house 9000 gerbils.” 
–Donna Anastasi, President of the American Gerbil Society and author of The Complete Guide to Gerbil Care

“In the long parade of memoirs American readers have seen in recent years, have you noticed how few make you laugh out loud?  Holly Robinson's book made me laugh so many times my cheeks were a little sore.  Her portrait of a little-explored and often-comic landscape, along with the sure and funny narrative voice which is our tour-guide through family, gerbils, and love, is one of the best memoirs around.  And her prose is sparkling, very particular, and always vivid.” 
–Susan Straight, National Book Award finalist and author of A Million Nightingales and Highwire Moon

“As improbable as it was that Holly Robinson’s crisp and buttoned down Navy Commander of a dad would give it all up for the dream of becoming a gerbil guru, it is not at all surprising that his daughter would craft a memoir that captures his odd and sometimes embarrassing passion so well. Her spirited account is equal parts quirky, funny, heartwarming, and even heartbreaking.”
–Madeleine Blais, author of Uphill Walkers: A Memoir of a Family
How can we make BookBundlz even better? Tell us what you think would make this website teh best for book clubs, reading groups and book lovers alike!

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Chapter One

Mail-Order Gerbils

One cloudy Monday afternoon,

I came home and found my family gathered in the garage. I'd been pedaling my bike around the neighborhood after school, pretending that the bike was a horse I was racing around the cul-de-sacs. I'd ridden so hard through the soupy Virginia heat that my short bangs were glued to my forehead and my knobby knees were shaking as I dismounted the bike and walked it up the driveway.

My brother Donald raced outside when he saw me. Donald was eight years old, skinny and quick and so blond that he looked bald in most lights. It didn't help his looks any that Mom buzzed his hair like a Marine's, which only called attention to the fact that Donald's head was so long and narrow that everyone, even our parents, called him Picklehead.

"Dad got boxes from Air Express," Donald said. "Now he's opening them!"

I dropped my books and lunchbox down on the cement floor of the garage and went to stand between Donald and my mother, who carried my little sister, Gail. We stood close together in the dim oily cave of the garage and watched in silence while my father-a methodical man who never went anywhere without a list, a map, and a pocketknife- unpacked the boxes with his usual precision.

As Dad slid out the contents of that first box with the help of a metal ruler, I saw that it was a plastic cage with a wire top. The wire top had two dips in it, one for a water bottle and the other for food. Dad held the cage high up like a holy chalice to admire its contents. Through the opaque bottom of the cage, I could make out two dark, round shadows that skittered this way and that. My mouth went dry with excitement.

"What do you think of them, Sally?" Dad asked.

Mom wrinkled her nose. My mother was thirty-two years old that summer, but she often dressed in shorts that showed off her figure and tied bright scarves over her short brown curls. She was girlish and lovely, like Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet, but without the scary violet eyes. "They look like rats to me," she said. "Look at those awful tails."

"What are they, Dad?" Donald asked.


There were four cages in all, in four separate Air Express boxes. The process of meticulously unpacking the boxes and examining their contents took Dad so long that by the time he'd lined the cages up on the metal shelves installed along the back wall of the garage, Donald and I were giving each other Indian burns and Mom was on her third cigarette.

At last, though, the gerbil cages were on the shelves and I was able to stand on tiptoe to peer into them. Each plastic bin held a pair of palm-sized animals with long tails. The tails had tiny black tufts at the ends, like miniature lion tails. The gerbils were a warm sand color with creamy underbellies and shiny black eyes; their eyes looked just like the buttons our grandmother Keach sewed onto sock monkeys for her gift shop in Maine. I wanted to put a gerbil on my bed and kiss it.

"Where did you get them?" I asked.

Dad handed me a catalog from inside one of the boxes. It was Creative Playthings, a toy catalog that Donald and I routinely fought over until we reduced it to confetti, even though we knew that Dad would never buy us anything from a catalog except school clothes from Sears. The gerbils were advertised in the "Discovering Nature" section for $5.50 a pair, a fortune.

Donald yanked the catalog out of my hands and asked Dad why he hadn't gotten the Tom Thumb greenhouse or the egg incubator, too. I pushed my face close to the plastic side of one cage. The gerbils inside it surprised me by bounding around on their hind legs like tiny, caffeinated kangaroos.

"Can I hold one?" I asked, tugging on the pocket of Dad's khaki uniform pants. He had taken off his brass-buttoned Navy shirt with the bars and stripes, but the pants were still cinched tight around his white undershirt with a shiny black belt that matched his shiny black shoes. You could see your face in those shoes.

"Not yet," he said. "Let them get used to us."

We left the gerbils and went inside to have supper and watch TV, all of us oblivious to the fact that Dad, with one whimsical purchase from a toy catalog, had charted a new course for our family's future.

Winter must come to Virginia, but in my memory Virginia was always hot. It wasn't the sort of sunny hot that you'd want to bask in, either, but the sticky sort of hot that makes your skin feel like it's melting off your bones. If there was ever a breeze, it stank of dead crab and rotting marsh grasses, and the lawns were hopping with chiggers and ticks and fleas.

A few months before the gerbils arrived, we had moved to Virginia Beach from Annapolis, Maryland, where my father was teaching at the Naval Academy before becoming captain of the USS Grant County, LST 1174. We lived in a housing development of uninspired brick ranch houses with minimalist landscaping, shiny avocado appliances, sunken living rooms, and long hallways perfect for sliding races in your socks. Southern Point jutted into Wolfsnare Lake like the thumb of a mitten; I suppose the mucky smells must have been the result of living not on a real lake but beside a glorified swamp created by damming up a piece of the Chesapeake Bay. All around us, new houses were going up so fast that we were surrounded by wooden skeletons.

Still, as bad as it was outside, it was better than being in school. There were more than thirty kids in my fifth-grade class and most were Navy, with fathers stationed at Naval Station Norfolk or Naval Air Station Oceana. Like me, they'd lived in different countries and different states, and had moved every year or two with their families. School, for us, was always a place where we had to reinvent ourselves, a parade ground where you had a chance to show your colors.

One boy managed to set fire to a trash can every day. The ceiling was covered with so many sticky paper spit cones that it was like sitting in a cave thick with stalactites. One of the girls frequently climbed outside and stood on the second-floor window ledge until the teacher next door noticed her face at the window and came running over, her dress damp with sweat beneath her armpits.

I was not a bad kid, nor an especially good one. I chose to remain invisible. I spent most of my school days reading horse stories inside my textbooks and pretending I was breaking mustangs in Wyoming or running with the wild ponies of Chincoteague, while at the same time wishing for a friend. So far, the only person who spoke to me with any regularity was the school bus driver, a skinny old man whose breath smelled of coffee and bacon, and who tucked my school picture into his bus visor as part of his collection of carefully combed children.

Since I had no friends, the gerbils provided a welcome distraction. After school I'd go right into the garage and sit on a stepladder in the relative cool, breathing in the heady scents of motor oil, pine shavings, and the slightly musky odor of desert animals. Gerbils were far more entertaining to watch than my brother's ill-tempered hamster, which remained curled in a tight fist of fur all day and reared up to bite if you tried to stroke it with a finger. Gerbils didn't sleep during daylight hours, but scurried and bounded and sniffed with great purpose. They thumped their long back feet when frightened or sat up on their hind legs to stare at me with their black button eyes. (I suppose I served the same purpose for them as they did for me.) The gerbils were frantic diggers, too, constantly clawing at the corners of their cages as if certain that an entire maze of freedom tunnels lay just out of paw's reach.

The gerbils seemed to cheer my father up. Dad went to his ship every day the way TV dads went to their offices, and the stress of his new post as the commanding officer of a ship had made him humorless and stern, like the despot of a small, unimportant country. Now, instead of sitting at the dinner table with his cigarette and sighing with his head in his hands, as he'd done nearly every night since our arrival in Virginia, he put on old clothes and went straight out to the garage to tend his new livestock. The gerbils ate little and drank even less, so there wasn't much to do, but Dad kept a gerbil journal and jotted down his observations.

On Saturdays, my father let me fill the water bottles for the gerbils and drop handfuls of green pellets onto their cage lids. But no matter how many times I asked if I could hold a gerbil, he said no. "These aren't your pets," he said. "Not like Donald's hamster or your guinea pig. These are my pets, and I just want to watch them."

"Can't I at least show them to my friends?" I asked. I didn't have any friends yet, but I was certain that showing off our gerbils could get me some. A gerbil was much better than those miniature dogs and monkeys advertised in comic books, always photographed in silly teacups. And there was just no comparison between a gerbil and a sea monkey. Sea monkey ads showed grinning creatures costumed in tiny dresses and suits, but anybody who'd ever been tricked into buying them knew that sea monkeys were only ant- sized brine shrimp that arrived as dried eggs in tiny envelopes.

But my father would not relent. "Don't you dare touch my gerbils," he said. "And don't you let anyone near the garage, either. Those are strict orders."

"Yes, sir, Daddy, sir," I said.

When my father looked straight at you with his blue eyes, you had to say that. You also had to square your shoulders and lift your chin, the same way the sailors and Marines looked at Dad when they were saluting.

My father was six feet tall, thin and muscular and handsome. The year we moved to Virginia, he was only thirty-five years old but already nearly bald, a fact that he claimed was due to us kids making...
 Apple iTunes

HOLLY ROBINSON, an award-winning writer, has been a contributing editor to Ladies’ Home Journal and Parents, and her work has appeared in the Boston Globe, Good Housekeeping, and More, among other publications. She lives in northern Massachusetts with her husband and their five children.

Author-Holly Robinson
Don't miss our
Interview with Author
Holly Robinson

11. They say every book written is the author telling a personal philosophy. What personal philosophy are you trying to get across?
Being normal is overrated, and life isn't much worth living if you don't follow your own personal vision with passion and commitment.
Read the Rest of the Interview

Also, Don't Miss BB's
Author News Page!
Look for advice on everything from how to get your book published to promoted. We are looking to help you get the word out about your book!

Check out our...

of the Month