I didn’t have high expectations for this book. Yet another immigration-themed novel, but this time set in Australia, “The Harp in the South” by Ruth Park is one of the Penguin Australia Classics and is a gorgeous-looking hardcover with bright red pages.
“The Harp in the South” is about Irish immigrant family, the Darcys. In the poverty-stricken area of Sydney known as Shanty Town (Surry Hills), pious Mumma, drunk Hughie and their daughters Roie and Dolour live at number Twelve-and-a-Half Plymouth Street. They share their rather squalid home with tenants, but things get even more crowded when Grandma moves in.
When I first started reading this book, it was with the critical eye of someone living in 2015 and I found myself cringing often, particularly at some of the racial descriptions of the characters such as Lick Jimmy. However, if you take into account that it was originally published in 1948, “The Harp in the South” is actually a pioneer of social justice for its time. It shows multiculturalism in a positive light while the White Australia Policy was still in full swing. It contains positive depictions of an Aboriginal character when Aboriginal people were largely absent from mainstream literature. There are progressive and honest attitudes about sex including suggestions about the importance of consent and that sex work (and the people in the industry) is not necessarily immoral.
There is no question that Park, a professional journalist, had a keen eye for observation. Through her writing, she encourages the reader to look past poverty and see humanity; see exactly the same trials and tribulations we all face as people, regardless of our background. However she also makes it impossible to dismiss the characters because of their socio-economic status, and forces the reader to acknowledge the complexity of factors that cause and maintain poverty.
While an impressive novel for its time, this book isn’t perfect. Although complex, the characters at times do seem a bit like caricatures. Although progressive, there are still some things in there that are pretty cringeworthy by today’s standards. Finally, while it is a fantastic insight into poor Australian life in the 1940s, the attention to detail and day-to-day conversation does sometimes get a bit monotonous. Nevertheless, “The Harp in the South” is a great piece of Australian literature and a fantastic insight into the post-war immigration boom.
I knew very little about this book when I bought it. I was captivated by its beautiful hardcover and tinted edges as one of the Penguin Australian Classics currently available at the National Library of Australia’s bookshop. I took it with me to read when I went to a festival out past Ipswitch, Queensland and reading about the hard life and unforgiving landscape was a stark contracts to the lush, hedonistic, semi-glamping experience that was my weekend.
Originally published in 1981, “A Fortunate Life” is the autobiography of Australian war veteran A. B. Facey. It chronicles his incredibly difficult childhood in rural Western Australia, his experiences in Gallipoli, and his life after returning to Australia. The picture Facey paints of life as a settler and farmer in Australia at the turn of the 20th century is very bleak. The systems in place to protect children from abuse and exploitation today simply did not exist in Facey’s time, and it was astonishing to me the amount of power his mother wielded over his life despite not having seen him since he was 2 years old.
Denied the right to go to school, Facey was illiterate until late childhood and his ability to read and write was mostly self taught. In a way, his writing style could be described as childish or simplistic, as though even as an older man he had never truly become fluent in the written word. While perhaps not beautifully written, Facey’s story is honest and heartfelt and his descriptions of his life are detailed and immersive.
Interestingly, his childhood and his recollections of his time at war make up well over half the novel, even though they made up only a quarter of his life. After Facey’s return from Gallipoli, the novel feels a little rushed. While there are more than a few indications that these were the happiest times of his life, Facey skims through them. This was a little disappointing for a reader who really wanted to see Bert get some wins. He also touches on his political and religious beliefs somewhat in this part of the book, but they seem a little disconnected from the story overall.
Ultimately though, this is a book that really speaks for itself. Facey was clearly a man with boundless courage and optimism who met challenges and adversity face-on and managed to carve himself a niche in a hostile land. It was incredible the things he was able to learn and contribute despite being unable to read and write, and his knowledge and expertise was valued and rewarded many times over. His tenacity really shines through, and the fact that he managed to write the book at all despite missing out on opportunities that all children should have is a testimony to his perseverance. An admirable contribution to Australian literature.