A little over halfway through Wendy Scarfe’s novel, Hunger town, one character says to another that “kindness needs to be a political way of life”. It sounds a little naive I suppose, but in recent months the idea of kindness, in the political as much as the personal arena, has been playing on my mind. How different would Australia be (I’m being parochial here), if our leaders espoused kindness, tolerance and acceptance in their sound-bites, and if, heaven forbid, they placed a value on kindness in their policy-making?
Kindness is not exactly the main theme of this Great Depression era novel but politics certainly is. Set mostly in South Australia’s Port Adelaide River district from the mid 1920s to late 1934, Hunger town tells the story of the struggles of wharf labourers to survive as unemployment and hunger took hold. It explores the ensuing political unrest and the growing attraction of leftist political ideologies like communism and anarchism, alongside unionism, in such a volatile environment.
The novel is told first person in the voice of Judith Larsen, who, at the beginning of the novel, lives on a hulk with her Norwegian-born coal lumper father and homemaker-then-soup-kitchen-volunteer mother. Judith (Jude), intelligent, strong-willed and attuned to social justice issues from an early age, develops her drawing skill to become a cartoonist. Early in the novel she meets her well-to-do friend Winnie’s cousin, Harry, who is not so well-to-do, and a relationship develops. However, while their love story runs through the novel, it is not, as in most “genre” historical fiction, the main narrative arc. They marry, with little romantic build up, part-way through the novel. No, the main narrative focuses on the travails of the workers, and on Jude and Harry’s involvement in the politics of their times, Jude through her satirical cartoons, and Harry through the Communist Party.
The question that always comes to mind with historical fiction is why? Why choose to write about a particular time and place – besides, of course, intrinsic interest in certain times? Some readers love to escape to what they see as a more exciting, adventurous or romantic period. But for me, the book has to be more than “just” history. It has to throw light on “the human condition” and, preferably, encourage reflections on the present. What does the history tell us about who we are, how we got here, I want to know, and (yes, I admit it) can we learn any lessons from it?
Scarfe’s book achieves this for me. Not only does it offer a vivid portrayal of the richness and variety of life on the Port Adelaide wharves, but it encourages us to think about the relationship between the political and the personal, and about how governments do or don’t support some of its most vulnerable people, the working poor. It teases out the differences between theory, idealism and realism. It considers the role of violence. And, along the way, it raises issues like freedom of speech, and the role of the artist. All very topical, n’est-ce pas?
You have probably realised by now that this is a “big” book. Scarfe tells her story in 5 parts through a well-defined set of characters. Although relatively long, around 450 pages, the novel is tightly structured. Seemingly unimportant points made early in the novel reappear with significance later. An example is Harry’s “Judith, you are a card”. Once said, it appears as a refrain throughout, and plays a role in the conclusion. Characters are foils for each other – such as the warm idealistic Harry versus the unemotional, theoretical Communist Party organiser, Nathan; or the pretty, emotional, seemingly superficial Winnie versus the no-nonsense, practical, more socially aware Judith. We can also see Harry, who “really did envisage and believe in a socialist utopia” as a foil for Judith, whose cartoons are grounded “in a more savage awareness of what I saw as the gap between dream and reality”.
Scarfe’s writing is clear and direct, but peppered with lovely turns of phrase. The fog lifts, “not all at once but as if the sun took fistfuls and shook it apart”. Miss Marie, arriving at the women’s march
stepped down from her taxi and made her regal path through the crowd like dawn breaking through a mass of sooty clouds. She was a gasp of radiant colour …
There were times, though, when I wondered whether the first-person voice was the best choice for the novel. Judith is an interesting character, with a strong mind and a good heart. She’s also rather opinionated, occasionally taking sets against people with little (initial, anyhow) provocation. It’s probably just me, but I sometimes yearned for a wise third person omniscient narrator to rub off her edges! That said, Judith, who is described by her art teacher, mentor and friend, Miss Marie, as “an instinctive radical but an individual thinker” guides us engagingly through her world.
As the novel progresses and things worsen on the wharves with scab labour brought in to replace the striking workers, Harry heads off to Spain with Nathan, at the time of the Asturian Miners Strike, to see communism in action. Without giving too much away, this results in, a few months later, Judith and Miss Marie setting off in pursuit. Scarfe’s descriptions of France and particularly Spain in the early 1930s are vivid and believable, and tension builds as our two women, posing as the artists they really are, navigate borders and gun-toting guards to move deep into Franco’s territory. After witnessing a brutal event, Jude produces a cartoon, but Miss Marie demurs about sending it off. Jude, the artist, insists, despite the risks:
To not protest would leave a wound on my soul that might never heal.
The novel concludes with a resolution of sorts to the plot line, but leaves the main questions unanswered. This is as it should be, because these questions – how to balance the political with the personal, and what sort of politics will create a better, fairer society – have no simple answer.
I started by referring to the issue of kindness. I’m going to close on another issue that is close to my heart, that of moderation. Early in the novel, Judith meets librarian Joe Pulham who introduces her to the Aristotelian idea of living moderately. It’s an idea she returns to frequently though, as Miss Marie says, “moderation is not easy. It involves compromise, and to compromise, what do we give up?” Darned if I know, but it seems to me that negotiating that compromise is the best way forward?
Lisa Hill at ANZLitLovers also liked this book.
(Review copy courtesy Wakefield Press)