D’Arcy McNickle, Train time (#Review)

Continuing my reading from Great short stories by contemporary Native American writers, we now jump a decade from John M. Oskison’s 1925-published “The singing bird” to D’Arcy McNickle’s “Train time” which was published in 1936 .

D’Arcy McNickle

As before, I’m using both anthology editor Bob Blaisdell’s brief intro and Wikipedia’s article to introduce this author. D’Arcy McNickle (1904-1977) was, like the previous authors, of mixed parentage. He was born on the Flathead Reservation in Montana to an Irish father and a Cree-Métis mother, and was an enrolled member of the Salish Kootenai nation. He attended schools on and off the reservation, then went to the University of Montana, before studying at Oxford University and the University of Grenoble.

He wrote a few novels, but is probably best known for his first, The surrounded, which was published in 1936, the same year as the piece I’m reviewing here. From the summary I’ve read, it sounds like it draws from his own life, like so many first novels. However, that same year, 1936, McNickle started working at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, a US federal agency. He worked under John Collier, Commissioner of Indian Affairs, who encouraged self-government for Native Americans. McNickle became knowledgable about Native American policies, and in 1944, helped found the National Congress of American Indians in 1944. By 1950, he was publishing non-fiction works on Native American history, cultures, and governmental policies. Later, he worked in academia as an anthropologist.

Of his short stories, Blaisdell writes that “his quiet and intense stories seem to have been informed by a deep experience of Chekhov’s and Hemingway’s short fiction”. “Train time” is certainly quiet and, depending on your perspective, intense – with an ending that leaves many questions hanging.

“Train time”

“Train time” takes place on a train station, where twenty-five Native American (“Indian”) children from the local Reservation are waiting for a train to take them to an off-reservation boarding school. This has been organised by the local white Indian agent, Major Miles, who believes he is doing a good thing. He is, we are told, “a man of conscience. Whatever he did, he did earnestly”.

The trouble with earnest people – as I know a bit too well – is that they can lack imagination. He is thinking about these children who are about to leave the Reservation “and get a new start. Life would change. They ought to realise it, somehow-” It’s hot and stifling, the children are restless, and he is stiff and soldier-like. Not a recipe for the sort of inspirational words the situation needs. Then, he spies a young boy, “little Eneas”.

The Major remembers the moment, six months earlier in the depths of winter, when he had visited Eneas’ home to find out why his grandfather had not started the wood-cutting job he’d been employed to do. Turns out the grandfather and grandmother were no longer capable of such work. Not only that, they seemed ill, and the Major felt trapped. He feared catching pneumonia; he felt unable to help personally out of his salary, as where would it stop; and government resources were limited. Then, he had spied “little Eneas” who was doing his best to help the old people. Eneas’ “uncomplaining wordlessness”, his “loyalty to the old people”, had got the Major thinking. Here was “a boy of quality”. Surely he’d be “shirking his duty” if he failed to help him. So, he had come up with a plan to have the old people cared for and send Eneas off to boarding school. The trouble was that Eneas didn’t like the plan.

But, our Major was not to be dissuaded (so much so that “against his own principles” he had even bought “a week’s worth of groceries” for the old people):

Whether the boy understood what was good for him or not, he meant to see to it that the right thing was done…

You can imagine what that right thing was. The story concludes with our returning to the Major and the children on the railway station, and the Major trying to find those words to inspire the children. The Major knew that “none had wanted to go”, so he wanted to make them see “what this moment of going away meant”. What it meant of course, in the well-meaning Major’s mind, was a bright future.

There is no epiphany for the Major but the powerful imagery in the closing paragraphs, in which “a white plume flew upward” while the “flying locomotive loomed blacker and larger” conveys what the author thinks.

McNickle does a great job of evoking the Major. We see his good intentions, but we also see his stiffness and his obliviousness to the humanity of those he wants to help. This sort of well-meaning paternalism was pretty rife amongst those who wanted to do “the right thing” wasn’t it? I’d love to know how the story was received at the time. Did stories like this get the message across?

D’Arcy McNickle
“Train time” (orig. pub. Indians at work 3, from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, March 15, 1936)
in Bob Blaisdell (ed.), Great short stories by contemporary Native American writers
Garden City: Dover Publications, 2014
pp. 40-45
ISBN: 9780486490953

Myra Morris, The inspiration (#Review, #1940 Club)

As I have done for some previous “year” reading weeks*, I decided for 1940 to read a short story by an Australian author. After a bit of searching I settled on Myra Morris, and her story “Inspiration”, because … let me explain.

My last two Australian contributions for these reading weeks were works by men – Bernard Cronin and Frederic Manning – so this time I wanted to choose one of our women writers. I found a few in Trove, but the one that caught my eye was by Myra Morris, because she was already known to me: in my Monday Musings for the 1929 year, and back in 2012 in another Monday Musings where she was listed by Colin Roderick in his Twenty Australian novelists. She also has an entry in the ADB. Clearly she had some sort of career at least, even if she is not well remembered now.

Who was Myra Morris?

ADB‘s article, written by D.J. Jordan in 1986, gives her dates as 1893 to 1966. She was born in the Mallee town of Boort, in western Victoria, to an English father and Australian mother. Her literary abilities were encouraged by her mother and an English teacher at Rochester Brigidine Convent, and she had verse published in the Bulletin. From 1930 she was part of Melbourne’s literary, journalistic and artistic circles, and “was active in founding and organising the Melbourne branch of P.E.N. International”. Her circle of friends, it appears, included Katharine Susannah Prichard.

While she wrote book reviews, novels and essays, her favourite form was, apparently, short stories. She was published in newspapers, and her short stories have been anthologised, but there is only one published collection of her stories, The township (1947). Translations of her work were published in Germany, Austria and Switzerland.

Jordan writes that she:

has been acclaimed as one of Australia’s best short-story writers. Her clear pictures of life in country and town contain a wide range of characters and reveal her tolerance and understanding of humanity in its struggles. Like her novels, her stories combine earthy realism, poetic imagery and a broad humour. Sometimes her plots are marred by the demands of the popular market, but her often beaten-down and defeated people always contrast with her lyrical evocation of landscapes. 

“The inspiration”

I picked “The inspiration” primarily because it was by Myra Morris, but I was also attracted to it because it’s set in Melbourne and its protagonist is a musician. Both of these interest me. The plot centres on violinist, Toni Pellagrini, who, as you can tell by his name, is of Italian background. Every afternoon, he plays in a 5-piece ensemble in the cafe at “Howie’s emporium”. It’s when he is happiest, we are told. When he is playing, he is “a different creature entirely from the little dark, harassed person who at other times sorted out vegetables in his father’s fruit shop”. You sense the immigrant life. Indeed, at one point Toni realises that without his music he could be seen as “a fat, oily little Dago”.

Toni is ambitious. He wants to play somewhere better than the cafe, in Kirchner’s Orchestra for example. At the cafe, however, the customers are “indifferent”, and offer only “inconsequential applause”. They are more interested in their chatter, in being seen, than in the music. You know the scene. Toni’s distress starts to affect his playing, so much that the other players notice, until one day a young girl appears. She provides him with the needed inspiration (hence the title). She listens with an “absorbed gaze” and breaks into “furious clapping” when the music ends. Toni has his mojo back. Then, they hear that the famous Kirchner is looking for players and is at the cafe. But, as they begin to play, the girl is not there, and Toni is unable play well anymore without her, his inspiration …

What happens next is largely predictable – except that Morris adds a delightful little twist that doesn’t spoil the expected ending but adds an unexpected layer.

Like Jordan, the Oxford companion to Australian literature particularly praises Morris’ short stories, saying that “her talent for domestic realism and naturalistic description, especially of rural environments, is best suited to the short story”. “The inspiration” is not one of these stories – it is urban set, and is not domestic – but its immigrant milieu (both in Toni’s family and the gypsy-inspired ensemble in which he plays) and its resolution suggest a writer interested in capturing the breadth of Australian life as she saw it.

* Read for the 1940 reading week run by Karen (Kaggsy’s Bookish Rambling) and Simon (Stuck in a Book). This week’s Monday Musings was devoted to the year.

Myra Morris
Published in Weekly Times (2 March 1940)
Available online via Trove

Monday musings on Australian literature: 1940 in fiction

As many of you know by now, Karen (Kaggsy’s Bookish Rambling) and Simon (Stuck in a Book) run “reading weeks” in which they nominate a year from which “everyone reads, enjoys, posts and shares wonderful books and discoveries from the year in question”. The current year is 1940, and it runs from today, 10-16 April. As has become my practice, I am devoting a Monday Musings to the week.

1940 is a bit of a landmark year in Australian literature because it was the year that our significant literary journal, Meanjin, was first published – in Brisbane, by Clem Christesen. Its name comes from the Turrbal word for the spike of land where the city of Brisbane is located.

My research located books published across all forms, but my focus is fiction, so here is a selection of 1940-published novels:

  • E.C. Allen, Old Eugowra
  • Martin Boyd, Nuns in jeopardy
  • Roy Connolly, Southern saga
  • Frank Dalby Davison, The woman at the mill (short stories)
  • Dulcie Deamer, Holiday
  • Arthur Gask, The house on the fens and The tragedy of the silver moon
  • Beatrice Grimshaw, South Sea Sarah; Murder in paradise: Two complete novels
  • Michael Innes, The secret vanguard; There came both mist and snow; and The comedy of errors
  • Bertha A. Johnstone, Stream of years
  • Josephine Knowles, Leaves in the wind
  • Will Lawson, Red Morgan rides
  • Eric Lowe, Framed in hardwood
  • Nevil Shute, Landfall: A channel story and An old captivity (both of which I read in my teens)
  • Helen Simpson, Maid no more (see my post on Helen Simpson)
  • Christina Stead, The man who loved children (Lisa’s review)
  • F.J. Thwaites, Whispers in Tahiti
  • Arthur W. Upfield, Bushranger of the skies
  • Franks Walford, The indiscretions of Iole
  • Rix Weaver, Behold, New Holland (A Darned Good Read’s review)

Children’s literature was going strongly at the time, with books published by four authors still remembered as writers of our children’s classics, Mary Grant Bruce, May Gibbs, P.L. Travers, and Dorothy Wall.

I wasn’t going to focus on poetry and drama, but Bill, who checked my list against the Annals for me (as my copy is in Canberra, thanks Bill) added that Katharine Susannah Prichard’s play Brumby Innes also appeared in 1940.

There were very few literary awards at the time. The ALS Gold Medal went to William Baylebridge’s poetry collection, This vital flesh, though it was announced in 1941. The award actually announced in 1940 was for the 1939 winner, Xavier Herbert’s Capricornia, so I think I can also mention it here.

Writers born this year include some favourites, whom I’ve reviewed here, Carmel Bird, Marion Halligan and Geoff Page. J.M. Coetzee who migrated to Australia partway through his literary career was also born in 1940.

The state of the art

Of course, I checked Trove to see what newspapers were saying about Australian literature, and fiction in particular. In the last “year” I did, 1929, I found great enthusiasm to support and promote Australian literature, and this was still evident to some degree in 1940. It was war-time, but interestingly that didn’t feature heavily in the book-related articles I found.

“Fictional magazines” banned

One news item that did reference the war was reported by many papers in April. It concerned the Federal government’s decision to ban the importation of “fiction magazines from non-sterling countries”. The stated aim was “to conserve our overseas’ credit” (Queanbeyan Age, 23/4/1940), with The Forbes Advocate (16/4/1940) reporting that “it is estimated that this will save £100,000 a year in dollar exchange”. Exceptions to this ban were, as Adelaide’s The Advertiser (2/4/1940) reported, “magazines dealing with current news topics or technical and instructional publications”. Many newspapers added brief commentary to their reporting. The Advertiser, for example, commented that these banned recreational magazines had “little or no literary value” and that some had already been banned “because of their false accentuation of sex, horror and crime”. But, the point made by many, and I’ll quote The Advertiser again, was the benefit to Australian writers and illustrators:

Besides its wartime value in conserving dollar exchange, the restriction of imported fiction will, it is hoped, create a wider home market for Australian writers and illustrators.

And thus Australian stories for Australians! The Forbes Advocate took the argument further, arguing that ‘”Made in Australia” on nearly everything required in the Commonwealth would bring abounding prosperity’ – and make this continent, “mighty”.


Some reviewers commented on the “Australianness” of Australian novels they reviewed. Tasmanian Bertha A. Johnstone’s immigrant story, Stream of years, was described by her home state’s Mercury (6/4/1940) as “truly Australian and truly good” while Adelaide’s The Advertiser (28/5/1940) says of one of its denizen’s debuts, Josephine Knowles’ Leaves in the wind:

A FIRST novel by an Australian writer, apart from its intrinsic value, is of importance because of the proof that it furnishes that literary talent in this country is not stagnant.

The Argus (28/10/1940), on the other hand, reviewing Rix Weaver’s pioneer fiction, Behold New Holland, concludes that “Miss Weaver has wisely avoided any aggressive Australianism. She makes it a romance of pioneering adventure, vividly told, that would appeal to an English or an American reader”.

Many of these 1940-published novels were set in the bush, or in exotic locations further afield. Indeed, Echuca’s The Riverine Herald (24/6/1940), writes that one of Australia’s “most prolific” writers, Will Lawson, had ‘”gone bush” at Tahmoor (N.S.W.)’ in order to “complete his newest novel without any city distractions”. The novel was Red Morgan rides, a bushranging story.

What about the city?

I did find, however, one reference to the city-versus-bush issue. The article, in Sydney’s The Daily Telegraph (7/4/1940), written by one Sam Walpole, was pointedly headed “Let’s buy a yearbook for our authors”, and commences:

IT is remarkable how little impression seems to have been made on Australian authors by a curious fact recorded in the Commonwealth Year Book —that nearly two-thirds of the population of Australia live in towns. A foreigner would hardly suspect this fact from some stories, a collection short stories by ten Australian writers, mostly of the elder school.

The collection was “Some stories, by ten Australian writers”, and includes some writers we’ve come across before like J. H. M. Abbott and G. B. Lancaster. Walpole continues:

There are some lively pieces in the book — and some, less lively — but only one story (by Ethel Turner, about a hot day in Sydney) makes any serious attempt to describe the urban life which millions of Australians lead. It is odd that so many of our writers either escape into fantasy, or cling in spirit to the days when a steer ripped up Macpherson at the Cooraminta Yard. These days it is more likely that a taxi ripped up Macpherson in Pitt Street. It is time we had an O. Henry to chronicle the pangs and pleasures of Marrickvllle or Balmain, a W. Burnett to write about the Sydney underworld, a Sinclair Lewis to show our more smugly prosperous citizens how ludicrous they really are.

So, we go from those supporting the banning of “fictional magazines” (which primarily came from America) to a yearning for more relevant writing like that being produced in America! A good place to end, I think, this little survey of 1940.

Additional sources:

  • 1940 in Australian Literature (Wikipedia)
  • Joy Hooton and Harry Heseltine, Annals of Australian literature, 2nd ed. OUP, 1992 (with Bill’s help)

Previous Monday Musings for the “years”: 1929, 1936 and 1954.

Meanwhile, do you plan to take part in the 1940 Club – and if so how?

Monday musings on Australian literature: on 1923: 5, Novels and their subjects

On the basis that what novelists write about provides some sort of insight into their times, I’ve done a little survey of the books published by Australian writers in 1923 to see what their subject matter might tell us about Australian life and literature 100 years ago.

First, here are the books I found, mostly via Trove:

  • J. H. M. Abbott, Sydney Cove
  • Vera Baker, The mystery outlaw
  • Marie Bjelke-Petersen, Jewelled nights
  • Capel Boake, The Romany mark
  • Roy Bridges, Green butterflies
  • Dale Collins, Stolen or strayed
  • Arthur Crocker, The great Turon mystery
  • Bernard Cronin, Salvage
  • A.R. Falk, The red star 
  • J.D. Fitzgerald, Children of the sunlight
  • Frank Fox, Beneath an ardent sun
  • Mary Gaunt, As the whirlwind passeth
  • Jack McLaren, Fagaloa’s daughter
  • Mary Marlowe, Gypsy Royal, adventuress
  • Catherine Martin, The incredible journey
  • Jack North, Son of the bush
  • Ernest Osborne, The plantation manager
  • Steele Rudd, On Emu Creek
  • Charles L. Sayer, The jumping double
  • H.F. Wickham, The Great Western Road

Twenty books in total, six of them by women. Unfortunately, I am not at home so can’t check these against 1923 in the Annals of Australian literature (but I’m sure Bill will when he sees this post!) Wikipedia’s page 1923 in Australian literature includes a few others: D.H. Lawrence’s Kangaroo, but he’s not Australian though the book was set here; Arthur Gask’s The red paste murders, but Project Gutenberg Australia says it was published in 1924; and Nat Gould’s Beating the favourite, but he died in 1919, and I can’t find much on this book. Further, from his biography, he is as much English as he is Australian. However, it is worth sharing that Andrews in the ADB says that Gould “inaugurated the Australian sporting novel”. Charles L. Sayer’s 1923-published The jumping double represents this new genre.

For this post, I’m sticking with my neat 20! Of these, around a third seem to be historical novels. J.H.M. Abbott’s and Mary Gaunt’s were set in the early days of the colony, while those by Vera Baker, Capel Boake, Arthur Crocker and H.F. Wickham encompass bushrangers in some way. Roy Bridge’s Green butterflies is an interesting member of this “historical” group. J.Penn (writing in Adelaide’s Observer, 5 May 1923) explains:

There is something decidedly unusual in a story which starts in Tasmania in 1830, and ends in Victoria at the present time. The title is the weakest thing about “Green Butterflies” … In this book, Mr. Roy Bridges fulfils much early promise, and shows himself definitely one of the novelists who count.

Bridges spans this almost 100-year period by telling the story across two or three generations of a family, taking its readers from the horrors of colonial Tasmania, with its “savage blacks and even more savage bushrangers … being put down by Governor Arthur”, to the “dirty settlement” of Melbourne, and then on to the present day, when, says a character, “the war has changed everything; we’re not narrow as we used to be”. So, a recognition here of the impact of World War 1 on Australian society, although war novels didn’t become popular for another few years.

Bushrangers were prevalent in the historically-set novels. The worst of the bushranger era had ended by the 1880s, but they were clearly still foremost in the public imagination, particularly in terms of escapist adventure. Further, with bushrangers being a particularly Australian form of outlaw, their presence would have appealed to those wanting Australian stories.

The rest of the novels were, as far as I can tell, set in more contemporary times, though some of the synopses were not completely clear about their period. The majority were adventure and/or mystery novels. (We know Australians love mystery and adventure!) A couple were set in New Guinea (including New Britain). One is Jack McLaren’s Fagaloa’s daughter, which Hobart’s World (8/11/1923) described as “a tale of stirring venture among the savages of Papua and adjacent islands, with white men doing deeds of unusual daring afloat and ashore”. The titular daughter ‘is given a European education, and is clever and beautiful, and “white all through,” despite the fact (or perhaps because of it) that she is the offspring of colored parents’. She apparently proves her worth when her white trader husband is attacked by a “cannibal hill-tribe”. Meanwhile, Ernest Osborne’s The plantation manager was described in The Armidale Chronicle (11/4/1923) as “adventure on a North-Western Pacific plantation” that “gives a striking account of the difficulties a manager encounters in developing tropical estates. A bright love story is interwoven throughout the adventures with the head-hunters”. You get the picture! White colonialism, fear of other…

Of the mystery novels, Stolen or strayed by Dale Collins received more attention than most, partly because he was already a journalist, but also because this novel, like several in this post, were part of the Bookstall series. I plan to feature him specifically in a later post. Stolen or strayed moves between underworld Melbourne and the Murray River, and received mixed reviews. Another Bookstall mystery, The red star by A.R. Falk, is set in Sydney’s underworld. The Brisbane Courier (23/6/1923) wrote that Australian writers hadn’t “developed the field of detective fiction to any extent”, but that Falk had

written a far better detective story than the majority of those that are imported. The scene is laid in Sydney, and the fight between detectives and a clever gang of thieves and murderers is told in a very convincing manner. The ending, perhaps, is forced, but otherwise the story takes a high place among current detective fiction.

Bushrangers in the country and the underworld in the cities, plus the occasional offshore exotic location, were popular settings and subjects at the time, suggesting that the focus on “the bush” was at least lessening as the Australian nation developed. That said, Steele Rudd’s On Emu Creek was about a city man turned farmer, and followed his pattern of using humour rather than mystery or adventure to tell its tale.

But, I’m going to conclude on something quite different, Catherine Martin’s The incredible journey. Bill has reviewed her second novel, An Australian girl, published in 1890. The incredible journey was her last. Margaret Allen writes in the ADB:

Catherine published, under her own name, The Incredible Journey (London, 1923) which, written very effectively from an Aboriginal woman’s point of view, was about a desert journey to recover her son, taken by a white man. H. M. Green found it a most interesting and realistic novel.

Interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, I struggled to find a review of this novel in the newspapers in Trove. Far better to write about mystery and adventure novels, it seems, than one attempting to represent a First Nations’ experience. While I don’t imagine it was First Nations assessment that the novel was written “very effectively from an Aboriginal woman’s point of view”, it is at least encouraging to see someone recognising the cause. (I have now ordered the book.)

So, there you have it. I could write more on my 20 books, but I think this gives you a flavour.

Thoughts anyone?

Other posts in the series: 1. Bookstall Co (update); 2. Platypus Series; 3 & 4. Austra-Zealand’s best books and Canada (1) and (2)

John M. Oskison, The singing bird (#Review)

From Zitkala-Ša’s 1901-published “The soft-hearted Sioux”, Great short stories by contemporary Native American writers jumps a quarter of a century to 1925, and John M. Oskison’s “The singing bird”.

John M. Oskison

Again, anthology editor Bob Blaisdell provides a brief intro to the author, but it’s Wikipedia that is able to provide more detail. John M(ilton) Oskison (1874-1937) was, like our two previous authors, of mixed parentage. He was born in Cherokee Nation to an English father and part-Cherokee mother. He went to Stanford University (where my friend who gave me the anthology went, in fact!) and was president of the Stanford Literary Society. Wikipedia says he was Stanford’s first Native American graduate. He apparently went to Harvard for graduate school but he left to become a professional writer after he won a short story competition.

By his death he had published novels, short stories and many pieces of journalism. A novel titled The singing bird was found in his papers in 2007 and subsequently published. Timothy Powell, writing about this novel, suggests it is “quite possibly the first historical novel written by a Cherokee”, and argues that it offers “an interpretation of indigenous history that stresses survival and empowerment over removal and despair”. It is set in the 1840s-50s, after the Cherokees had been removed to Indian Territory, and in it, Powell says, Oskison ‘skilfully blends fiction and reality, thoughtfully demonstrating how literature can rewrite the master narrative of “history” and bring to life moments in the past that remain outside the scope of the written records maintained by the dominant white society’. This sounds like the sort of historical fiction that is starting to appear in Australia, like Julie Janson’s Benevolence (my review) and Anita Heiss’s Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray (my review), novels that correct the colonial historical perspective that has been prevailed for too long. Oskison was, like our previous two authors, an activist.

Blaisdell focuses more on the story. He describes it as an “exciting, densely plotted story” but suggests the reader needs to “hold tight” because it is “dotted with odd, struggling phrasings that make it seem as if Oskison were translating it”. The title, he explains, refers to “cuckolding”, with “singing bird” being a term used by “full-bloods” for a “deceiving wife”. He suggests that ‘the issue of “full-bloods” versus half-breeds” is a messier theme’.

“The singing bird”

Powell says that it is not known when Oskison started writing his novel The singing bird. However, he does mention that this story was published in 1925 and wonders whether Oskison began to formulate the novel around this time. From Powell’s description of the novel, the characters names are different, it has a multilayered narrative structure unlike the story, and the narrative is very different, so let’s leave the novel there.

Wikipedia says of Oskison that “his fiction focused on the culture clash that mixed-bloods like himself faced”. “The singing bird” is interesting in this regard because, as Blaisdell suggests, a significant issue in the story concerns “full-bloods and half-breeds”. The story opens with Big Jim (Jim Blind-Wolfe) sending his wife Jennie away because it is time for the men to talk. They make up “the inner, unofficial council of the Kee-too-wah* organisation” and they are “self-charged with the duty of carrying out the ancient command to maintain amongst the Cherokees the full-blood inheritance of race purity and race ideals”.

This “council” is concerned about the “alarming late growth of outlawry in the tribe, an increase in crime due to idleness, drink and certain disturbing white men who had established themselves in the hills”. As they discuss this serious business, Oskison writes that “paradoxically … They would pass a jug of honest moonshine – but they would drink from it discreetly, lightly, as full blood gentleman should!” Nice touch!

Meanwhile, the ousted wife Jennie, takes herself to the “out cabin” with its “inviting pine-log room”. Here she awaits, we are told, Lovely Daniel who has already been introduced to us by the men, as their “wild half-breed neighbour”. Jennie, though, is expecting to “know shivery terror, the illicit thrill of the singing bird”. And so in the first two pages, the story is set up: Big Jim has sent his wife to the out cabin so that his little council can talk men’s business about half-breeds and white men, and that wife is waiting for one of those half-breeds to visit her in the cabin. Simple story of a dominating husband and unfaithful wife? Sounds it, but all is not as it seems. Oskison unfolds the plot well. We flash back to how Jennie and Lovely Daniel had come to know each other (including the development of his “wonderful plan, a credit to his half-breed shrewdness, if not to his name”), and to how enmity had developed between Big Jim and Lovely Daniel, before returning to the main narrative. There is a revenge theme to the story, one involving Lovely Daniel wishing to avenge having nearly been killed by Big Jim after a political altercation that had turned violent.

So if it’s not a simple unfaithful wife story, what is it? Well, it’s political. There is tension between the full-blood Kee-too-wahs and the half-breeds over whites, and the issue of leasing land to them. The full-bloods (through Big Jim) see leasing land as the thin end of the wedge, while the half-breeds (through Lovely Daniel) see the white man coming as inevitable anyhow. Big Jim, then, represents the Cherokees’ fight for their land, their fight “against “race deterioration and the decay of morale in the long years of contact with the White in Georgia and Tennessee”, while Daniel is the bad, wild man. As Blaisdell says, the theme of “full-bloods” versus half-breeds” is messy, particularly given Oskison was himself of mixed-descent. Perhaps we are intended to see this story – this conflict – more in terms of symbolism than realism, as a story about the primacy of protecting land and culture. (This suggests it’s an anti-assimilation story, though I believe there’s much discussion about Oskison’s attitude to assimilation.)

I found the writing a bit heavy-handed at times, but it also has an interesting tone. There is a sense in Oskison’s language, for example, that the full-blood Kee-too-wah men are not the whole answer either (as they sit “like remote, secret gods, in judgment on the conduct of a community”). And, although Jennie takes significant agency in the story, she is still expected, when it’s all over, to make breakfast for the men!

“The singing bird” is an intriguing story. It’s one that seems to raise as many questions as it answers, particularly when seen within the context of Oskison himself, of his oeuvre, and of course of his times – times I know little about.

* See Wikipedia.

John M. Oskison
“The singing bird” (orig. pub. Sunset Magazine, March 1925)
in Bob Blaisdell (ed.), Great short stories by contemporary Native American writers
Garden City: Dover Publications, 2014
pp. 25-39
ISBN: 9780486490953

Zitkala-Sa, The soft-hearted Sioux (#Review)

Zitkala-Ša’s “The soft-hearted Sioux” is the second story in the anthology, Great short stories by contemporary Native American writers, sent to me by my American friend. I posted on the first one, Pauline Johnson’s “A red girl’s reasoning”, a couple of weeks ago.


As he does for all the stories, anthology editor Bob Blaisdell provides a brief intro to Zitkala-Ša and her story. Also known by her married name, Gertrude Simmons Bonnin, Zitkala-Ša (1876-1938) was born at the Yankton Sioux Reservation in South Dakota. She was educated at a Quaker missionary school and then, because she wanted to be more than the presumed-for-girls job of housekeeper, she went to the Quaker-run liberal arts school, Earlham College. She went on the teach at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. As with Johnson, Wikipedia fleshes out the details. It tells us that she hated being stripped of her culture at the Quaker missionary school, that she learnt piano and violin there, and that when she graduated from it in June 1895, “she gave a speech on the inequality of women’s rights”.

Wikipedia chronicles her life well, so do read it if you are interested. I’ll just add here that, it introduces her work with: “She wrote several works chronicling her struggles with cultural identity, and the pull between the majority culture in which she was educated, and the Dakota culture into which she was born and raised. Her later books were among the first works to bring traditional Native American stories to a widespread white English-speaking readership”. And it concludes that her “legacy lives on as one of the most influential Native American activists of the 20th century”.

Regarding “The soft-hearted Sioux”, Blaisdell explains that “it is narrated by a young Christianised man who returns to his Sioux reservation as a missionary” at which time his father says to him that “your soft heart has unfitted you for everything”. In this story, in other words, Zitkala-Ša exposes some of the iniquities of colonialism.

“The soft-hearted Sioux”

According to Wikipedia, Zitkala-Ša had a fruitful writing career, with two major periods, the first being 1900 to 1904, during which our story was published. In this period, she published legends from Native American culture – which she apparently started collecting while she was at Earlham – and autobiographical narratives. “The soft-hearted Sioux” has an autobiographical element, I guess. The protagonist is male, and I don’t believe she returned from college a missionary, but she did go to a Christian school. Other stories published in this time were clearly more autobiographical: “An Indian teacher among Indians”, “Impressions of an Indian childhood”, and “School days of an Indian girl” (all in 1900).

The story is told first person. At the opening, our narrator is in his “sixteenth year” and is sitting in the family’s teepee with his parents on either side of him, and his maternal grandmother in front. The grandmother is smoking a “red stone pipe” and it is passed around as they provide him with advice. It is time for him to find a woman, to learn to hunt and bring home meat, to become a warrior. We then jump nine years. He had not, he tells us, grown up to be “the warrior huntsman, and husband” expected of him. Instead, the mission school had taught him that killing was wrong. For “nine winters” he had “hunted for the soft heart of Christ, and prayed for the huntsman who chased the buffalo on the plains.” In the tenth year, he is sent back to his tribe

to preach Christianity to them with the white man’s Bible in my hand and a white man’s tender heart in my breast.

He no longer wears the buckskin clothes and blanket on his shoulders as he does at the opening. Now, “wearing a foreigner’s dress”, he walks “a stranger” into his father’s village.

The story then is about the impact and implications of assimilation, the dislocation it causes for both individuals and society. Our young man, thoroughly inculcated with Christian thought, arrives home to find his father ill, and being tended by the “medicine-man … the sorcerer of the plains”. He is disturbed about his father’s “unsaved soul” and tries to banish the “sorcerer”. So begins his life as a missionary. He knows it will be hard, but is confident he will succeed. I’ll leave the story there, as you can read it online (link below) but, knowing who is writing this story and why, you won’t be surprised to discover that he doesn’t succeed. The story is sentimentally told, in the style of the time, but its subject-matter is strong and emotive. Zitkala-Ša uses the motifs of the opposing Native American and Christian cultures well – the dress and customs, the knife of the brave versus the soft heart of the Christian, with softness here, equating less with gentleness than with weakness – to make her points.

Zitkala-Ša, herself, of course, was Christian-educated like her protagonist, but she went on to use the tools of that education to fight for the rights of First Nations people. She did that in various ways, including through politically activism. She was involved with the Society of American Indians (SAI) which, says Wikipedia,”was dedicated to preserving the Native American way of life while lobbying for the right to full American citizenship” and went on to found, with her husband, the National Council of American Indians. She also actively promoted women’s rights, through a grassroots organisation for women, the General Federation of Women’s Clubs.

But, an important part of her activism was through her writing. By publishing stories like “The soft-hearted Sioux” in majority-culture journals, like Harper’s Monthly and Atlantic Monthly, she hoped, I believe, to educate that culture in its impact on her people. The story is still worth reading today. Its style is dated, lacking some of the subtlety and nuance we are used to, but it nonetheless conveys truths that still stand and it provides us with a window on how long this fight has been going on. I’m loving being introduced to new-to-me writers and activists, like Pauline Johnson and Zitkala-Ša, through this book. They are women well worth knowing about.

“The soft-hearted Sioux” (orig. pub. Harper’s Monthly, March 1901)
in Bob Blaisdell (ed.), Great short stories by contemporary Native American writers
Garden City: Dover Publications, 2014
pp. 17-24
ISBN: 9780486490953
Available online at upenn

Gwendolyn Brooks, Maud Martha (#BookReview)

I came across Gwendolyn Brooks’ 1953-published novella, Maud Martha, on JacquiWine’s blog last year, and was confident it was a book for me – so I bought the e-Book version and read it slowly on my phone and iPad whenever I was out and about. This sort of reading doesn’t work for all books, but it did for Maud Martha because it is told in short vignettes (or “tiny stories” as Brooks’ called them) which cover the protagonist’s life from her childhood to motherhood. Her voice is so fresh, so honest, so real that I was completely captivated.

Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000) is a new author for me, perhaps because she was primarily a poet. In fact, Maud Martha is her only novel. She was the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize (1950) and the first African American woman to be inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1976), but these are just two from an honours-filled career.

My edition of Maud Martha has an excellent introduction by the American critic and academic, Margo Jefferson. She ponders the novel’s disappearance from view, and posits that “it sank beneath the weighty canonical force of first novels by two of Brooks’s Black male peers”. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible man appeared in 1952, and James Baldwin’s Go tell it on the mountain in 1953, the same year as Maud Martha. By comparison, Maud Martha “looks” slim but, in real weight, it is anything but. Jefferson quotes from Brooks’ memoir in which she discusses the autobiographical element of the novel: ‘It is true that much in the “story” was taken out of my own life, and twisted, highlighted, or dulled, dressed up or down.’ I read this as meaning that what she describes is “true” though not necessarily factual. It’s “a novel”, says Jefferson, “by a Black woman about working-class Black life in the twenties, thirties and forties”.

“But dandelions were what she chiefly saw”

The book opens with an exquisite description of seven-year-old Maud Martha. It introduces us to a young girl who has dreams but also has her feet on the ground:

She would have liked a lotus, or China asters or the Japanese Iris, or meadow lilies—yes, she would have liked meadow lilies, because the very word meadow made her breathe more deeply, and either fling her arms or want to fling her arms, depending on who was by, rapturously up to whatever was watching in the sky. But dandelions were what she chiefly saw.

And, she was happy with them, those “yellow jewels for everyday”:

She liked their demure prettiness second to their everydayness; for in that latter quality she thought she saw a picture of herself, and it was comforting to find that what was common could also be a flower. And could be cherished! 

These opening paragraphs are telling: we learn a lot about Maud Martha – as you can see – and we are introduced to Brooks spare, poetic style. It is because of language like this that Brooks can tell Maud’s story from the early 1920s to the 1940s in barely 100 pages. Jefferson describes Brooks’ style as “like a sonnet sequence, each story delights in sensory and emotional details and each reveals another aspect of Maud Martha. Poets take liberties with prose notions of a story arc”.

So, through the stories Maud Martha grows up, questioning the real world while dreaming of New York, which is “a symbol” for her of “what she felt life ought to be. Jeweled. Polished. Smiling. Poised. Calmly rushing! Straight up and down, yet graceful enough”. She knows it’s a dream, but she stands by her right to dream. And, anyhow, “who could safely swear that she would never be able to make her dream come true for herself? Not altogether, then!—but slightly?—in some part?” This is a young woman, in other words, still with her feet on the ground but with imagination as well. 

Meanwhile, life goes on. She marries Paul who is fairer than she, enabling him to “pass” among whites or, at least, be more easily accepted by them. She knows her darkness pulls him back, “makes him mad”, but she’s not cowed. She knows who she is and what she can offer.

What she wanted was to donate to the world a good Maud Martha. That was the offering, the bit of art, that could not come from any other. She would polish and hone that.

And so she soldiers on through the bright moments and the disappointments, like settling for a kitchenette with a shared toilet when she marries Paul. Moments like these are universal. Other moments, though, are less so, because, of course, she faces racism – again and again – at the movies, while shopping for a hat, at a beauty parlour. A particularly painful occasion occurs when Santa Claus treats her little daughter Paulette differently from the white girls – and Paulette notices.

Another occasion concerns Maud Martha’s taking work as household help, because Paul is out of work. However, the way her employer and employer’s mother-in-law assume her inferiority causes her to understand “for the first time … what Paul endured daily … as his boss looked at Paul, so these people looked at her. As though she were a child, a ridiculous one, and one that ought to be given a little shaking …”. She decides to leave the job. Her employer won’t understand, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that she’s “a human being” too, and she will not be treated otherwise if she can help it.

What makes Maud Martha special then is her – to use a cliche – resilience. No, it’s more than that, it’s her level-headed sense of self and a willingness to call what she sees. What’s remarkable in Brooks’ telling is the humanity and, often humour, with which she does it. Take, for example, Maud Martha’s description of her first beau:

He was decorated inside and out. He did things, said things, with a flourish. That was what he was. He was a flourish.

She was desperate to have a boyfriend, but not that desperate.

Maud Martha is just delicious to read. It is deeply, distressingly insightful about Black American experience in all the horrific ordinariness of ingrained, oblivious, white superiority, but the combination of intelligence, dignity and humour with which Brooks tells her story takes your breath away.

Gwendolyn Brooks
Maud Martha
London: Faber & Faber, 2022 (orig. pub. 1953)
ISBN: 9780571373260 (e-Book)

D’Arcy Niland, The parachutist (#Review)

D’Arcy Niland has appeared in my blog before but not in his own right. He was the Australian-born husband of the New Zealand-born Australian writer Ruth Park. I have posted on their collaborative memoir, The drums go bang, and have written specifically about Ruth Park, but have never written specifically on Niland before.

Niland is best known for his novel The shiralee, but he and Park were working writers who made their living from their craft, which means they wrote a lot – radio scripts, journalism, short stories, and novels. My path to his short story, “The parachutist”, though is a bit complicated. Over a decade ago, when my mother-in-law was still alive, I would search for suitable audiobooks for her, by which I mean books that had straightforward narratives, and not too much explicit sex and violence. She was 97 (and legally blind) when she died. A collection of D’Arcy Niland short stories seemed a possibility, but I’m not sure she ever did listen to it. Regardless, it ended back with us after she died, and we finally started listening to it on a recent road trip. The first story is titled, “The parachutist”.

Now with collections, I like to know each story’s origins. I discovered that the audiobook was based on a collection of Niland’s short stories selected by Ruth Park and published by Penguin in 1987. A start, but when did Niland, who died in 1967, write the story? The Penguin book might provide that information, but I don’t have it. However, given that back in Niland and Park’s heyday, newspapers were significant publishers of short stories, I decided to search Trove and, eureka, I found it. Well, that is, I found his story “The pilot”, which turned out to be the same story that was later published as “The parachutist”.

This discovery created another mystery: why the change of title? And when? Again, maybe Ruth Park discusses that in her Penguin introduction but … so, let’s just get on with the story. The plot concerns a predator and its prey. It starts just after a hurricane. A hawk, “ruffled in misery” comes “forth in hunger and ferocity” looking for food, expecting to find some “booty of the storm”. However, there is none, so it widens its search. Niland beautifully captures the devastation of the “ravaged” landscape and weakened hawk’s situation: “Desperate, weak, the hawk alighted on a bleak limb and glared in hate”. It’s vivid, visceral writing – and we feel some sympathy for this hawk.

It spies a dead field mouse, and gobbles it “voraciously”, but it’s not much as food goes, and just makes “the hawk’s appetite fiercer and lustier”. Niland, at this point, also introduces us to the hawk’s real nature, to the way it would normally “sup …. on the hot running blood of the rabbit in the trap, squealing in eyeless terror”. It will eat creatures still alive, in other words. Anyhow, still “frenzied with hunger”, this hawk spies something in a farmyard – a kitten playing, “leaping and running and tumbling”, completely “unaware of danger”. Life is fun. After checking for human presence, the hawk swoops, and suddenly the kitten finds itself “airborne for the first time in its life”:

The kitten knew that it had no place here in the heart of space, and its terrified instincts told it that its only contact with solidity and safety was the thing that held it.

It latches on for dear life. This is a powerful story that keeps your attention from beginning to its – hmmm – somewhat surprising end, which I won’t spoil. Instead, I will briefly return to the title. Niland describes the hawk and kitten doing battle in the sky, writing that, with the hawk now descending, the kitten “rode down like some fantastic parachutist”. Soon after, when the kitten’s claws are digging into the hawk’s breast, he says that “the kitten was the pilot now”.

So, “pilot”? This could suggest that the kitten is in control, but is it? “Parachutist”, on the other hand, seems more subtle, implying a somewhat mutual relationship between the two. It is not the sort of freely chosen relationship that parachutists traditionally have, but this later title introduces an ambiguity into the narrative.

I found the story compelling. It is told third person limited, with our point of view, and sympathy, shifting between the two protagonists. Its subject matter might be nature, but its themes are more universal, encompassing predator and prey, the powerful and the powerless, experience and innocence, and of course survival, given at different points in the story both the hawk’s and the kitten’s survival is at stake. What to do?

Also, this might be a long bow, but Niland apparently said about his 1955 novel The Shiralee, that “it is a Biblical truth that all men have burdens. This is the simple story of a man with a burden, a swagman with his swag, or shiralee, which in this case happens to be a child. I have often thought that if all burdens were examined, they would be found to be like a swagman’s shiralee – not only a responsibility and a heavy load, but a shelter, a castle and sometimes a necessity.” “The pilot” was published two years earlier, but we could argue that for the hawk, the kitten, with its fierce frenetic claws, turns into a burden. The storyline and outcome are simpler, of course, but was Niland playing with this idea too in his story?

Whatever, “The pilot” or “The parachutist” beautifully exemplifies Niland’s ability to capture and hold his reader’s attention with a strong narrative and expressive writing. I hope to share more of the stories in future.

D’Arcy Niland
“The parachutist” in Short stories collection
(Read by Dennis Olsen)
ABC Audio, 2007
ISBN: 9780733390616

D’Arcy Niland
“The parachutist” in The Penguin Best Stories of D’Arcy Niland
Penguin Books, 1987
ISBN: 9780140089271

D’Arcy Niland
“The parachutist” The Oxford book of animal stories
London, Oxford University Press, 2002 (orig. pub. 1994)
ISBN: 00192782215

D’Arcy Niland
“The pilot” in The Mail (Adelaide), 28 March 1953
Available online

Elizabeth von Arnim, Expiation (#BookReview #1929Club)

I cannot remember when I last laughed out loud – a lot – when reading a book. The book that broke the drought is Elizabeth von Arnim’s Expiation. Even in her darkest, grimmest novel, Vera (my review), Von Arnim managed to make me splutter several times, albeit ruefully. Expatiation, though, caused no such qualms.

I have loved Elizabeth von Arnim since I read Elizabeth and her German Garden in the early 1990s when Virago started publishing her. I went on to read several more of her books over the next few years, but then had a big gap until this year, when I read Vera. It reminded me how much I enjoy her. So, when I saw she had one published in 1929, I selected it for Karen and Simon’s 1929 Club. I finished it more or less on time, but the last couple of weeks have been so busy that I didn’t get to post it until now.

The edition I found was published by Persephone. They describe publishing it as first for them, because “it’s a novel by a well-known writer that has been entirely overlooked”. While most of Von Arnim’s books are in print with other publishers, Expiation, which they were now publishing ninety years after its first appearance, had been ignored. Why, they ask? Good question. I admit that, not having seen it around, I did fear it might be lesser.

Persephone offers some reasons. Firstly, the title “is not very catchy”. True, it’s not. They also suggest that its adultery theme would have been “faintly shocking” in 1929, and further that, although we now read it as a satire, at the time “the characters and their milieu may have seemed rather tame”. Would the satire have been missed? Anyhow, they quote from the novel’s opening chapter, which describes the novel’s central family and the London suburb they live in:

That important south London suburb appreciated the Botts, so financially sound, so continuously increasing in prosperity. They were its backbone. They subscribed, presided, spoke, opened.

This last sentence, Persephone says, “was what deliciously and instantly convinced us that this was a book for us”. I am so glad they did because from the first few pages I could tell it was a book for me too. It truly is delicious.

So now, the book. As you’ve gathered, the plot centres around adultery, which is made clear in the opening chapter. Milly has just been widowed, and her wealthy husband, Ernest Bott, has only left her £1,000 of his £100,000. The rest he has left to a charity for fallen women, with the cryptic note that “My wife will know why”. She does, of course, but thought she had got away with it. What is remarkable about this book, which chronicles how both Milly and the Botts react to the situation, is that we remain sympathetic to Milly. She’s a sinner, she knows she’s a sinner, but she wants to expiate. How, is the question?

The Botts, meanwhile, don’t know what to do. They do not want scandal to ruin their good name, and, anyhow, the male Botts in general rather like round, plump Milly versus their “bony” wives. Moreover, they are not known for meanness: “The family had always behaved well and generously in regard to money, and it would never do for Titford to suspect them of meanness.” Hmmm, a bit of appearance-versus-reality going on here. So, having decided, Jane-Austen-Sense-and-sensibility-style, not to give Milly some of their money, they agree to take her into their homes, in turn, until it all dies down, after which she can go live with Old Mrs Bott, who is perfectly happy to have her. Old Mrs Bott is the voice of reason in the novel. Experience has taught her

that in the end it all wouldn’t have mattered a bit what Ernest had meant or what Milly had done, and that they might just as well have been kind and happy together on this particular afternoon, as indeed on all their few afternoons, and together comfortably eaten the nice soup and sandwiches.

However, a spanner is thrown in their works when the shocked and mortified Milly disappears the day after the funeral. To say more about the plot would give too much away – even though the plot is not the main thing about this book.

What Von Arnim does through this plot is take us on a journey through humanity. Milly’s attempts at expiation often fall flat, either because she doesn’t manage to do what she plans or because others don’t behave towards her as she expects, even wants, them to do. For example, on one occasion, she has “no doubt at all that here at last she was in the very arms of expiation” and yet it comes “to her so disconcertingly, with a smile on its face”. Can this really be expiation? Milly’s not sure. One of the book’s ironies – and points – is, in fact, that the greatest sinner, technically, is among the kindest in reality.

The thing I like about Von Arnim is her generosity. It is on display throughout this novel as Milly, seeking expiation (but also to survive) moves between people she knows, from her previously sinning sister and her obliviously self-centred lover to the various Botts who range from the puritanical and pompous to the warm and lively. Most of these characters, like Austen’s, may come from a narrow realm of society but they represent a much wider spectrum of human behaviour. Like Austen, too, Von Arnim’s targets are not just the personal – greed, selfishness, narrow-mindedness, silliness, pride, self-importance, ignorance, and so on – but the societal, particularly gender, marriage and money. “Too much worldly prosperity”, she writes for example, “deadens people’s souls”.

So, in Expiation, Von Arnim skewers human nature and her society much like Jane Austen does. Sometimes the situations may be a little dated as they can also be in Austen, but human nature itself doesn’t change much – and this is so knowingly, so inclusively, and so generously, on display. There are some less than stellar people here, of course, but as in Austen, they are treated with respect for their humanness by the author, while also being exposed for exactly who they are. I’m going to – with difficulty – choose just a couple for you, one touching on the theme of sinning and morality, and the other on money.

Here is the eldest Bott, Alec, trying to avoid hosting Milly first, because of his wife’s puritanical approach to life:

He stopped, an undefined idea possessing his mind that Milly might be purer after having passed through the sieve of other visits, and more fit to stay with his wife …

Von Arnim’s language – so fresh and funny. And here is another Bott, Fred, telling his sons they will be helping Milly:

“Do you mean financially?” inquired Percy, his eyes still on his paper.
“Kindness,” said Fred.
“Kindness! Well, that’s cheap, anyhow,” said Dick.
“And easy,” said Percy, turning the pages. “I always liked Aunt Milly.”

Finally, I will leave you with one more bon mot from Old Mrs Bott who reflects, at one point during the novel:

It seemed as if these poor children had no sense whatever of proportion. They wasted their short time in making much of what was little, and little of what was much.

With a wit and a sense of humanity that is a joy to read, Expiation encourages us to think about what is important to living both a good life, and a kind and fair one.

Elizabeth von Arnim
London: Persephone Books, 2019 (orig. pub. 1929)
ISBN: 9781906462536

Frederic Manning, The middle parts of fortune, Ch. 1 (#Review, #1929 Club)

I had identified two novels for my 1929 read, M. Barnard Eldershaw’s A house is built and another. With Lisa also considering A house is built, I decided to go for the other. I started it, and am loving it, but I won’t finish it in time, so I thought I’d check my Australian anthologies for a 1929 offering, and found one. In the Macquarie PEN anthology of Australian literature is the first chapter of a book I’d been unaware of until I wrote my 1929 Monday Musings post this week. The book is The middle parts of fortune: Somme and Ancre, 1916, by Frederic Manning.

It particularly caught my attention because the title sounds more like a nonfiction book. So, I checked it. Yes, it is fiction, I clarified, and has an interesting history. I’ll start, though, with the author…

Frederic Manning (1882-1935) was born in Sydney. An apparently sickly child, he was educated at home, and when a teenager he formed a close friendship with Rev. Arthur Galton, who was secretary to the Governor of New South Wales. When Galton returned to England in 1898, Manning went with him, but returned to Australia in 1900. However, he returned to England in 1903 – when he was 21 – and there he remained. He produced all his writing from there, but the Australian Dictionary of Biography (linked on his name) claims him as Australian.

That’s all very well – for us to say now – but at the time of his death, according to Nicole Moore who wrote his entry in the Anthology, he was “largely unknown in Australia”. And yet, she continues, “his novel, The middle parts of fortune: Somme and Ancre, 1916 (1929) is cited around the world as one of the most significant and memorable novels of the First World War”. Indeed, she writes, it is “often grouped” with Ernest Hemingway’s Farewell to arms and Erich Remarque’s All quiet on the western front.

Manning served in the war from October 1915, first as Private (no. 19022) and later as a second lieutenant, though apparently the officer’s life did not suit him. He drank, and resigned his commission in February 1918. Wikipedia explains explains that, with increasing demand through the 1920s for writing about the war, and his having published some poems and a biography, he was encouraged to write a novel about his wartime experiences – and so The middle parts of fortune was born.

The story does not end here, however. The first edition was published privately and anonymously, under subscription, says Moore. Soon after, in 1930, an expurgated edition was published under the title Her privates we, with the author now identified as Private 19022. This version, Moore says, “removed the soldiers’ expletives that strongly punctuate the text”. Acceptable, apparently, for the private edition, but not for the public one! Wikipedia says that Manning was first credited as the author, posthumously in 1943, but the original text wasn’t widely published until 1977.

Wikipedia identifies the book’s admirers as including Ernest Hemingway, Arnold Bennett, Ezra Pound, and T. E. Lawrence. Lawrence is quoted as saying of The Middle Parts of Fortune that “your book be famous for as long as the war is cared for – and perhaps longer, for there is more than soldiering in it. You have been exactly fair to everyone, of all ranks: and all your people are alive”, while Ernest Hemingway called it “the finest and noblest novel to come out of World War I”. How could I have not known it?

Now, the book … Wikipedia says that each chapter begins with a quote from Shakespeare – answering a question I had, because Chapter 1 so starts. The source of the quote, however, is not cited, but a quick internet search revealed it to come from Act III, Scene 2 of Henry IV Part 2:

By my troth, I care not; a man can die but once;
we owe God a death. … and let it go which way it will,
he that dies this year is quit for the next.

It basically says that we can only die once, and that we’ll all die one day – so, we may as well accept our fate? A soldier’s creed?

Before I say briefly discuss the first chapter, I’ll add that Nicole Moore says that the protagonist’s nationality is not “made explicit” which is “in keeping with the novel’s deflation of military hierarchies and nationalism”. She goes on to say that it explores “the effect of war on reason and selfhood” and is thus “an existentialist study of the extremes of human experience”.

I’ve read several novels, over the years, about World War 1, including – to share another Australian one – David Malouf’s Fly away Peter. It too powerfully evokes the terrible impact of that war.

So, Manning’s Chapter 1 introduces us to a soldier stumbling back to the trenches after some action during which many men had been lost. Soon, he – named Bourne, we learn – is joined by a couple of Scottish soldiers – not from his battalion – and then an officer from his. The rest of the excerpt chronicles his moving through a “battered trench” to join his compatriots in their dugout, before setting off again to meet their captain and retire to their tents in the ironically, but truthfully, named “Happy Valley”.

The tone is one of desperate resignation. Faces are blank (despite “living eyes moving restlessly” in them); no energy is wasted in unnecessary talk; and whiskey is a necessary support after “the shock and violence of the attack, the perilous instant”. The description of their progress from the dugout to the camp above ground beautifully exemplifies the writing:

they saw nothing except the sides of the trench, whitish with chalk in places, and the steel helmet and lifting swaying shoulders of the man in front, or the frantic uplifted arms of the shattered trees, and the sky with clouds broken in places, through which opened the inaccessible peace of the stars.

The “frantic uplifted arms of the shattered trees” and the “inaccessible peace of the stars” conveys it all – and this is only Chapter1.

If you would like to know more about this novel, you can check Lisa’s blog, as she knew of this book and reviewed it back in 2015!

Read for the 1929 reading week run by Karen (Kaggsy’s Bookish Rambling) and Simon (Stuck in a Book).

Frederic Manning
The middle parts of fortune: Somme and Ancre, 1916 (1929)
in Macquarie PEN anthology of Australian literature (ed. Nicholas Jose)
Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2009
pp. 365-369
ISBN: 9781741754407