Wendy Scarfe and Allan Scarfe, A mouthful of petals: Three years in an Indian Village (#BookReview)

Husband and wife writers, Wendy and Allan Sharfe, first published A mouthful of petals, the story of their three years in the remote Indian village of Sokhodeora, in 1967. It is not, however, their only book. Wendy Scarfe has written poetry and several novels, two of which I’ve reviewed here, Hunger town and The day they shot Edward, while her late husband, Allan, also wrote some novels and short stories. Collaboratively, they wrote several books besides A mouthful of petals, including a biography of Indian independence activist Jayaprakash Narayan.

It was Jayaprakash, or JP as he was known, who invited the Scarfes to return to Sokhodeora in 1960, after their 6-month volunteering stint, because he believed serving India was in their hearts. Their service would, he wrote, be “of great value to us and would add to that international good-will and understanding that are so badly needed”. In their opening chapter, the Scarfes write poetically of the place that was to be their home for three years:

Sokhodeora is a dot that is part of the plain: beautiful, serene, full of a sense of continuity with the very beginnings of human civilisation.

But to enter the narrow, zigzag alleys between the congested houses is to lose much of the impression of beauty and to realise the antiquity of man’s anxiety, poverty and misery.

Their role was to be education-related, though on their arrival JP admitted that “frankly” he didn’t know “what specific, clear-cut work” to give them! Ah, the days before KPIs! (Or, more likely, as the Scarfes say, the difference between Western and Eastern world views.) The big picture, the ideal, was that education was needed, and that the villagers needed to see that education was about more than gaining Government employment, which, of course, most villagers would never do.

And so, the Scarfes set about developing their own goals and schedule of work, regularly calibrating with the supportive JP. Uppermost was starting a school for children and night classes for adults. However, they also responded to the practical reality of village life which was characterised by extreme poverty, which in turn meant problems like hunger and poor health. How can children learn, for example, if they are not reasonably nourished? When Jayaprakash comments on the villagers’ apathy, Wendy replies that she believed it was “nutritional”:

People can’t have physical and mental vitality on two meals of rice and pulse a day. A huge proportion of village women suffer from anaemia and they must be just dragging themselves around.

Here is where we realise that aid work like this requires not just the necessary professional skills – in this case, teaching – but resourcefulness and entrepreneurship. The Scarfes, for example, discovered the existence of a supply of powdered milk, and developed a program for its distribution. They wrote many appeals for foodstuffs, eventually landing a winner with the American Meals for Millions Foundation, which provided an awful-sounding but highly nutritional product called “Mysore Multi-Purpose Food”. Again, they were heavily involved in distribution and teaching how to use it. They looked at other issues too, including the provision of toilets, family planning, the building of a classroom, and so on. All this is macro-level. They also worked at the micro-level, supporting individual villagers in all sorts of ways, especially in obtaining the medical help and pharmaceuticals they needed. It’s no wonder that, as this edition’s Publisher’s Note says, this book served, for years, “as a primer for intending field workers”.

None of this was easy of course, and the challenge was exacerbated not only by the usual infrastructure problems – such as transport – but also by cultural and personal issues, particularly the challenge of engaging the villagers in an environment characterised by caste prejudice, gender inequality and inter-family quarrelling.

A mouthful of petals, then, has plenty of interesting content, but I would also like to comment on the writing. It’s a collaborative book, but what voice do you choose to write a book involving both authors’ lives? Ruth Park and D’Arcy Niland, in their memoir The drums go bang (my review), used first person plural when writing about joint experiences, and third person when writing about the experience of one of them. The Scarfes took a different approach, narrating the book in first person from Allan’s point of view, with Wendy spoken of in third person. It works, but I rather like Park and Niland’s approach.

Overall, the writing is straightforward, as it has to be to impart all the information it does, but there are lovely flourishes all the same, like the description of Sokhodeora I cited early in this post. The book is also enhanced by the people populating it. Not only are we given some insight into JP, but the Scarfes tell stories about several villagers, including the initially apprehensive but willing Mahadev who works for them from the start and the ultimately tragic Kesurwa whom they choose to train as their kindergarten teacher. These people give life to the bigger picture being told.

Now, when I read a book like this, by which I mean a book that is about a different place and time – after all, we are talking India of 60 years ago – I think about its relevance (beyond any intrinsic interest in the subject matter) to my place and time. This book provided a few such points, one being the importance of education. There’s literacy, of course, but the Sharfes specifically discuss the value of understanding cause-and-effect, of the ability to draw logical or useful conclusions from observation and experience – regarding pain and illness for example – and how this lack impeded village and villagers’ development. This made me think, rightly or wrongly, of what has been happening in the USA recently where there seems to be just that lack of ability in some of the populace. A failure of education?

Then there’s the big point: the idea of having global responsibility for each other. The Scarfes write:

We are all responsible for the human condition and those who are educated are responsible to those who are not.

I like the use here of “responsible to” not “for“. It shifts this idea of responsibility from a patriarchal notion to something more cooperative or service-oriented.

A mouthful of petals is a passionate book that still offers much to think about. It is well worth reading.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also enjoyed and reviewed this book.

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Wendy Scarfe and Allan Scarfe
A mouthful of petals: Three years in an Indian village
Mile End: Wakefield Press, 2020 (rev. ed. with Epilogue; orig. ed. 1967)
ISBN: 9781743056844

Review copy courtesy author and Wakefield Press.

Wendy Scarfe, The day they shot Edward (#BookReview)

Wendy Scarfe, The day they shot EdwardThere’s something about novellas, about the way they can combine the tautness of the short story with the character development of a novel, and then hone in on an idea, undistracted by side-stories. This, in any case, is what Adelaide-writer Wendy Scarfe achieves in her book, The day they shot Edward.

Like her previous novel, Hunger town (my review), The day they shot Edward is a work of historical fiction. It’s set in Adelaide in 1916, in other words, half-way through World War One. Emotions run high, and 9-year old Matthew, through whose third-person perspective we see most of the events, is often uncertain, if not fearful. The plot is simple enough. We know from the title that Edward has died, and we know from the Prologue that Matthew is implicated in his death in some way, but was a child at the time. From the Prologue we move straight into a chronological narrative telling the story of Matthew, an only child who lives with his restless mother Margaret, his wise Gran (Sarah), and his father, the ironically named Victor, who is dying of tuberculosis on the sleep-out. There are three other main characters, the aforesaid Edward, who is an anarchist and whom Matthew idolises, an intimidating man in a cigar-brown suit, and Mr Werther, the German-born headmaster of Matthew’s school.

Matthew’s life is difficult. A sensitive lad, he is caught between his grounded, politically-aware, loving Gran and his self-centred, unhappy Mother. Gran, who approves of Edward’s activism on behalf of disadvantaged people, is constantly disappointed by her daughter’s readiness to put Matthew’s and anyone else’s interests behind her own desire for acceptance by the “better class”. Matthew himself is conscious of his mother’s self-centredness. Out with Gran and Mr Werther, for example, he feels included, part of “the special laughter and talk of Gran and Mr Werther”, but out with his Mother he feels “alone, beside her but separate” because although she sat with him

in reality she skipped out of her chair nodding, laughing, flirting and frolicking around the room. People always looked at her. She insisted that they did.

Complicating all this is that Edward is attracted to Margaret, and she’s happy to flirt with him but, “lost in her dream of social acceptance”, is unlikely to accept him when she does become free. However, lest you are now seeing Margaret as the villain of the piece, she deserves some sympathy. She had chosen poorly in marriage, and her lot is now doubly difficult in having to care for an ill man who hadn’t been a good husband in the first place. Her life is not easy, and her future not assured.

Anyhow, as if this wasn’t enough in Matthew’s life, there are the political tensions – Mr Werther is insulted by his students and is no longer welcomed amongst people who once socialised with him, and, worse, there are people wanting to trap Edward in the act of subversion. The net is closing in on Edward – as we knew it would from the Prologue.

We see these adult tensions and interactions through Matthew’s eyes – but we know the dangers lying behind the things that simply mystify (or, unsettle) him. I would call Matthew a naive narrator but I’m trying to recollect whether I’ve ever read a third-person naive narrator. Regardless, though, this is essentially what he is.

All this is to say that The day they shot Edward makes for great reading. Although we essentially know the end at the beginning, we do not know who the characters are, nor how or even why it happened. We don’t know, for example, who this Mr Wether is who is accompanying the now violin-playing grown-up Matthew in the Prologue. It is all told through a beautifully controlled narrative. There are recurring plot points – from the opening scene when Matthew decides to save the yabbies he’d caught to his ongoing concern about people liking to kill things, from Edward’s little box-gift for Margaret to the boxes of papers he asks them to store. There’s the quiet build-up of imagery, particularly the increasing references to red/blood/crimson colours. There’s the development of the characters through tight little scenes in the kitchen and living room, on the street and in the schoolyard, in cafes and at the beach. And there’s the language which is poetic, but never obscure.

Ultimately, this is a coming-of-age story. Sure, it’s about politics – about how difficult times turn people to suspicion, intolerance and cruelty – and in this, it’s universal. We see it happening now. But it is also about a young boy surrounded by adults whom he doesn’t understand. He’s only 9 when it all comes to a head – young for a coming-of-age – but as he considers in the Prologue:

Had surprise ceased that tragic night? Or did his understanding as a man mark that moment as his step into awareness?

In this, it’s also universal. Matthew learns some difficult truths the night Edward died – but those truths include some positive ones, such as that love can continue after a person dies, that good choices can be made, and that not all people kill things. A lovely, warm, read.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also enjoyed this book.

AWW Badge 2018Wendy Scarfe
The day they shot Edward
Mile End: Wakefield Press, 2018
ISBN: 9781743055199

(Review copy courtesy Wakefield Press)

Wendy Scarfe, Hunger town (Review)

Scarfe, Hunger Town, Wakefield PressA 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.

awwchallenge2015Wendy Scarfe
Hunger town
Mile End: Wakefield Press, 2014
ISBN: 9781743053362

(Review copy courtesy Wakefield Press)