Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 19, 2009

Amy’s Children by Olga Masters

Amy's childrenYou’re not going to find it easy to get hold of a copy of this book.  It’s long out of print and there are only a few secondhand ones available online. That’s a shame, because Amy’s Children  is said perhaps to be Olga Master’s finest work, and I enjoyed it very much.

It’s not experimental writing: Amy’s Children is a tale of an ordinary woman living a life that seems extraordinary in this day and age. Like her character,  Olga Masters (1919-1986) married young, and she had seven children (all of whom went on to have distinguished careers, especially Chris Masters of Four Corners fame).  As for so many a woman before her and since, motherhood limited her opportunities for writing till she was middle aged.  There was some minor journalism and a successful radio play, but it was not until she won a prize for a short story that she began writing fiction, and her first novel The Home Girls was published in 1982 and won the National Book Award.

Amy’s Children was her third and last novel.  It tells the story of Amy Fowler who grew up in poverty during the Great Depression, revealing a way of life that is hard to imagine now.  Its opening lines are stark, and compelling:

Ted Fowler left his wife Amy and the children when the youngest, another girl, was a few weeks old. 

The infant was sickly.  The Great Depression was in a much more robust state.  Ted told Amy he was going to walk south to Eden where there was reported to be work on fishing boats.

Ted and Amy had been married for only three years. 

The first child was born three months after the wedding.  Eighteen months later there was another and fifteen months after that a third. (p1)

At 20, Amy leaves these three children in the reluctant care of her mother and goes to Sydney.  She starts out at her Aunt Daphne’s but, fiercely independent, she soon finds a place of her own – cannily renting out the upper floor to naive elderly sisters displaced from the family home by a brother’s marriage.   The Misses Wheatley bring their own furniture – but Amy has none, and the story over ensuing years is punctuated by the gradual acquisition of small bits and pieces: a bed, a table, and on one triumphant day, a desk for her daughter Kathleen who eventually joins her in Sydney because there is no high school in Diggers Rest.

It is Amy’s quest to make a life of dignity out of her situation, and from the start she told her employers nothing about her children.  When Kathleen turns up, she (remarkably) acquiesces in the charade that they are sisters.  Together they go courting father and son, but Masters doesn’t offer a fairy tale ending.  It’s poignant, and ultimately truthful instead.

While the plot is engaging, there’s no great drama except the drama of ordinary life.  For me, it’s the little details in Amy’s Children which make it so interesting to read.  Schoolchildren watch Daphne’s son John, a bricklayer, with admiration because ‘it never comes out crooked’ (p64)  and his handyman skills make small additions to Amy’s meagre comforts on and off throughout the story.  The attention to dress includes descriptions of Amy’s thrifty sewing skills, creatively altering the seconds she buys from the factory where she works.  Collars, cuffs, belts, pleats, shoes neatly repaired – a reader can almost see Amy stepping out as she walks to work, and her sense of personal pride in her hard-won smart appearance is touching.  In the days when people like her were unwelcome in banks, she keeps her small savings in her handbag -indicative of a time when assaults on women were rare.  Still, it’s quite clear that all her scrimping and saving doesn’t allow for any unforeseen disasters, and Kathleen’s intrusion into her private space impacts severely on Amy’s finances. 

Despite the privations of Sydney, life there as an independent woman is preferable to the overcrowding back at Diggers Creek.  There’s pride in their routine use of a tablecloth because it symbolises freedom from drudgery and squalor:

Kathleen shook the tablecloth free of crumbs and put it back for breakfast with the salt and pepper shakers in the centre, alongside the cruet and sugar bowl.  She felt a sense of pleasure when this was done.  At home in Diggers Creek, the table was used after meals for May’s ironing, Gus’s farm catalogues, spread out to get the best of the lamplight, and sometimes a game of cards, played with a greasy pack… (p115) 

It is this ability to compress a wealth of images and a long-forgotten way of life into short passages that distinguishes Masters’ fiction.  I’m looking forward to finding more of her work!

Author: Olga Masters
Title: Amy’s Children
Publisher: UQP, 1994
ISBN: 9317819002202
Source: Personal Library


Responses

  1. I love Olga Masters – read quite a bit of her small output in the late 1980s and have one (A long time dying) in my TBR pile. As you say, it’s the small details that make her books special. She was a journalist for a long time as she followed her husband around the countryside, and like Jolley didn’t get published as a novelist until late. I was really sad when she died! My favourite of hers is Loving daughters. If you haven’t read it you must – if you liked Amy’s children I think you’ll love Loving daughters. It has a certain Austen-ish quality to it. (Boy, you’ve been reading quickly lately!)

    • *chuckle* No I haven’t been reading quickly, not now I’m back at work! It’s just that I’ve caught up on books I journalled but didn’t get round to blogging. Yes, Masters is a bit Austen-ish in the way that she tells a bigger story in a domestic framework. I bet she’d have loved the accolade, eh? But the hard part is going to be finding Loving Daughters, I’d like to read The Home Girls too. There’s a really good 2nd hand bookshop near me in Mentone, Diversity Books, and I’ll check it out. I think it’s where I found Amy’s Children – and now I want them all. Lisa

  2. My favourite second hand shop here doesn’t have The home girls, but they do have a pb AND an hb copy of Loving daughters. I’d be happy to pick one up for you and send it to you if you liked.

    • That’s very, very kind of you, Sue! Please email me your address privately so that I can send you a cheque to cover costs. Lisa

  3. Well, first you have to email me YOUR address privately so I can send it to you! Do you mind whether it is pb or hb (both are under $10, but one moreso than the other!) or would you just like the one that looks to be in better condition?

  4. Lisa
    I was in town today and thought I would have a look in my local St Vinnies store and guess what was on the bookshelf…….a copy of Amy’s Children for the bargain price of 50cents. I think you would agree a good find considering its long out of print as you have mentioned . It always amazes me how a particular book can just materialise at the right moment. It is an ex library copy and in good condition considering its age and history as a loaned book.

    • Synchronicity! Lisa

  5. […] You can also check out my review of Olga Masters Amy’s Children. […]

  6. […] read both her novels now, Loving Daughters (1984), and Amy’s Children (1987), see my review here.  A Long Time Dying (1985) is a series of connected short stories, and I have her 1982 collection […]


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