One of the curious things that emerges when one travels overseas from Australia is the discovery that The Rest of the World has an awed sense of Australia’s distance from Everywhere Else. When we were in Russia last year, it was really marked and we felt like exotic species whenever anyone remarked on us having come such a long way. I really like the way Evelyn Conlon has captured this attitude in her fourth novel Not the Same Sky.
Joy Kennedy is a stonemason in Dublin when she receives a letter from a Memorial Committee in Sydney. They are approaching her to design a memorial to the 4414 girls who were shipped to Australia between 1848 and 1850 during the Irish potato famine. Joy is a somewhat restless young woman, rearranging the truth of her life continuously but now considering settling herself, in the light of an emerging relationship with Oscar:
Joy Kennedy was standing in her pine kitchen, looking out at the surprised spring morning wondering if she wanted her life to change. This was something she did quite often. She knew she should stop, and she did try, because waiting for things to change eats up the bit of time we’ve got. Always wanting to be someplace else makes nonsense of being here. She wanted to stop whizzing about so much and planning ahead. She wanted to keep her hand on the earth. (p.1)
She discusses the proposal with Oscar, over an atlas:
‘Look at that. Would you look at that, it’s far.’ She ran her finger down the page. ‘I mean, I knew it was far, but…’
If you wanted change, wanted to be someplace else, this was it. (p.3)
The novel then slips back in time to recreate the voyage of just four of these girls, Honora Raftery, Julia Cuffe, Bridget Joyce and Anne Sherry. They travel on the Thomas Arbuthnot under the care of surgeon-general Charles Strutt. The genius of this book is that this longest part of the story, bookended by Joy’s contemporary life and attitudes, seduces the reader into accepting the emigration as benign, a journey away from starvation and death, towards hope. Lulled by the movement of the ship across the oceans, the reader joins the girls’ journey and experiences it as peaceful, marked only by occasional storms. There are emotional storms too, but they are quickly suppressed and barely disrupt the inexorable voyage.
Charles Strutt is depicted as a humane and thoughtful man. The bureaucrats who organise the voyage have little sensitivity: they are problem solvers. The Australian colony needs women as wives and domestic servants, and Ireland has thousands of starving girls. The solution is obvious, and they organise it. But Charles has come across derogatory stories about feisty Irish girls making trouble in the colony, and he takes pride in delivering a cargo of respectable young women. From the moment he takes charge, he orchestrates their every move so that they arrive clean, neat, well-trained and emotionally stable. He implements a strict-but-gentle regimen of bathing, laundering, and learning, this last so that the girls can not only speak English but read it too. In the evening he allows them to dance chastely on deck, and he develops acclimatisation strategies to ensure that the girls weather emotional storms.
The novel takes its name from the moment when the Thomas Arbuthnot crosses the equator and the constellations in the night sky take on the patterns of the southern hemisphere. I was too little to be allowed up to see this when the Union Castle made this transition, but I remember the Crossing the Line Ceremony vividly: I still have my framed certificate. (It’s too big to scan properly, it’s foolscap, and the ink is fading, despite my father’s careful frame). Charles Strutt prepares the girls carefully for the high-jinks so that they’re not startled, and he makes a small ceremony out of the changing of the stars. As a methodical man, he is upset himself when the emotional impact of this change in the night sky confounds his plans for an educational experience because one of the girls is upset:
It was a clear night. Perfect for seeing the northern stars fade away and the southern stars rise into view. Charles pointed to what was the familiar and the girls stared in awe as they saw the change. Although in truth, some of them were pretending in order to keep Charles happy. They did not know their own sky well, certainly not as well as he did. Surprisingly, it was Anne Sherry who was most moved. Surprisingly, because she was generally most in control of her thoughts and emotions.
‘Imagine. Even the stars won’t be the same,’ she said. ‘It’s like leaving again.’
‘Don’t be silly, we’ve already left. You can only leave once,’ Julia said.
This was what Charles wanted to avoid. He hurried them below. After they had settled, when the last noises seemed to be over, he walked back on deck and had another look at the beautiful stars by himself. Yes, he could imagine travellers addressing them, those who thought they would never see them again. And he could imagine how possessive one could become about your stars only when you were leaving them. He went down below. He could hear a girl crying, but that was not unusual. Most nights there was at least one. The girls had a way of letting her cry for some time before someone would go to her. Indeed, those closest whispered over the sobs for a while before providing comfort for whatever sadness had overcome her. He heard the whispers.
‘Why’s she crying. She doesn’t usually.’
‘She says that even the stars will be different.’
‘Oh what the hell difference does that make. Everything will be different.’
‘Still, I’d better go over to her. She’s only young.’
‘What age are you?’
‘Oh.’ (p. 77-78)
Anne’s reaction is a surprise to Charles because she is a steady girl, one who will adjust and use her initiative to set herself up in a hat-making business, using the glorious feathers of Australian birds. Honora is steady too, sensible, and always looking to make the best of things. Julia Cuffe might have been expected to be scornful: she is bold, wilful and sardonic. Highly intelligent, she’s no more fitted to be a domestic servant than I am to be an athlete. No, if paternalistic Charles was worried about any of his girls reacting badly, it would have been Bridget, always emotionally fragile, and why not? All these girls were orphaned by the famine, and were suffering from the grief of losing all their loved ones, a grief exacerbated by being taken away from all they knew. (BTW, Notice how cleverly Conlon has written this passage so that you know which of these girls is talking, though no names are used).
Joy reacts in an unexpected way when she visits the exhibition about these girls in the Hyde Park Barracks in Sydney. She walks first through the confronting exhibition about convict life, and sees the horrors of executions and floggings. She is angered by the way the juxtaposition of the displays about the girls trivialises their experience and makes the room – set up with hammocks to resemble a dormitory – seem like a comparative sanctuary not a place for young frightened girls … walking downstairs to stand like exhibits at a fair while prospective employers looked them over. (p. 238)
Simon, from the memorial committee, shows her drafts of the signage, and Joy takes umbrage at the terminology. The girls weren’t refugees from the Great Irish Famine – they weren’t taking refuge, they were virtual prisoners, girl slaves, she thought.
Not the Same Sky reminds us again of the unwritten histories of our past and how memorials can at best only ever approximate what that past was like. The objects, documents, signage and yes, even the placement of a memorial can be an affront to the reality. Conlon, an Irish writer who’s spent a lot of time in Australia, has written a beautiful novel which made me think again about the choices curators make. And it’s added the Hyde Park Barracks Museum to my Sydney Bucket List as well: the Irish Orphan Girls exhibition closes on December 31st 2013.
Author: Evelyn Conlon
Title: Not the Same Sky
Publisher: Wakefield Press, 2013
Source: Review copy courtesy of Wakefield Press.