Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 8, 2015

Hunger Town, by Wendy Scarfe

Hunger TownI wonder how many of my readers have ever had the opportunity to speak to an older Australian about their experience of the Great Depression?  I was a young woman when I heard about teenage boys cycling from Northcote to Black Rock (25km) just to have an orange from their aunt’s tree, and it was the aunt who mentioned it (in the context of something else) because forty years after the event, the middle-aged man maintained a stoic silence about the shame of that poverty.  Knowing the aunt’s hospitality, as I came to do, I soon realised that a decent feed came with the orange too, but this was something she never mentioned.  She was a woman who took twin boys into her home in an unofficial adoption and brought them up as her own because her husband was lucky enough to have secure employment during those terrible years.  When Australians talk today about contemporary hardship, most of them have no idea, no idea at all.

Which is why I would recommend Wendy Scarfe’s new historical novel Hunger Town as a powerful evocation of an era which is soon to lose the last of its witnesses.  Scarfe (born in 1933 and now in her eighties) is a prolific author with a longstanding interest in social justice issues, and she based the book on family recollections and historical events.  And trust me, it is a compelling page-turner; it’s riveting reading.

Hunger Town tells the story of Judith Larsen who grows up on a coal hulk in the port of Adelaide, a city which was the first to feel the effects of the Depression and the hardest-hit.  As a child she witnesses the sight of men so hungry that they swim out in the river to retrieve bread scraps thrown from the hulk to the seagulls.  She sees men pad out their tattered clothing with newspapers to ward off the winter cold.  She’s just a girl when she witnesses horrific violence at a street meeting to protest against bans on free speech.  These experiences and the hardships of her father’s work as a winchman on the wharves predispose her to a life of activism but her friendship with middle-class Winnie shades what could have been a black-and-white polemic.

Judith’s schooling is irregular and when her father’s income is savaged by changes to the way men are hired, she has to leave school to work in the Chew It café.   But, befriended by old Joe Pulham at the Working Men’s Club, she stumbles into one of the libraries that provided an informal education to many working men in that period and she reads her way through Aristotle and Aristophanes until she reaches the letter Z on the shelves.  Crucially it is old Joe who introduces her to the idea of art as social commentary and shows her the work of Goya and the Australian political cartoonist Will Dyson (1880-1938), and providentially, he leaves her his meagre estate, which enables her to go to art school.  There she meets Marie Taylor who teaches her that

‘Artists must assert values and the harder times become the harder we must struggle to do this.’ (p. 156)

Judith’s talent as a satirical cartoonist commenting on the impact of the Depression supports her parents through the toughest times, and she is the breadwinner in her marriage to Harry Grenville.  Her first sale, to the conservative paper Despatch, shows the value of that informal learning:

I had done some additional cartoons, sharpening their meanings with ironic biblical quotations. I had learned from studying Goya’s work that there was a depth in the symbols we all recognised.

I had drawn two cartoons of the soup kitchen: one of Mrs Danley ladling soup into the billycan of a single man while a long queue of others waited and disappeared behind him.  I had given it the caption Give us this day our daily bread.

A second had been prompted by the women’s constant fears that one day they’d have no food to give out because the little shops which usually supported the poor had given so much on tick that now they, too, were going broke.  Soon the little extra they found to help the soup kitchen would cease.

In this cartoon I drew two women speaking to each other while they held a plate with five loaves and two fishes on it.  The people in the queue were turning aside in despair and trudging away.  The caption read: But this is all we have today. (p.145)

Scarfe paints a nuanced narrative of the political ferment that characterised the 1930s.  Judith, the first person narrator, is surrounded by competing solutions to the tragedy of economic depression.  Nathan (who eats at the café) is a committed communist who spouts dry theory falling on deaf ears amongst the Left, who fracture into anarchists who want local control; unionists who want to use industrial muscle to get a fair deal; and the Labour Party which doesn’t want to frighten voters away.  Most women, like Judith’s mother and the charity church-worker Mrs Danley, are in search of practical non-violent solutions to forced evictions and hunger.  But Judith’s idealistic husband Harry is seduced by the claim that Russia under communism offers free dancing lessons if you have talent and he joins the Communist Party, causing tension in the marriage.  Fatefully, he sets off on a ‘fact-finding’ mission to Spain – just as the Spanish Civil War erupts into massacres of anyone with left-leaning politics.  And he disappears…

Hunger Town is a love story; a dissection of marriage between people of differing political persuasions; an homage to lost causes; and an authentic testament to the tenacity and courage of working people in those days.

To learn about the remarkable way this story was written, visit this article by Carol Altman in Bluestone Magazine.

Author: Wendy Scarfe
Title: Hunger Town
Publisher; Wakefield Press, 2014
ISBN: 9781743053362
Review copy courtesy of Wakefield Press

Availability

Fishpond: Hunger Town: A Novel
or direct from Wakefield Press.

 


Responses

  1. I am looking forward to reading this Lisa. When I was 14 we were asked to interview someone who would talk about the depression and how they lived through it. We had a house cleaner at that time whom I was very fond and she readily gave me her story. I found her story fascinating and have since spoken to others of their experiences. My own maternal grandmother who ran a small dairy farm near Daylesford knew hardship and lean times. Their experiences certainly governed their future life and I have an enormous respect for their survival skills whilst still remaining cautiously optimistic about the future. I’ll read this with a vested interest.

    • Hello Chele, lovely to hear from you:)
      I think that with that personal connection you will really enjoy this book. There’s a lovely little snippet about the dairy farmers donating the skim milk (what’s left after the cream has been skimmed off) to the soup kitchen for the children, which brought a lump to my throat.
      Let’s hope that we never again have a government so hard-hearted that they let this situation ever happen.

  2. […] Lisa Hill at ANZLitLovers also liked this book. […]

  3. […] truths about egalitarianism by reading vivid novels like Ruth Park’s Harp in the South and Hunger Town by Wendy Scarfe.  Tom Keneally, the Balzac of Australia, also writes illuminating historical […]


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