Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 18, 2018

The Day They Shot Edward, by Wendy Scarfe #BookReview

The Day They Shot Edward is a perfect little novella, set in 1916 when the First Conscription Referendum was tearing Australia apart.  It is told from the perspective of a little boy called Matthew whose naïve observations portray family life at a difficult time in history.

A small cast of characters convey the conflict.  Matthew’s teacher at school bullies her class into contributing to the war effort.  Matthew, who has a horror of killing things – even the yabbies that he catches in the pond – runs away when, for once, he has a farthing given to him by his mother’s ‘friend’ Edward but is honour bound not to contribute:

Matthew had no money.  By turns he begged his mother, Gran and Edward for a penny but they all refused.  His mother said that there were no extra pennies in a house without a breadwinner.  Gran said that she was Irish and saw no reason why she should contribute to the ego of any woman loyal to the Empire.  Edward said that he would give him a penny but not to contribute to the war because it was a capitalist war in which poor people suffered for the rich.

When he asked Edward who the poor people were, Edward surprised him by saying: ‘Families like yours and mine.  We’re the poor.  We’re the little people.  We creep around on the ground or pull the chariots while the rich people ride’.  (p.20-21)

Matthew doesn’t understand that he is poor, because apart from the daily boredom of school, his life is rich with activity and he revels in the love of his grandmother and the affection of Edward.  And while the boy has an instinctive distrust of a man in a brown suit who is always hanging around and asking questions, he certainly doesn’t understand that Edward is under surveillance for his political activities.

The blight on Matthew’s young life is his father, confined to a sealed off part of the house because he has a highly contagious lung disease.  This portrayal of how TB was managed in poor families is shocking to the modern reader: Matthew’s mother Margaret is responsible for the care of a living corpse, keeping everything he touches separate in order to protect Matthew from the infection, but unaware of the little boy’s terror of the hacking cough and the blood-stained detritus of the illness.  The reader sees this poor man only through Matthew’s limited point-of-view, but becomes aware through the course of events that Margaret deals with the stress of this situation by flirting for a suitor in advance of her husband’s death.  She wants one that will restore her to the social position she had before her hasty and now disastrous marriage and has no concern for whether her choice would make a good father for Matthew.  Scarfe portrays this woman in all her complexity: Margaret is utterly self-absorbed and quite heartless, and yet she never loses the sympathy of the reader because of the burden she bears and the fact that she receives no welfare assistance from any source.  When the last remnants of her annuity is gone, the family will have nothing so an advantageous marriage is, in fact, her only solution.

Through snatches of conversation that Matthew overhears and only partly understands, the narrative tension rises as the authorities close in on Edward.  Inevitably Matthew overhears secrets and a betrayal occurs.  Even though this is foreshadowed by the title of the book, it still comes as a tragic conclusion, only partly alleviated by Matthew’s discovery of music as balm for the soul.

At only 124 pages, The Day They Shot Edward is a vivid picture of Australia just over a century ago but a world away from how things are now.

PS That striking cover design is by Liz Nicholson from designBite.

Author: Wendy Scarfe
Title: The Day They Shot Edward
Publisher: Wakefield Press, 2018, (first published by Spectrum, (1991,1992), with a revised edition by Seaview Press, 2003)
ISBN: 9781743055199
Review copy courtesy of Wakefield Press

Available from Fishpond The Day They Shot Edward or direct from Wakefield Press



  1. I love novellas and always wish there were more of them. Its publishing history is interesting and I’m not sure if that is suggestive of the book’s popularity? Revised and reprinted after 10 years and then a new publisher 5 years later?

    • Yes, it’s interesting, I don’t know what the story is behind the reissue. Sometimes it’s just a case of a really good book not doing well on its first release perhaps because of lack of publicity or inadequate distribution, but I suspect that this reissue might be more to do with current interest in the anniversaries of the Conscription referendum of 1916 and the ensuing one in 1917.
      I think also (but again, I don’t know) that maybe the original publishers are no longer in business? My Google search only brought up a Spectrum in Pakistan and one which does self-publishing in Australia, while Seaview Press in SA (also a self-publishing crowd) seems to be permanently closed. If that’s correct, it would explain why the initial issues might not have had much traction because everybody knows that self-publishing is fraught with difficulties of publicity and distribution while a professional publisher like Wakefield knows how to get the word out and get the book into shops.

      • Yes, sounds like the most likely explanation. Regardless, its great that Wakefield now have it and hopefully it will get a good readership.

  2. I will come back to your review when I’ve read this myself Lisa. I’m looking forward to it, given my enjoyment of her Hunger town. It will be interesting to read an earlier book of hers – and like Karenlee, I love a good novella!

    • Yes, I do too, I like that extra length that allows for more character development:)

      • Haha, Lisa, I’m not comparing to short stories, which I love, but to long novels that could be tighter!!

        • I don’t disagree with you there!

  3. I found a farthing once, around 1960 in a park in Murray Bridge SA. I wonder when they went out of circulation. I wonder also when it became recognised that TB was infectious and required isolation. I had thought (from reading novels, not from any study) that this might have been in the period before WWII. Dad used to be really anal about us kids picking up stuff in the street, especially cig butts of course, because of the possibility of becoming infected (I think I was inoculated when I was 12)

    • Yes, I remember farthings too, though on which continent I could not say! By the time I was in Grade 4, I’d learned and unlearned pounds, shillings and pence three times, and decimals twice.
      I don’t know much about TB either, though I remember being examined for it when we arrived in Australia and the regular X–rays and then the inoculations. I don’t think they do either now, not in Australia anyway.
      But I read C19th novels where consumptive heroines lay gracefully dying, only occasionally touching a blood tinged hankie to their lips, and I read Betty MacDonald’s The Plague and I which was insistent on quarantine and total bed rest in a sanatorium, and also the bio of Katherine Mansfield, which was graphic about her haemorrhages but also, I now realise, quite shocking in the way that she travelled about in Europe and the UK seemingly without a care in the world about spreading the disease. Oh yes, and also Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain has characters in the sanatorium who have TB…
      But I had never before thought about the care of poor people with TB, people who could not afford health care of any kind. This is where Wendy Scarfe’s writing is so good, she brings that era to life so vividly.

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