Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 2, 2020

No Small Shame, by Christine Bell

It’s just a coincidence, but Theresa Smith has just published an author talk with Sandie Docker that discusses ‘the power of feel-good-fiction’, and today I finished reading a book that fits into that category.  Christine Bell’s No Small Shame is a book with a ‘feel-good’ ending, but it also deals with issues that haven’t gone away since the historical period in which the novel is set.  The central character is torn between love, pity and duty; she has to deal with religious prejudice; and her choices are constrained by grinding poverty, lack of education, gender inequality, and her responsibility to her children.

Sandie Docker believes that

…at its heart, feel-good fiction can transport us from our own worries and remind us that there is hope. It leaves us feeling that love will prevail. That with friends by our side we can cope with anything. That life is a joyous gift to cherish. Feel-good fiction can take us away from our own problems, snuggle us up in a warm literary hug, and remind us that no matter what’s going on, there is promise. Promise that we will find our way through.

At a time when we are facing unprecedented challenges not only on a personal scale, but globally, the need to be reminded of the good in humanity, the beauty within our own lives, the love that exists between partners, or friends, or families, is tangible.

No Small Shame, despite its flaws, ends on a satisfying note of hope.  It’s a love story with a feisty Scots heroine against the backdrop of WW1 and the tragedy of ruined men in a land not made fit for heroes at all.  What is well done is the realistic portrayal of the tug between love and duty; the way hope and forgiveness can betray common sense, and the authentic depiction of poverty in the early 20th century…

I remember a weekend away in a miner’s hut in Woods Point many years ago.  It had what seemed like a romantic simplicity: a one-roomed shack with a dirt floor, no running water and no electricity, but the simplicity would have soon worn very thin for me.  The shack was untouched since the days when this novel was set: when water had to be fetched and heated for a once-weekly bath; when a woman had two dresses only; when pullovers were reknitted with supplementary yarn scraps to fit a growing child; when you grew your own produce or you went without; and when being born with any kind of disability was a disaster for a farmer’s son in the backblocks.

Mary O’Donnell, born into a Catholic mining family, endures this life when her family migrates from Scotland to Wonthaggi in Victoria, where her father works in the State Coal Mine (now a tourist attraction, the only historic coal mine experience in the Southern Hemisphere).  As a teenager in Bothwellhaugh, Mary had fallen for the handsome dreamer Liam Merrilees, and her family joins his in Australia in search of a better life.  She dreams of education and a career as a nurse or a teacher; he doesn’t know what he wants except that he doesn’t want to follow his father down into the mine.  And by the time she meets up again with him in Wonthaggi, he has lost any interest in her.  He just wants to get away from the dreariness of his life.

Mary’s on-off inconclusive responses to his diffidence are far too long-winded and repetitive, and since the reader already knows from the blurb that there’s an unexpected pregnancy and a reluctant Liam for a husband, by the time we reach page 114 when he gets drunk and they finally do the deed, it comes as an anti-climax.  But the novel improves: trapped into marriage Liam takes off to enlist at the first opportunity, leaving Mary to escape her bullying mother by taking refuge on a friend’s farm—where she soon learns how awful marriage can be because Frank Sloy is a brute and her friend Winnie is a slattern.  It is only when tragedy strikes that Mary gets back home, (and no, it’s not the tragedy that this period of history would make predictable).

So things look bleak for Mary but a friend offers help, and life looks up when she gets to Melbourne, discovers kindness in a boarding-house, and starts on an apprenticeship that could lead to financial independence.  A neat twist in the tale shatters all this hope, and the rest of the novel is an absorbing portrayal of the dilemma in which many women found themselves.  Though some of the characterisation relies on stereotypes of saints (e.g. the landlady Pearl) and sinners (e.g. Mary’s mother Maw), the characterisation of Mary is excellent, especially the portrayal of her complex emotions.

BTW The author must have been astonished to find that her book which in passing references the Spanish Flu, hit the shops at the same time as the pandemic!

Author: Christine Bell
Title: No Small Shame
Cover design: Christabella Designs
Publisher: Impact Press (an imprint of Ventura Press)
ISBN: 9781920727901
Source: Personal library, purchased from Readings $32.99


Responses

  1. I’m not generally one for feel-good fiction but I am picking my reads quite carefully at the moment as I can’t take anything too bleak! This does sound good – the historical setting sounds very vividly evoked.

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  2. Aren’t we coincidental!
    I have this book, sent to me for review. In further coincidences, Wonthaggi is very known to me. My grandparents had a dairy farm at Glen Forbes, and that’s where I spent the majority of my childhood. We shopped in Wonthaggi, my aunt (who is quite close in age to me) went to high school there. I bused into Koo Wee Rup to go to the Catholic primary, but she bused the other direction. Once my aunt was an adult with her own young children, I spent many a school holiday period staying with her in Wonthaggi. Both of my grandparents died there and are buried there.
    I absolutely detest the place. But I do have a lot of connections to it, so the fact that some of this book is set there caught my interest.
    However, and this very shallow of me, I honestly can’t stand this cover! It just repels me from reading the book. The fact that it’s called No Small Shame and there is a bed there, instantly makes me think the book is going to be about marital rape. I just can’t shrug it off. It’s ridiculous. But every time I look at it I don’t want to read it. And the author is so lovely too. It’s got me in a bind. It’s the sort of cover I would expect on a self published title, not from a publishing house. For once, I long for the close up of a headless woman…

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    • Well…as far as I can tell, it is a variety of self-published.
      Impact is an imprint of Ventura publishing which is (I think) a regular publishing outfit, but its website says “Impact authors are asked to offset the commercial risk by contributing to the upfront costs of creating, printing and distributing their book”.
      I think this may be why the first long-winded part of the book hasn’t had the editing it should have had. OTOH the copy-editing is better than some of the major publishing houses, I didn’t pick up any spelling errors anywhere.
      I know Wonthaggi well too because we used to holiday at Inverloch regularly and of course visited all the towns roundabout.

      Liked by 1 person

      • So it’s a vanity press. I came across a fair few of those back when I was writing my own novels. I’m not a fan of that sort of set up, to be honest. I didn’t realise, because I haven’t even had a close look at the book yet, that it wasn’t just published by Ventura.
        Copy-editing is cheaper than structual, and likely, a vanity press wouldn’t provide structual editing. I did some sneaky looking into a few of them a few years ago. They know how to nip and tuck when it comes to getting a book out. Funny though, they’ll still charge a fortune as well as a cut of your sales $.

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        • In their defence, Impact say that they don’t accept everything that is submitted, and they have a distribution arrangement with Simon and Schuster which means it’s not the usual rip-off arrangement which leaves the poor author high and dry without access to distribution, which is always the hard part. (See https://www.venturapress.com.au/impact-press)
          Which is how I came to buy it. I was looking for 2020 releases at Readings to support authors whose book launches were dead in the water because of COVID_19 and there it was, and the setting appealed to me, so I thought, I’ll buy it and FWIW give it some publicity.
          And that’s the thing. Ok, this novel has flaws, but as a work of Australian historical fiction, I think it’s done well overall. Which makes me wonder why it wasn’t picked up by Hachette or Picador who publish heaps of books that are not as well done as this one is.

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          • I have long given up on wondering why one book gets picked while another gets passed over. If there’s a formula, I’m yet to understand it.
            I will get to it soon. Other reviews have commented on the slow start but then felt that it turned into a good story.

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  3. I will have to read it as I also have connections to the place through my two great aunts who emigrated there in 1926. It has a history of working class action and the film Black Gold has one of my great aunts in it. I had the pleasure of meeting her when she was in her 80’s and lived to103years. Have visited twice and it does seem a dreary town though am sure it would have been different when it was a thriving mining town.

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    • I think I saw Black Gold, was it ever on the ABC?

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  4. Yes. It had it’s premier in the town and Bob Hawke was there,

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    • Gosh, imagine that happening today! There aren’t enough films about our own history… I’m so disappointed in that Maralinga one on ABC now, has been jazzed up instead of being treated seriously. I can’t make myself watch it).

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  5. So many interesting stories out there. This certainly sounds another one.

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    • I can’t imagine the horror of being consigned to work in a mine because there’s no other work. And so many men (including a character in the book) died of the lung diseases caused by the coal dust. I think it’s terrible that even today in our ‘enlightened’ 21st century, men are getting sick from the dust when they cut kitchen benchtops… it just shouldn’t be happening.

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      • I know. Only yesterday we saw a story of a man who worked in the mines for 40 years and were talking about how awful that would be.

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        • I have a horror of being underground… I’m not sure about the theory of inherited trauma, but my mother was buried alive under masonry during the blitz, and I cannot make myself think about being underground, much less go into any of those tourist situation coal mines or underground caves.
          I read a book in the Earthsea series that featured a wizard trapped underground and it gave me nightmares for years… so I didn’t dare read The Anchoress by Robyn Cadwallader when it came out, and I still feel guilty about that because I’ve heard so much about what a great book it is.

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          • I’m with you re: being underground. I started in on a panic attack while in a Soviet bunker underground last year in Czech Republic. A couple of fast shots of vodka, which I never drink, has us more relaxed.

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            • LOL I too learned to drink vodka in Russia! (And discovered that the horrid stuff we mix with TJ or orange juice is nothing like the better quality stuff they have there.)

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  6. My grandfather was a coal miner and as a girl he took me to the mine where he had worked – they still had the pit ponies grazing outside back then (retired thank goodness poor beasts). He got me down that mine once and never again – it terrified me! I’ve never been able to bear the thought of being underground again – I refuse to even visit Jenolan Caves – I think that visit as a child traumatised me for life! A lifetime of working there (apart from a brief sojourn at The Somme in WWI) and he got paid a pittance.

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    • You would think by now that they would have drones or robots to mine underground, wouldn’t you?

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  7. The list of books I don’t like is endless I know, and it includes all Australian general fiction of the historical variety. So many people who were good at essay writing in school think they can write a book. And what really astounds me is the number of people who like and buy nice stories about olden times. And yes, I lived down that way too, learnt to swim in the ocean baths at Inverloch in 1958, only last week drove past the neighbouring coal mine at Korrumburra (doing a delivery to Leongatha), and had an uncle teaching at Koo Wee Rup (before Theresa was born probably).

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    • Bill, my friend, if you reviewed heaps of SF on your blog, I’d be a bit stuck too for what to say without saying that I don’t like it! I think we all come to books from different places, and we want different things from what we read. Mostly what I want is what people call challenging books, books to stimulate my mind and to teach me something new about people and the world.
      But not always. When I’m tired and headachy, which I seem to be a lot lately, new glasses notwithstanding, my concentration is poor and I need something less demanding.
      And if this one makes some people realise the great changes there have been in working conditions, and then hopefully to think how that came about so that they are less anti-union, that would be a good thing.

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