The lives of three men and a women, returned from the front after World War I, intersect in a new offering from Kim Kelly – an historical novella set in the fictional hamlet of Sunshine in far north-western New South Wales, ‘out the back of Bourke’.
Snow, Grace and Art are each looking for something real in their lives to fill the holes left by war. Snow blames himself for the death of a dear friends, Art’s trauma left him hospitalised and shamed by a nervous paralysis, and Grace, a ‘surgical nurse and do-it-yourself butcher’ has seen too much. A fresh start is offered by the Australian Government’s Solider Settlement scheme—a well-meaning though ill-considered plan to give returned soldiers parcels of land on which to farm. Many divisions were worthless, unable to yield a decent crop and the scheme was eventually abandoned. Kelly’s gentle examination of a nascent modern Australia reminds us also of its founding on theft through the Scheme’s dispossession of the Indigenous population. These intertwined stories about citrus crops along the Darling River illustrate some of its hopes and successes.
After serving Australia in a foreign war, Aboriginal horseman Jack Bell returns to a nation which has broken his family and removed his livelihood. On five shillings a day, signing up was a leap into riches, and respect, impossible at home. He muses, ‘No such distinction as black of white but yes sir and no sir, get on with the friggen job. Why did it have to take the insanity of war to make things so equal and reasonable as that? Stupid friggen question.’ Now, the Government wants him ‘looked after’ on a mission. Bucking at that, he returns to the land of his birth and finds it divided and apportioned to other returned soldiers. White soldiers.
Snow McGlynn receives such an allocation. He has retreated within himself, wants no company, and needs to throw himself into his farm to forget the pain of war and loss. Snow muses early on, ‘He didn’t have anything against blacks, not really, but they always made a mess and had their hand out … ‘ Through his developing relationship with Jack, Kelly opens our eyes to Australia’s rank hypocrisy as Snow becomes alive to Jack’s knowledge of and connection with the land, and the racism underpinning Snow’s own good fortune. Both returned soldiers—one rewarded, the other stripped of his dignity and self-determination.
Art Lovelee has been hospitalised with a phantom paralysis. Shamed and infantilised, the prevailing medical view was to ignore their symptoms and jolly them along, like children. Through Art, Kelly quietly reminds us that the ‘deranged’ have forever been feared, their illness taboo. ReadingSunshinebrought back Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy(Penguin 1996) which powerfully evokes soldiers’ trauma in the First World War and Kelly includes in her epigraph a verse from Siegfried Sassoon, the wartime poet who features so strongly in Barker’s work.
Art finds himself in the care of Grace who coaxes him back to health, then follows him to Australia. She has her own demons. She remembers too well the screams of the boy whose eyes she had to wash of poison gas from ‘the green cloud, from the devil’s very breath that swept across Flanders Fields.’ She remembers the amputees and the men carrying metal bullets in their bodies.
Kelly’s writing is clear and joyous. While she writes of dispossession and death, her message is hopeful. There is beauty all around—Grace, transplanted from cold, damp England to a parched and hot land looks to the future. Bending down to pick up a scrap she thinks has come from her washing, she sees it is a daisy,
… a little blue daisy, sitting in a sparse and thirsty-looking clump of grass. She crouched down to peer at it: a baby-blue wheel, so stark, so fabulous, here upon the rich red timeless soil: and such a surprise: she reminded herself all joy was surprising, never coming as dreamed or planned.
Kim Kelly Sunshine Jazz Monkey Publications 2019 PB 222pp $20.53
First published by the Newtown Review of Books on 5 March 2019