Tonight my guest is a writer whose new book has come out at a most inconvenient time. I asked her to be our guest today because her book is interesting for so many reasons and should not be overlooked just because we live in a troublesome year . The most minor of my reasons for interest is, of course, Wonthaggi. The story isn’t about Wonthaggi, but my Melbourne childhood included a visit there and I have fond memories. The rest of my reasons… read Christine’s blogpost and see for yourself. Gillian
Gems of Research, by Christine Bell
In mid-June 1912, my great-grandfather along with a dozen or more of his fellow Scottish coal-miners left Tilbury Dock on board the steamship Makarini for the shores of Australia and the new state-owned coal town of Wonthaggi in Gippsland, Victoria. Six months later my great-grandmother followed accompanied by their three daughters, and several other families, on nominated Government passages aboard the SS Hawkes Bay.
It was this family history that led me to the Wonthaggi State Coal Mine museum and shortly after to the story idea that grew to become my debut novel No Small Shame – due to be published on the 1 April.
During that museum visit, a voice kept nagging – there’s a story here, there’s a story here and, oh, what a setting! The only problem was that my forebears led very quiet conservative lives. No controversial encounters, criminal history, or rebellions – either personal or political. In short, nothing to see here, folks. But instead of me returning to the novel that I’d begun in the February, the urge to research the Scottish pit village of Bothwellhaugh, immigration and steamship journeys, and the state-owned town of Wonthaggi found me adding ideas to a fast growing journal of notes. An embryonic idea for a story teased and when the voice of my protagonist turned up with ideas of her own, I had no choice but to give in and write that story.
I didn’t want to write of the coal miners and their day-to-day frictions and work-day lives, I wanted to write the untold stories of the women. I set out to discover the well spring from which women of that era drew their stoicism and resilience, while battling poverty, infant mortality, lack of education, premature ageing and often, separation from families and the land of their births.
The correspondence files from the early years of the office of The State Coal Mine held in Public Records proved a rich seam with its many letters from wives and mothers advocating on behalf of husbands, brothers and sons; beseeching the manager to consider their loved one for jobs, or reinstatement, or tenancy of one of the miner’s cottages. These letters revealed their desperation and struggles to keep a roof over their family’s head and food in their children’s mouths.
The minutiae of their daily life intrigued me along with how our maternal forebears coped with the challenges and hardships that made up the fabric of their lives. Set over the years spanning the Great War, I wanted No Small Shame to explore the social and cultural impact on women on the home front, as well as the readjustment for them when their men returned damaged from the war. The effects of post traumatic shock often went unrecognised or were kept hidden through shame.
Often it was as much cultural and economic influences that
prevented men and their families from recovering and resuming full lives, as
the lack of support and understanding of PTSD. One particularly helpful
resource, Shattered Anzacs: Living with the Scars of War (Marina Larsson
UNSW Press 2009), validated the trajectory of my storyline and helped explain
the financial implications for families when the rate of a soldier’s’ pension was
based on the percentage of the man’s physical injuries. A soldier’s mental health
was seldom taken into consideration unless it was extremely evident or he was
Letters to the Base Records Office of the Australian Imperial Forces were often sent by women advocating for reconsideration of a pension reduction, requests for housing, or medical treatments. Women did not let pride stand between them and pleading for what was needed to ensure their family’s survival. It provided me with a real insight into how they often became the spokesperson for the family, though their role was still frequently subservient to the head of the household.
I found many similar gems in non-fiction texts and studies, oral histories and documented recounts, pamphlets and publications that you’d never discover unless rummaging through antiquarian bookshops or the collections of local historical societies and heritage centres. Maps and a government report from 1910 revealed specific details of the state of the housing and challenges of daily life in the village of Bothwellhaugh. Pamphlets and booklets from the Wonthaggi Historical Society told of the town set out and workings, the churches, historic shops and the transition to freehold land.
Upon completing the final edit for No Small Shame, as I packed away my research materials, I considered the variety and richness of the resources I’d gathered over so many years. Where or how could such an archive be preserved? I’m hugely thankful that our National Library retains a copy of every book published in this country, but I wonder if the gems and focused wealth of materials and minutiae collected by many historical fiction authors in the course of researching a book may be lost or disappear on their passing, unless their oeuvre of note.
No Small Shame published by Ventura Press (Impact Press Imprint) 1 April 2020
ISBN: 978-1-920727-90-1 (paperback)
ISBN: 978-1-920727-89-5 (ebook)
Published by Ventura Press (Impact imprint)
Australia, 1914. The world is erupting in war. Jobs are scarce and immigrants unwelcome. For young Catholic Mary O’Donnell, this is not the new life she imagined. When one foolish night of passion leads to an unexpected pregnancy and a loveless marriage, Mary’s reluctant husband Liam escapes to the trenches. With her overbearing mother attempting to control her every decision, Mary flees to Melbourne determined to build a life for herself and her child. There, she forms an unlikely friendship with Protestant army reject Tom Robbins. But as a shattering betrayal is revealed, Mary must make an impossible choice. Does she embrace the path fate has set for her, or follow the one she longs to take? From the harshness of a pit village in Scotland to the upheaval of wartime Australia, No Small Shame tells the moving story of love and duty, loyalty and betrayal, and confronting the past before you can seek a future.