EXCERPT: Marjorie started to rise, her chair scraping along the lino. ‘I suppose I better do the vegies.’
‘No,’ said Pa. ‘There will be no tea here tonight.’
Marjorie stood. The two girls watched their grandfather.
‘Your father called on the telephone. The doctor said your mother has to go away – to a bloody city hospital. She needs treatment. We don’t have it here in the Mallee,’ said Pa. And his tapping fingers could have said, That is because us Mallee folk don’t generally need that sort of treatment.
‘What do you mean? What sort of treatment?’ Marjorie glared at Pa.
‘You know what I mean,’ growled Pa. ‘Your mother’s not right for this place. I said the Mallee would kill her in the end. And it’s having a pretty damn good go at it right now.’
‘No, we don’t know.’ And Marjorie was shouting again. ‘We don’t know anything! We’re never told anything!’
‘Yes you do. You bloody do know!’ shouted Pa. ‘You know as well as I do. We all bloody do.’
‘Where is she going, Pa?’ Ruby asked quietly, and her look stopped the pair of them short in their shouting.
‘A damn fool mental hospital in the city. Your mother’s gone stark raving mad.’ His hands slapped down on the table. ‘Now gorn and pack a case. When your father gets back, we have to drive to the city.’
But what about school? What about the chooks? What about the dogs? Who’s going to milk the cow? Who’s going to check the windmill? Who’s going to go round the sheep? What am I going to say to everyone at school? These were all things Marjorie wanted to ask but she didn’t have time because she only had time to pack a suitcase.
ABOUT ‘WEARING PAPER DRESSES’: You can talk about living in the Mallee. And you can talk about a Mallee tree. And you can talk about the Mallee itself: a land and a place full of red sand and short stubby trees. Silent skies. The undulating scorch of summer plains. Quiet, on the surface of things.
But Elise wasn’t from the Mallee, and she knew nothing of its ways.
Discover the world of a small homestead perched on the sunburnt farmland of northern Victoria. Meet Elise, whose urbane 1950s glamour is rudely transplanted to the pragmatic red soil of the Mallee when her husband returns to work the family farm. But you cannot uproot a plant and expect it to thrive. And so it is with Elise. Her meringues don’t impress the shearers, the locals scoff at her Paris fashions, her husband works all day in the back paddock, and the drought kills everything but the geraniums she despises.
As their mother withdraws more and more into herself, her spirited, tearaway daughters, Marjorie and Ruby, wild as weeds, are left to raise themselves as best they can. Until tragedy strikes, and Marjorie flees to the city determined to leave her family behind. And there she stays, leading a very different life, until the boy she loves draws her back to the land she can’t forget…
MY THOUGHTS: Wearing Paper Dresses is a harsh but beautiful book. 1950s rural Victoria is a place where if it can’t be fixed by a length of twine or a piece of wire, they don’t know what to do with it. Such is Elise, a cultured city woman, non-Catholic, who tries to plant a rose garden in a place where it seldom rains and where, in the summer, the temperature is often over 100°F. She doesn’t fit in. She doesn’t understand the Mallee people any more than they understand her. She is isolated, alone, out there in the red dust with a father-in-law who resents the fragile creature his son has brought home, a woman who can’t cook proper tucker, who can’t even manage to make a decent smoko for the shearers. The townsfolk treat her with disdain and ridicule her. Her daughters watch her, and protect her when they can but, after all, they are only children. There is only so much they can do.
This was, in places, a hard book for me to read, and I shed a few tears; for Elise, for Ruby and Marjorie, for my mother, and for myself. I was nine years old when my mother had her first ‘nervous breakdown’ and was carted off to the psychiatric hospital, also far away in a big city, Auckland in this case.
Anne Brinsden has accurately captured the thoughts and emotions of all involved. The bewilderment, the misery, the fear, the uncertainty, are all felt and reflected upon, as is the watchfulness when Elise returns home, the girls always on the lookout for signs that she is slipping again.
I felt for Elise, I felt her desperation. I felt for her family, Bill who loved but didn’t understand her, Jimmy Waghorn who lived in a hut on the farm and probably understood Elise better than anyone, even Pa who had never wanted her there in the first place, and the girls, Ruby who coped by never upsetting her mother and who tried to shield Marjorie as best she could, and Marjorie who was perpetually angry at everyone. But my favourite character was Jesse Mitchell, a boy from an abusive home, friend of Jimmy Waghorn, and who strikes up a secret and improbable friendship with Marjorie.
Interspersed occasionally in the narrative are extracts and adverts from journals, newspapers and other publications of the time: The Land, the Australian Woman’s Weekly, the Weekly Times, as well as frequent references to the outback woman’s bible, the Country Woman’s Association Cookbook. No meringues in there!
Wearing Paper Dresses is an outstanding novel of relationships, prejudice and the harshness of outback life. Written in a unique style, Wearing Paper Dresses is not an easy or quick read, but it is a read that will make you think and stretch your emotional resources.
THE AUTHOR: As far back as Anne can remember she has loved stories. Mostly, she would read them. But if there were no stories to read, she would make up her own. She lives in the western suburbs of Melbourne now with a couple of nice humans, an unbalanced but mostly nice cat and a family of magpies. But she lived all of her childhood in the Mallee in northern Victoria before heading for the city and a career as a teacher.
DISCLOSURE: Thank you to Waitomo District Library Book Club for their recommendation of Wearing Paper Dresses by Anne Brinsden, published by Pan Macmillan, Australia. All opinions expressed in this review are entirely my own personal opinions.
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