Reviewed by Ruth Latta
by Marlene S. Lewis
Troubador Publishing Ltd
October 2011, ISBN 978-1-84876-623-5, Paperback: 336 pages
Marlene S. Lewis’s Ruth is in the tradition of women’s novels featuring plucky heroines who triumph over adversity, but it is much more than that. Set in the 1950s and ’60s in Papua and Australia, Ruth is about the negative effects of racism upon both native peoples and those of European descent. (This review contains some “spoilers”.)
The story opens with nineteen year old Ruth Madison returning for her Christmas holidays from her mainland Australia boarding school to the family coffee plantation in Papua, then under the colonial administration of Australia. At home, things are awry. Her father, and two brothers, Jake and Matt, are busy all day on the plantation and offer no warmth or companionship. Her mother shows signs of mental illness and commits suicide. Ruth spends time with her childhood friend, Tommy, a youth of mixed race who lives in the native village. She and Tommy fall in love but know they have no future together. Ruth reflects:
White girls never married native boys even if they were light-skinned like Tommy. The only inter-racial relationships anyone heard about involved white men living in sin with native women.
Back at school to repeat her failed year, Ruth discovers that she is pregnant. After informing her father, the headmistress ships her to a convent/commercial laundry among a population of girls in similar situations or else unwanted or in conflict with their parents. When Ruth learns that the convent expects to put her baby out for adoption, she and a friend escape to the friend’s aunt in inner-city Sydney. The goodhearted aunt works in a bar with a bordello upstairs. When the girls seek living accommodation on their own, one landlady calls Ruth’s baby a “half-caste” and refuses to rent to her, saying that she “runs a respectable place.”
To provide for baby Stewart, Ruth works in the bar, though not the bordello, and eventually allows one of the regular patrons, who has a wife and family back home in Turkey, to rent a suburban house where he lives with her and her little boy. When the relationship ends, Ruth finds factory work and can pay her own way.
News of family tensions comes to her in her grandmother’s letters. Tommy, now working in Port Moresby, has been involved with “troublemakers” seeking Papua’s independence. Ruth’s brother, Jake, is “paranoid” about controlling and eventually owning the coffee farm. Matt has left the family enterprise to work on his own. Ruth’s father cannot bring himself to write to her.
Ruth’s move to study nursing in Lincoln leads to her marriage to sheep-rancher Lachlan McGrath, but her happy, stable life with him is shortlived. In this novel, numerous accidents provide tension and keep the story moving, but sometimes feel contrived. Throughout the novel, readers see the importance of friendship in Ruth’s life, and watch her grow from a naive girl into a wise, capable woman.
Returning to Papua to aid Jake in a crisis, Ruth learns some startling truths about her family. Jake tells her that their father, who died under suspicious circumstances, “had been involved with half the women in the village,” and that she has a half-native niece and nephew and a part-native brother.
Ruth quickly processes these revelations and emerges with a renewed sympathy for the native people: “Not only had these people been cheated out of their own land but they were paid a pittance to work it… The situation had to be put right.” Now owning her grandmother’s share in the Madison plantation, and prospering on the farm her husband left her, she is in a position to try to right old wrongs, and she does so.
The new social order is shown in a scene in which Ruth has dinner with three key people in her life. Similarly, the recurrent Christmas celebrations, with their associations of goodwill, peace and justice, reinforce the new spirit of harmony. Christmas, as well, serves as a good structural device to show continuity despite the passage of time.
English born Lewis shows love and concern for her adopted land in this her first novel.
For information about reviewer Ruth Latta’s writing, please visit http://ruthlattabooks.blogspot.com.