Author vs Book

I am reading books which were published or popular in 1921, as part of the research for my new book. Imagine my joy when I found that a Gene Stratton-Porter, Her Father’s Daughter, was a bestseller that year.

Imagine my dismay when the book turns out to be a proselytising tale about white supremacy. So sad. So horrible.

Now I have loved Gene Stratton-Porter for a long, long time. Anyone who has read my Princess Betony books will know I like to write about plants and trees and forests – as someone who grew up in a completely suburbanised environment, wildness attracts me, and I first found it written about (after the Brothers Grimm) in Stratton-Porter’s Girl of the Limberlost. There beautifully lyrical depictions of a wetlands is married to tough common sense and the values of hard work and egalitarianism. I admit, Rosie in The Willow Tree’s Daughter and later books owes something to The Girl and her mother.

Stratton-Porter certainly primed me to be a greenie, being one of the first to write deliberately towards environmentalist goals.

Her racism is not evident in these books, except in the invisible way we have come to accept – the characters are all white, so the issue never arises. (I am reminded of Margaret Maron, a favourite crime writer of mine, who gets letters from readers complaining that she always describes people by their colour, including white people – for example, a white middle-aged woman, a Latino middle-aged woman. Some readers think you don’t need to specify the whiteness of a character, presumably because that is the norm from which others deviate.)

I’m interested in the fact that Her Father’s Daughter is written toward the end of her life, when she had moved to the west coast of America for health reasons. Up until then she had lived in Indiana all her life until then… was this the first time she had encountered Asian people in any number?

For the weird thing is that, although she rails generally about ‘the white man’ being superior to all other colours, the focus of her racism is Japan. She is convinced (in 1921, after the Japanese have been allies in WWI!) that Japan is set on a course of War with the US. So I am wincing away from the racism, but occasionally it reads as prescience.

I was shocked by her racism because in so many other ways she presents a modern mind-set. Her female characters are strong, determined and extremely competent women, her books have an explicit feminist agenda, she is egalitarian, green and delighted by the advancements of the modern age.

I will finish reading this book because it’s for research, and it’s started me thinking about my main characters’ likely attitude to the Yellow Peril, so embedded in Australian politics of the time. But will I go back to reread Girl of the Limberlost, as I have done with pleasure in the past?
I don’t know. My genuine love of the book has been tainted, somehow. Part of me feels this is not fair to the book. That if we demand that all our authors share all our beliefs we will be limited to reading only our own books. That a book is its own thing, separate from the author, read on its own terms.

And part of me thinks: I don’t want to give a white supremacist access to the inside of my head.

Bringing a town back from the dead

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been researching the NSW town of Taree, as it was in the 1920s. I have a lot more research to do, and I’m looking forward to it.

But one of the things I have most enjoyed is looking through the terrific indexes to the town’s newspaper the Northern Champion, which have been put together by Rod and Wendy Gow. I’ve sent off my order to them to get a complete copy, but even the parts which are available on their website are engrossing.

Forget the big news stories of the day; those were reported pretty much the same all over the country. It’s the small items, written by local reporters, which are wonderful to dwell upon.

These country newspapers chronicled everything. Births, deaths, marriages, obviously, but also when someone left to move to another town, or a local weather event, or a bankruptcy, the paper half gossip and half news.

Look at this great list of what is indexed:

Accident, Anniversary, Apology, Appointment, Arrival, Assault victim, Auction license, Award, Bailiff sale, Baptism, Benefit, Bequest, Billiard license, Birth, Birthday, Body missing, Burial, Bursary, Cattle sale, Cremation, Dealer’s license, Death, Died of wounds, Divorce, Engagement, Estate, Exhumation, Farewell, Funeral, Grave, Hawker’s license, Honeymoon, Honour Roll, In Memoriam, Induction, Inheritance, Inquest, Insolvent, Killed in Action, Leaving district, Left district, Legal, Legal appointment, Legal notice, Lightning strike, Lost, Lost at sea, Marriage, Medal, Medical, Memorial, Memorial poem, Memorial service, Missing, Monument, Murder victim, Naturalisation, Obituary, Ordination, Overseas trip, Partnership, Photograph, Poetry, Presentation, Prize winner, Probate, Promotion, Property sale, Remains recovery, Requiem mass, Rescue, Resignation, Retirement, Return, Return thanks, Reward, Robbery victim, Sale withdrawn, Scholarship, Shooting accident, Shooting victim, Snake bite, Social, Sunday license, Testimonial, Transfer, University degree, War veteran, Welcome, Wounded.

It’s like a found poem: Requiem mass, Rescue, Resignation…

Out of these scraps of information I am building the town again in my head. Not its bricks and mortar (or, more likely in Taree, its weatherboards), but the people and their relationships. There is Miss Gavin, Nurse (probationer), being appointed to the MRD Hopsital: imagine the nervousness of her first day of work, her high ideals confronting the reality of the bedpans or, if she were a country girl, her delight at working inside and only having to deal with shit in a neat little receptacle, instead of all over the stable floor. Could she be one of my main character’s friends?

I sorrow over the the death of Master Hermann Gill, aged 10, in Raleigh Hospital. I have a son. My heart aches for his parents.

Dr and Mrs Gormley leave Taree – there is an announcement, followed by an article on the presentation made to them on their departure. Or Mr & Mrs Hawkins, leaving Gulgong to go to Oxley Island… how exciting that seems, until you realise that Oxley Island is only a few miles away, near the mouth of the Manning River.

Certain people, including Mr Hawkins, turn up again and again in stories about the Taree District Court. We must hope that he is a solicitor or barrister… since the Northern Champion is not yet on Trove, I must visit the State Library and look at the microfilm to find out if he is in or outside the dock, or if he is merely litigious or bad at paying his bills. We do know that he ran to granddaughters rather than grandsons – at least two, daughters of RS Hawkins. I was confused at first by the statement Birth: daughter of Mrs RS Hawkins, knowing from another entry that RS was Robert S, but of course women didn’t even keep their own first names once they were married. It was Mr & Mrs RS Hawkins, and only friends would actually call you by your first name. Many people wouldn’t even know it. (I was interested in the Hawkinses because Ruby, the main character in The Soldier’s Wife, was a Hawkins – named for my mother-in-law. Ruby grew up in Bourke. Perhaps these Hawkinses were relatives!)

I have a special fondness for Captain Hector Gollan (retired master mariner) who is listed both in stories about Taree District Court, and in a special article about his 75th birthday. A robust old man, I think, full of vim and liable to sue people who don’t follow orders!

I could easily get obsessive about this endeavour. Perhaps I must, if I’m going to make Taree live and breathe and dance and cry as it should.