Margaret Ann Spence Coming Home

Paperbark Shoes

By Goldie Goldbloom Picador Press, 2011 Have you ever heard of a place called Wyalkatchem?  I had not, until I read the novel Paperbark Shoes by the extraordinarily gifted writer Goldie Goldbloom. But as soon as I read of kerosene drums used as water pails, flour bags recycled into clothing, a sixteen hour train journey over desert, I knew I was reading about Western Australia in the first half of  the twentieth century. That’s because my father grew up in such a place, a tiny, isolated, hot and dusty township, hundreds of miles from a city, thousands of miles from the events of the wider world.  (Actually, Dad grew up in several of these hamlets, as my grandfather moved from one struggling gold mine to another, hired to bring them back to profitability.) Wyalkatchem, population “sixty eight adults and forty-three children, counting the ones in the cemetery” is a real place in the Western Australian wheatbelt, but Goldbloom has created memorable fictional inhabitants of its surrounding countryside in the sheep farmer Agrippas Toad, a short, bumbling man who keeps a collection of women’s corsets in his shed, and his albino wife Gin. Gin grew up in privilege in Perth, but her albinism made her a social pariah, and, improbably placed in the “madhouse” by her stepfather, she leapt at the chance of rescue by Toad. He proposed when, visiting someone at the mental hospital, he heard her play the piano. The story begins in 1943 with the arrival of Italian prisoners of war, who were sent to help work the isolated farms, which struggled to survive when their own employees were conscripted. Given the desert and the distance, it was not thought likely that the prisoners would escape. It is always an interesting situation when people are forced together in mutual incomprehension and with their own longings, and Goldbloom creates a surprising, emotionally truthful tale about the Toads and the two Italian men sent to their farm. Goldbloom’s gorgeous prose makes this remote place come alive. The writer’s choice to make Gin an albino offers a double metaphor. The condition causes low vision, difficulty with bright sunlight and skin so pale that desert living must be excruciating. So it is with Gin. Her blindness to what’s happening, as well as her hyper-sensitivity to the township’s hatred of anyone different, fuels the plot. Gin, short for Virginia in this story, is also a derisive, offensive term for an Aboriginal woman used for sex by white males. The term was common in that part of the world in the early part of the twentieth century. Whether cognizant of this or not (I suspect she is), Goldbloom uses the word as a double entendre. Gin’s extreme whiteness is as different and therefore as unpalatable to the prejudices of Wyalkatchem as the indigenous people who seem to have abandoned the landscape of this novel. Goldbloom writes short stories and non-fiction, but Paperbark Shoes is her first novel. First published in her native Western Australia, it won the Independent Publisher’s Association Foreward Magazine’s Literary Novel of the Year in 2011 and the 2008 AWP Novel Award, and has also been published in the U.K. and in French translation. Do read it.

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