The Tin Ticket by Deborah Swiss

I’m cheating a little here as I first published this post on my family history blog, but I thought perhaps a different audience might also find it relevant.

The Tin Ticket[i] was one of my purchases from Gould Genealogy at a Qld Genealogy Expo last year. I selected it because while I have no convicts in my own tree I thought it would be an interesting read.

In essence the book aims to illustrate the life experiences of three female convicts who were sentenced to transportation to Van Dieman’s Land (Tasmania) for seven to ten years in the 1830s. Two were Scottish teenagers who’d been living on the streets for some time, Agnes McMillan and Janet Houston. The other was Ludlow Tedder, a literate housekeeper who’d been sentenced for pawning her employer’s silverware. Ludlow’s young daughter Arabella was also sent out with her.

All three were confined to the Cascades Female Factory for part of their sentence and were there for some overlapping periods.

Pros

I found the book interesting for what I learned about the horrors of Newgate Prison in London and the conditions at the Cascades. It is appalling to think how little clothing and food these women were given, the shockingly unsanitary conditions under which they lived, and the double standards of the time. The story of Elizabeth Fry’s work to improve their conditions at Newgate was also interesting. I’d liked to have had more information on life as a female convict towards the end of transportation era to see what conditions had changed: the nod to Irish convict Bridget Mulligan was to my mind cursory and subject to stereotyping.

From our family’s perspective, the references to Oatlands in central Tasmania were also informative as My husband’s Irish convict ancestor, Denis Collins, was there for part of his sentence.

Cons

As a reader I found this book difficult and “stumbling” to read. The writing style was excessively florid with superfluous adjectives at every turn, and some phrases repeated ad infinitum, in a way which worked against the story as a whole.  I didn’t need to be told more than once or twice that Agnes was a “grey-eyed girl” or that she came from Glasgow, nor did I need the words “convict maids” to be always conjoined. The hyperbole made me sceptical about the accuracy of the content and would have benefited from a severe editing. I also found it irritating to read Americanisms in a book written about Australia and the UK. It does highlight how important it is to have a local reader do at least one edit, especially when the author is from another country.

These convict women were strong and resilient, whatever their faults and convictions, and I’d have liked to have known even more detail about their lives after gaining their Tickets of Leave as this is when they contributed to the development of Australia. No doubt this was partly due to the lack of documentary evidence for this period of their lives, in marked contrast to the detail from their convict period.

Summary: Worth the read to learn about life as a female convict in the early-mid 19thcentury, and of special interest to anyone with ancestors who may have been at Newgate or the Cascades Female Factory in Hobart.  A more balanced, edited writing style would have been more convincing rather than leaving me wondering about the validity of some of the statements.

You may also be interested in an article by the author in from The Huffington Post about Cascades and its female convicts.

Deborah Swiss is an American author.

[i] Swiss, Deborah J. The Tin Ticket: The Heroic Journey of Australia’s Convict Women. New York, Berkley, 2010.

Books with an historical bent

Over the years of writing my family history blog I’ve commented on a number of books with historical themes. I thought I’d include the links here should anyone have an interest in this type of writing.

The Last Blue Sea (David Forrest)

Titanic Lives, (Richard Davenport-Hines) and Home with Alice (Steve Fallon)

The Tin Ticket (Deborah J Swiss)

Foreign Correspondence (Geraldine Brooks) and Why you are Australian (Nikki Gemmel)

A selection of history references including Oceans of Consolation (David Fitzpatrick) and The End of Hidden Ireland (Robert James Scally)

Farewell my children (Dr Richard Reid)

Insights into Australia: a book list (the comments are both pertinent and interesting)

St Mary’s: the Luckie Parish (John R Kane)

Alice Springs by Eleanor Hogan

awwbadge_2013Synopsis: this is a book about life in Alice Springs, and the joys and challenges of living there. It is not a paeon to the glories of the desert and the openness of space in Australia’s red centre. Rather it is more of a social commentary and a reflection on the human challenges that Alice Springs provides in abundance and in-your-face.

Hogan states “Alice Springs is a place of extremes –of climate, of distance, of attitudes, of social privilege, of racial and gender divides –that are often highly conflicted.” Her goal is “to throw light on the texture of its everyday life through describing a typical year in the life of the town[i].”

Review

Alice Springs HoganHogan is not a “blow-in[ii]” two-year tourist writing about her experiences then heading back to the big smoke. Nor is she a FIFO, fly-in fly-out adviser. She and her friends reflect a dilemma perhaps more typical of Alice than Darwin: will they “serve a two-year, three-year, five-year, eight-year sentence[iii]”? The use of a word more typically referenced in the judicial system perhaps provides an unintentional insight. The fact that they even question how long they’ll stay separates them from long-term residents, but perhaps gives them a comparative insight into life in a different place.

She also queries when one becomes a Centralian, or indeed a Territorian. Officialdom apparently requires that you reside in the Centre for 25 years before being invited to attend the Annual Centralian Dinner in “Territory rig” (the local dress code). Popular myth has it that if you see the Todd (River) flow three times you’ll be in Alice for life. Perhaps that only applies if you live there when it flows, for which I’m grateful as I’ve seen it under water twice during work visits.

It’s only in writing about the book that I’ve come to realise a particular omission. Although sights and places are referred to, there’s no description that I recall to bring to life why people love the town and its region: its beauty, starkness and the sheer grandeur of some of its places and flora. The book is not intended as a tourist guide but it does mean that we miss out on some of the wonders of the place.

I was much amused by the familiarity of her description of those who work and travel to the Aboriginal communities (or indeed many places in the Territory) “it was difficult to tell apart a tradie returning from a maintenance job or a lesbian coming home from a social justice mission to an Aboriginal mob out bush[iv]”. Why does she single out lesbians in this way? Because Alice has the country’s highest proportion of lesbian women.

A further omission from the book is the level of animosity and distrust between central Australia and the powers-that-be in Darwin. It’s an undercurrent that is evident in most workplace dealings across the regions. Australians would best understand this in the sense of how Canberra’s bureaucrats and politicians are perceived in the rest of the country.

One story Hogan tells is of her Sydney friends arguing that women over 30 shouldn’t wear shorts. She says that wearing shorts came to mean “a shift to being in another, quite unmetropolitan place[v]. I confess I found this whole Sydney attitude downright bizarre, but then I’ve lived my whole life in tropical and sub-tropical regions….and I spend my non-working life in shorts.

The book focuses on, and emphasises, the vast social challenges of Alice Springs and the region, of which the Indigenous issues are paramount. One can live in urban Australia and rarely see an Aboriginal person, or one who is noticeable as “other”. Life in the Territory, and in Alice in particular, presents a vastly different experience, one that grey nomads and other urban tourists will likely find confronting and perhaps reinforce their racial stereotyping.

A key focus throughout the book is the vast dichotomy between Indigenous lives and that of their whitefella counterparts, in terms of violence, health and education[vi]. Hogan’s stories will be both shocking and enlightening to those who’ve had little exposure to the level of the problem. She quotes a social worker, Dale Wakefield: “you prepare for the worst in Melbourne, but the worst happens in Central Australia[vii]”. Long-term residents of the Territory and the Centre tend to become inured to the sights and problems they see around them, frequently becoming judgmental and critical.  Hogan frequently quotes social justice experts that it will take a generation or more to turn things around. I suspect this is a generous estimate and it may well take another two generations at least, despite the good will and efforts of many people.

Over time Hogan comments “even a simple trip up the street to buy groceries might involve seeing an ugly incident[viii]”. It was the on-going impact of the social dichotomy that seems to have led to Hogan’s departure back to the big smoke, remaining forever changed no doubt by her life experience in Alice.

A further consideration in Hogan’s decision to leave was the turnover of people with the loss of friendships: by calling them expats she essentially marks them out as different from the long-term residents.  The caution of old-timers in accepting short-term incomers is one of the hallmarks of the Territory and a mark of the regular flow in and out of expats: it takes time to earn your local stripes.  On arriving in the Territory 16 years ago we found this strange and unexpected. We had been accustomed to the expat situation in Papua New Guinea, where even though there was a regular turnover in any given town, you expected to maintain the friendship over time and place by visits during leave or by further postings.

I thought this was a great book which provided excellent insights into the daily challenges of life in Alice Springs. Hogan has teased out many of the issues, especially those of social justice, which confront residents daily and is both sympathetic and empathetic. I recommend this book to those who want to learn more about the day-to-day complexities of Indigenous issues.

Quoting Dale Wakefield again “in Alice you walk down the street and see beaten women….You see kids wandering around by themselves and you know there’s nowhere for them to go. It’s very, very confronting[ix]”.

How pertinent, then, to read this weekend’s in-depth commentary by journalist Paul Toohey in the NT News.

For an alternative view on this book, you might find this review interesting http://www.alicespringsnews.com.au/2012/09/04/bleak-tunnel-vision-in-new-book-on-alice-springs/

[i] Page 38.

[ii] See page 139

[iii] Page 140

[iv] Page 150

[v] Page 137

[vi] She includes some statistics starting at page 174 but stories are revealed throughout the book.

[vii] Page 181

[viii] Page 267

[ix] Page 274

Mosaic by Diane Armstrong

mosiac_USYesterday, 27th January, marks Holocaust Memorial Day.  It’s not a day that’s marked officially in Australia being overtaken by Australia Day or as Australia’s Indigenous people refer to it, Survival Day on 26th January.

Despite the lack of official recognition here it’s likely there are many people who remember this day with great sadness. Last week my blog post on The Voyage of Their Life talked about how some of the refugees and displaced people made their way to Australia in the aftermath of World War II. Among them were many Jewish people who had experienced the horrors and privation of the war.

I tend to read every book by authors I like, so this week I downloaded the e-book of another of Diane Armstrong’s books, one called Mosaic. Then yesterday Armstrong was featured in this weekend’s Weekend Australian magazine. Strange how these things run in cycles.

Synopsis: Mosaic is the story of Diane Armstrong’s Polish Jewish family back to the late 19th century and her great-grandparents and up to her life in Australia. It is essentially a family history of five generations told against the backdrop of war and terror. As a child Diane was called Denusia Baldinger but as the dogs of war came closer with their snapping teeth, her father moved them further east in Poland preferring to take his chances with the Russians than the Germany SS. In a wild throw of the dice he changed their names to the more Polish-sounding name of Boguslawski and their small nuclear family pretended to be Catholic. Although the villagers were suspicious, the family were saved from being denounced to the Gestapo by the support of the local Catholic parish priest who had “known” they were Jewish but continued to support them. Diane tells ultimately how over 60 of their immediate family were shot or gassed during the war.

 My thoughts:  Those of us who live in the safety and sometimes tolerant society of Australia, can not have the slightest real idea of what anyone experienced during the war, let alone what the persecuted Jewish people suffered. It’s one thing to know the facts, read about it and see vision on TV or movies or photographs. It’s quite another to get one’s head around how anyone could do any of these things to other human beings. Nor are these actions the sole preserve of the military but rather also ordinary people, sometimes former neighbours and friends. Mind boggling! We are a horribly flawed species who seem to find it reasonable to persecute those who we perceive as different for religious or economic reasons.

The author talks honestly (as far as I can tell) about her various family members, warts and all, including her own parents. If you believe it’s inappropriate to speak ill of the dead then you may not like this book but what she reveals of her family are people who have their own human frailties and quirks. It’s quite obvious she doesn’t have a lot of time for one of her more selfish aunts who did survive the holocaust yet seems to have learnt little from it. Armstrong also reflects in a very insightful way on the impact of these horrors on family dynamics: the secrets never mentioned, the non-verbal fears of living in hiding for years, the conflict between family members. These psychological scars continue to the present day and generations.

awwbadge_2013I think this is an excellent book which transforms the wartime horrors for the Jewish people from a scale that most of us can barely imagine, to a personalised family story which enable us to see at a micro level how these events impacted families and individuals. Some survived because of foresight, courage, or just plain luck, depending on where they lived and worked. Others died because they were geographically trapped or sold out, often from sheer greed and envy.

Don’t read this book if you’re looking for a chilled-out evening curled up on your lounge. Do read it if you want to learn more about the lives of one set of Australian Jewish immigrants and what they and their families experienced prior to arriving on our shores.

I give it 4 ½ stars for magic carpet factor.

This is review 3 in my Australian Women Writers 2013 Challenge.

The Voyage of Their Life by Diane Armstrong

P1190434The Voyage of Their Life is a fascinating book written by Australian author Diane Armstrong who was a passenger on this voyage. It is predominantly a memoir but one drawing on the experiences of many of the hundreds of post-war emigrants on this traumatic voyage of the SS Derna to Australia in 1948. Having grown up with quite a number of “New Australians”, as we called them then, I’ve had a great interest in migration ever since. However this is not just a book about the actual voyage, rather Armstrong tells what brought them to make the momentous decision to migrate to a far corner of the earth, the randomness of getting a passage, and also what happened to them in the decades following.

Inevitably with so many passengers there are times when the cast of characters becomes bewildering but this doesn’t detract greatly from the book. Armstrong segues neatly from one person’s story to another for a connected person.  Virtually all of the passengers had suffered great traumas during the war years and I have no wish to get into the relative merits of each. Armstrong herself mostly manages to remain objective throughout though her own Jewish perspective is clearly stated and occasionally her sympathies are more obvious than at other points in the book.  The horror stories told by so many of the passengers were shocking but those relating to the younger children are particularly horrendous. My father’s oft-quoted phrase of “man’s inhumanity to man” remained in mind from beginning to end.

The voyage itself was a nightmare and a scandal. Greed and irresponsibility would be my synopsis of the effects and consequences of the journey, especially the greed of the Derna’s owner who cut corners and left people with disgusting daily living conditions. The irresponsibility of a doctor who paid minimal if any attention to the sick patients. The greed of not providing sufficient food or water for an old semi-derelict boat tottering its way across vast oceans. The irresponsibility of the man given charge over the migrants to ensure they were looked after. The greed of those who stole the passengers’ precious belongings either during the voyage or on arrival is just mind-boggling. If you have lost family and loved ones do your possessions mean less, or are they more important because they are the only physical memories you have? The greed and emotional betrayal by family who had sponsored their relatives often just to work as slave labour on their farms or in businesses. The sheer courage of the passengers in working beyond all these betrayals is remarkable.

I couldn’t help but reflect on the huge difference between the way these immigrants were treated in comparison with the government assisted passengers to Australia in the 19th century, when their well-being was pivotal and the process was generally well-managed with an emphasis on health.

Armstrong manages to trace many of the passengers in the current day to get their stories, as one link leads to another. It was a strange experience to recognise the name of one of the people I used to work with, who had been a passenger on this voyage. I wondered how successful Armstrong’s quest would have been without the added advantage of Australia’s ethnic broadcaster SBS to “spread the word”.

awwbadge_2013Most of the voyagers settled in Australia but for some their destination was New Zealand. Some worked hard to reacquire their professional qualifications so they could establish themselves and their families in their new country. Others worked incredibly hard at jobs that took no account of their prior experience and training. Some enthusiastically took on their new loyalty and citizenship while others seemed to feel lost between two worlds – the old and the new. The heaviest burden fell on the children to bridge that gap and fulfil their parents’ expectations.

The main flaw in the book is that it is mostly anecdotal, almost inevitably. The pre-migration lives of the emigrants would have been nigh impossible to check in primary records or documents, though Armstrong has had assistance from one of the agencies sending out the emigrants. The Australian government’s records are available, but mostly not online, and it’s not clear to what extent these were used in the research for the book, apart from one rather contentious character. (if you wish to find what’s available you can search http://www.naa.gov.au and use the search term “Derna”)

This is not the first time I’ve read this book and it certainly won’t be the last. Armstrong has provided an invaluable insight into the experiences of some of our post-war immigrants, a lasting legacy to an important part of her own life. Without them we’d likely still be living in an homogenous Anglo-Celtic Australia – just think of all the wonderful varieties of food we’d have missed out on, apart from anything else. Not to mention their contribution to the nation’s economy, culture and history.

I give it 4 ½ stars for magic carpet factor.

This is review 2 in my Australian Women Writers 2013 Challenge.

Fifties Fun and Frivolity

P1190432In My Day, subtitled You and Me before TV,[i]  could be easily dismissed as a bit of reading fluff. It isn’t full of beautifully crafted phrases and concepts. Nonetheless it is a magic carpet ride, taking Aussies of a certain age, back to life as it was, not just before TV, but somewhat after that as well.

The book was gestated during a sudden power outage, reminding the author and her friend of just how much their lives had changed over the decades. (I did smile at that because with Darwin’s lightning season, we get a fairly regular reminder of life-without-power).

If you want to know how your parents or grandparents lived in those ancient days of the 1950s, or even the 1960s, a quick dabble in this book will reveal new and astonishing realities. If you lived in those decades, or even earlier (heaven forfend!) you will enjoy a walk down memory lane, bringing back events and experiences long vanished into the recesses of your mental hard drive.

Hands up who remembers Mum’s washing copper and the rituals of Monday washing day (it was always Monday!)…as a child there always seemed to be jobs for you to help with on a Monday. How about the ice man, dunny man, butcher’s and baker’s vans? The corner store with its large glass jars of lollies. Saturday afternoon (arvo) at the movies (flicks) and maybe rolling Jaffas down the aisles.

TThat warm milk each day at school. Getting the cuts (cane) if you misbehaved in class. Boys dipping the girls plaits in the ink well. Scratchy slates, then pencils, pens with nibs (when you’d grown up), chalk on the blackboard. Remember when a biro was a novelty? Pounds, shillings and pence in the pre-decimal currency days of the “14th of February 1966”.

And then there are the stories of children being set free first thing in the morning on weekends or holidays to roam all day, only returning as dusk fell. This always mystifies me, because never in a million years would that have happened in our home, and yet we lived in a safe neighbourhood.

One thing I remember that isn’t in the book is the rat catcher. Did other cities have these, or only sub-tropical Brisbane? A Council worker would tour the street, eager fox terrier at his side, on the hunt for rats in the neighbourhood. This always induced a sense of anxiety because you really wouldn’t want to have him find a rat in your yard, even if he never had before.

The book has one or two page aides memoir with space at the bottom for you, the co-author, to add your reminiscences. I’ve had my copy for a long time so it may not be readily available but if you can find it in a library, why not borrow it and see how much you remember. Or read in astonishment.


[i] In My Day, You and Me before TV. Whitcomb, N. Adelaide 1996