Fiction can tell the stories of our ancestors in a way that a bare recitation of facts cannot. There is no way that we can know how our ancestors felt when they left their homes forever for a new land, but we can look to our master storytellers to give us an idea.
This is a book review of one such book from last year that was previously published in my personal blog. I think it is an important part of our research to read everything we can, and that can include well-research and written fiction.
I’ve just finished the most marvellous book, Not the Same Sky, about some of the Irish Famine Orphan girls shipped out to Sydney in 1849. I bought it from the author, Evelyn Conlon, at the Irish Famine Memorial Anniversary at Hyde Park Barracks a few months ago and was saving it until I had time to read it properly.
The book tells the story of around two hundred girls selected and shipped out on the Thomas Arbuthnot, and the unusually caring Surgeon-Superintendent, Charles Strutt, who looked after their welfare onboard ship and after landing in their new home. He took 120 of them on an overland journey to Yass and Gundagai to find employers of suitable character for them.
This story is told in A Decent Set of Girls, by Richard Reid and Cherly Mongan, which reproduces Dr Strutt’s journal and gives documents, facts and statistics of the journey and the lives of the girls in Australia.
A novel, though, is a different creature entirely. The facts – 194 orphan girls between 14 and 20 years old were rounded up from work houses around Ireland and sent to Sydney – cannot possibly convey the bewilderment and aching loss of these girls in the way that a novel can. And this one does, superbly.
… Matron’s voice sounded muffled until she began to name names.
‘Mary Traynor, Anne Sherry, it’s Australia for you. Honora Raftery, you too I think. And Julia Cuffe, maybe.’
‘What do you mean Australia?’ a small pale girl asked.
‘Not you. It doesn’t apply to you,’ Matron said. ‘No it wouldn’t apply to you. You’re too young.’
‘I’m old enough, ‘ the girl said, but Matron said, ‘No,’ again.
‘And you, Bridget Joyce, it’s Australia now for you.’
‘When?’ a voice dared.
‘Next month, yes, the sooner now the better,’ Matron added.
‘Can I go too?’ another voice asked tentatively.
‘No, Betsy Shannon, you’re too old.’
‘I’m young enough,’ she said. ‘Twenty-four.’
‘Duffy, you’re young enough, you’ll do. What’s your first name again?’
… Matron left the room, the girls looking after her. Honora Raftery sneaked a look at Anne Sherry and Julia Cuffe. Others looked at the ground. It was a lot to take in. Staying alive was the job they were all involved in now.
Matron rubbed her hands down her front, as if wiping off the part she had just played in this scheme. She didn’t know what she thought of it.
The girls knew it must be far because they needed several changes of clothes for the voyage, but they refused to believe the rumours that it was going to take 3 months to get there. That’s just too impossible. 3 months!
Later, on the ship, the doctor has been showing them a map to show them where they are and where they are going, although concerned at how the news of how far away this is will affect them. He is not sure whether they will all understand, but he sees that at least a few of them do when they recognise that the ship has turned east to sail past Africa and on to Australia:
Charles was leaving the deck to go to his quarters when he heard one of the older girls shouting out to the sea. She was hollering so loudly the words could be heard perfectly by all who stood ready to dance. Her voice even carried above the sound of sail and water and wind.
‘The ship has well rounded the corner now. There’s no going back.’
She followed with another wail of a sentence – she seemed to start high and go low. It was hard to know what effect, if any, that she intended to have by making this noise. But hot on its heels followed the slowest, lowest moan, which moved up first one pitch, then swelled into a second, gathering a scream under its echo, and rising further, if that were possible, into the most ferocious howling. Everyone was now involved in these gutturals, weeping for their lost land and their families, immersed in their threnody. Charles stood rooted to the spot, helpless in the face of this terrible sound, the hairs standing up on his neck. It would have to stop. It seemed to him to be the erasure of hope.
The girls found it necessary to forget where they came from, who they were, and the family they had lost, in order to survive in this strange new land where the birds made such an enormous noise and the trees were white and the grass was yellow and the sun was so hot. They didn’t pass their memories on to their children – those memories were too painful, too dangerous to carry lest they overwhelm.
The names of the girls used in the book are fictional. It is impossible to tell the story of 194 women in one book so the author has selected four and followed them through the voyage and in their new lives, showing what they had to do to survive.
To survive. We do not have any idea, really, about what the bare struggle for survival does to a person, where parents and brothers and sisters die in front of you and the routine of living falls away until there is nothing but the roaring in the stomach. The only people who understand this today are refugees, because famines still occur and people are driven from their homes and farms by war and drought and other catastrophes, and they try to find safety in a new home, anywhere that will take them.