August, 2011: In a romantic mood, I bought Ruth Park's The Witch's Thorn and D'Arcy Niland's The Big Smoke from Sappho's Books, thereby reuniting the two lovers as they bumped along together in my bag. Helen and I looked up Park and Niland on the Google - they are a beautiful couple:
And a line in the bio of The Witch's Thorn makes me almost sigh with envy: "...after her marriage to the author D'Arcy Niland, [she] roamed around the outback with him doing a variety of jobs, all of which has provided rich source material for her writing."
The Witch's Thorn is Park's third novel, and I didn't dog-ear any pages - her writing, in these early novels, is ungainly. She doesn't seem to have lingered over her sentences, carefully crafting them, nor her characters; her eye is on the plot and structure, and on getting her main point across. This gives The Witch's Thorn a workmanlike feel, which I thoroughly approve of. I walk away from Park's novels with new ideas in my mind; whereas from an unstructured writer like Eve Langley, I walk away with a feeling that the author has impressed her personality upon me. I value both experiences, but the latter is more limited. Inevitably I want more breadth than is offered by one personality, however fascinating.
Once I'd finished The Witch's Thorn, I suddenly saw how planned and plotted the whole novel was; while I was immersed in it, the story had felt pretty natural and organic, and only two or three times had I felt a clunk underneath me as the story moved to the next gear. Park examines the social strata of a rural town in New Zealand, using a parentless (if not exactly orphaned) child, Bethell, as the tool with which to test the values of five different households, starting from the top - the respectable, church-going shop-keeper and his wife, who grudgingly accept charge of their niece - and one-by-one working down through the layers, as Bethell is rejected and failed by everyone in the town, even the nice old priest, and even the reformed prostitute with a dozen healthy children and a heart of gold. Finally, Bethell is rescued from the brink of death by the ones well beyond the pale of the conservative town - a Maori family, who gladly sacrifices, for Bethell's sake, the skerrick of respectability and social acceptance that they have garnered over the years.
Once again, Park's boldness is notable. I suspect that Park and Niland were a good influence on each other in this respect, encouraging each other not to shy away from the shadowy corners of society. Such as, in The Shiralee, the part where Macauley has sex with an Aboriginal maid; he despises himself and her for doing it, and most callously gives her money when he leaves the property, thereby turning their encounter into a base transaction (while she had put a red ribbon in her hair, and probably had a big crush on him). In The Witch's Thorn, there's a similarly dirty, degraded passage: Johnny Gow hates his downtrodden wife, Ella, who is debilitated by all the children she has borne, including a new baby about a week ago. They are driving back from the funeral of the woman he loved:
"If I had any guts I'd murder you. But I haven't. I haven't the nerve to buck the rope, even for you. There's only one way to get rid of you, Ella."
She stared at him, terrified.
"Get out," he ordered.
"No, Johnny," she quavered.
He threw the reins over the pony's head and leapt to the ground. With fierce, hating energy he dragged his wife out of the trap. Her limp, flabby body both repelled and frenzied him.
"Johnny," she moaned, "give me a little time. Just a little while. I'll do anything if only you'll leave me alone for a while."
He dragged her after him over the rough ground to the lonely paddock with the broom hedge spiking along the ridge.
"Johnny, I 'll die if I have another one so soon. Think of the children. What would happen to them? Oh. Johnny, please, please."
He began to laugh. She felt his body rumbling with mirth.
"Men have been murdering their wives this way for centuries," he said softly and gently. "And it's all so nice and legal, too."
Park points the torch at numerous domestic taboos - Bethell's respectable cousin tries to rape her, and Bethell is blamed. Her uncle has an inappropriate attachment to one of his daughters - there's a repulsive scene where the daughter has to give her father a head-rub. Bethell's nicest aunt becomes a prostitute after being widowed with eight young children. And Bethell herself is illegitimate, her mother having had an affair with the married Johnny Gow. Johnny Gow not only rapes his wife, but beats her regularly, too. Johnny and his wife both beat Bethell. And when I remind myself, "This is a society that stoned Eve Langley for wearing trousers!", I really admire Park for her fearless crusade against hypocrisy and social cruelty. And although I get a bit irritated by her idealism of the characters at the outer edges of society - they're all so cheerful! as though they lack the depth to feel things such as existential crises or self-doubts - perhaps if I were living in '40s or '50s New Zealand, I would feel the same disgust with the inner-circle, with the ones with the power to change the rules.
There was one passage I puzzled over:
"My old daddy had some funny Scots ideas," said Lachie Gow. "He used to tell me about a thorn tree that the Highlanders believed in. When it pricked, it poisoned. It was a witch's thorn. And whoever it pricked could pass on the poison to someone else, just with a touch. He believed in that thorn, my old man."
"I never heard of it growing around here," said Mrs Hush, puzzled.
He tried again. "It's just a story, don't you see? But it means that one bad action influences everyone else. My brother Johnny loved your sister when he shouldn't have, and look what came out of that, ruined lives and changed lives, all through this town and out of it, too, for all I know, for who knows how many people Queenie met and altered in some way? [He cites some more examples]...It's all mixed up in some way, and there's no getting away from it."
Fascinated and awed, Bethell held up her hands in the dusk, examining them minutely.
"I haven't been pricked by the thorn. Mr. Wi hasn't. Hoot Gibson hasn't. But perhaps we will be someday."
The mystery, and the fear of the mystery, prickled her skin, and she crept out of the grass and ran like a hare for the light and the warmth and crowded companionship of the house.
It's a passage that isn't as straightforward as it first seems. Considering that Park, in Swords And Crowns And Rings, wrote, "She had accepted that no one could come into another's life without consequences. Jackie had taught her that. She would not want him to feel guilt for anything in her life", I'm not so sure that Park is saying that being pricked by the witch's thorn is a bad thing. Maybe she is saying that being altered by life's experiences and encounters, even to the extent of being poisoned by them, is the price we pay for being alive, just as losing innocence is the price we pay for knowing more. We can't keep ourselves intact.