No Small Shame by Australian author Christine Bell (I recently interviewed Christine about the book) follows the story of Mary O’Donnell from her childhood home in a Scottish mining village, through emigration on a cramped sailing ship to Australia and life during the tragedy and disruption of the First World War and beyond. The shadows of poverty, gendered roles, and class/religious divisions reach far into the future.
The young Mary has her hopes fixed on childhood favourite Liam, but their eventual marriage occurs under circumstances that cast a dark shadow across both their lives. When Liam goes to war, Mary discovers another focus for her life in Tom, but the cost to her and her child is daunting. Throughout her story, we discover that Mary’s mother is a repressive and dominating influence, who demands that her daughter’s life should be no wider than her own journey of hardship and struggle – the lot of a woman. This is an influence that Mary must escape to truly grow into her own person.
While this is overall a somewhat sombre story, the emotional stakes are high for Mary, and reading this story as a latter-day woman who has had access to education and gender freedom unknown to our historical sisters, my heart grieved for her lost potential and the blighting of many of her chances at happiness. On the other hand, Mary is a heroine who always seeks a better life and keeps her eyes on the horizon, looking for better days to come.
Part of the story is about decisions and their consequences, but Mary is treated tenderly despite what her family would call mis-steps. It sometimes feels as though Mary gets few chances to smile, but she is admirable in the way she shoulders responsibility for her own choices and where life leads her.
Backed by meticulous research and giving a detailed recreation of the places, habits, and speech of the time, this is a highly readable novel that will please lovers of stories where life is reflected accurately, where engaging and believable characters must come to terms with the real events and the barriers they face while still making the best they can of themselves and their circumstances. There are no easy solutions, but amid the sadness there is plenty of hope, resilience, effort and love.
Australian history brought to poignant life.