“Poor Man’s Orange” by Ruth Park

“Poor Man’s Orange”  by Ruth Park   (1949) – 274 pages

 Can fiction writers change the real world?  Yes, if their fiction is powerful enough and contains the truth of how the world actually is.  Ruth Park’s two novels of the late 1940s, “Harp in the South” and “Poor Man’s Orange”, shocked Australians in their dramatic depiction of the hard life in the Surrey Hills tenement houses of Sydney   Many newspaper letter-writers were outraged and claimed these novels were a “cruel fantasy”, because Sydney had no slums.  Later Sydney did tear down these slum houses only to replace them with high-rise tenement buildings which apparently Ruth Park liked even less. 

 I have now completed “Poor Man’s Orange”, and I will say that this second novel is just as strong as the first, “Harp in the South”.  “Poor Man’s Orange” is a continuation of the trials and tribulations of the Darcy family At the beginning of this novel, there are six persons living in the tenement house, Hugh Darcy, his wife usually called ‘Mumma”, their daughter Roie and her husband Charlie, their other daughter Dolour, and the neighbor Patrick Diamond.  Just as in “Harp in the South”, many terrible and a few wonderful events occur to these people, some related to living in the tenement and others which are inexplicable and happen to us all. 

In the first book, Hugh Darcy was pretty much a loveable drunk who still came through for his family.  In “Poor Man’s Orange”  we see a darker side of him.  Some of his acts are despicable and cause his family terrible embarrassment.  To me, this honesty only made the story of the Darcy family seem even more real    Ruth Park does not soften reality, and she has the strength to let even one of the Darcy family have severe faults  It would have been easier to sentimentalize this story, but Ruth Park is a tough-minded writer who doesn’t let that happen.

Ruth Park and D'Arcy Niland

Since each character in “Poor Man’s Orange” is a struggling human being, you deeply care what happens to each one of them.  If Ruth Park had a special character in the Darcy family that she most strongly identified with, I would guess it is Dolour.  I frequently thought while reading both novels that Dolour was a stand-in for Ruth Park.

 Although Ruth Park did live with her husband author D’arcy Niland in the Surrey Hills tenements for a few months, the novels are by no means autobiographical.   In fact she spent much of her early life living in tent-camps in the forest while her father worked on bush roads and bridges as well as in sawmills. 

    “I cannot emphasize sufficiently the importance of my early life as a forest creature, The mind-set it gave me has dominated my physical and spiritual being. The unitive eye with which all children are born was never taken away from me by the frauds of civilization; I always did know that one is all and all is one.”

                         Ruth Park, “A Fence Around the Cuckoo”

Ruth Park died about a month ago, December 14, at the age of 93. 

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10 responses to this post.

  1. Great review about a great Aussie writer, Tony:)
    That’s a lovely book cover too, perfect for the title.

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  2. What an interesting book this seems like! Great review Tony!

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    • Hi Soul Muser,
      Thank you. Next up for me with Ruth Park will be one or two of her children’s books like “The Muddle-Headed Wombat” or “Playing Beatie Bow”. Sometimes reading an author’s literature for young people can be just as rewarding as their adult literature.

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      • Indeed, I can’t agree more there. I will try searching for a Ruth Park here. Not sure I would obtain it in any of the bookshops here…

        And oh, I loved that quote you have shared here. “I always did know that one is all and all is one.” Sounds so Hesse-like, and so very beautiful.

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  3. Great review Tony … and like Lisa I was taken with the cover. Nice one. I think I read this over 30 years ago. I need to read it again methinks.

    BTW, I’d say go with Playing Beatie Bow next…

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  4. Hi WhisperingGums,
    Thanks for the tip on ‘Playing Beatie Bow’. Hope I can find it here in the US. I do like that simple uncluttered cover design.

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  5. Ruth Park sounds like another hit. I am starting to think I should just outsource my novel-picking to you. Amelie Nothomb and Dawn Powell, to say nothing of MJ Hyland, have set quite a precedent. I expect much from Ruth Park. Thanks for finding another gem that I can borrow.

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  6. Hi Kerry.
    I think you will find that Ruth Park belongs in the same league as these other writers you mention. Ruth Park used to be Australia’s well-kept secret, but the secret is getting out.

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  7. […] The Secret River tells what happened to the Aborigines. Ruth Park’s Harp in the South and Poor Man’s Orange are set in Sydney’s 1930’s depression. For lighter modern stuff, any crime fiction by […]

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