In the novel Amy’s Children, Australian author Olga Masters creates characters who commit appalling acts of betrayal: a mother abandons her children, a husband betrays his wife, relatives turn on each other, and an unforgiving daughter rains down retribution on her mother’s head. Yet in spite of these things, or perhaps even because of them, ultimately there’s a sense of understanding underlying these people’s actions. Amy’s Children follows the life and decisions made by one young Australian woman over the course of a few decades–through the depression, WWII and beyond in a judgmental society in which the struggle for survival creates tough moral choices.
Amy is from Diggers Creek “a hamlet of school, post office, public hall, general store and All Souls Anglican Church.” It’s the Depression, and Amy, with three small children, finds herself abandoned by her husband, Ted, who leaves to find work and fails to return. It’s a miserable, hardscrabble existence for everyone when Amy moves back home with her three little girls. The poverty of the era is tangible with Amy walking back to her parents’ home, children in tow, and one of her brothers carting her pathetic pile of belongings in the farm truck. A few years of marriage have left Amy with little beyond a kettle, two saucepans, a frying pan, an old butter box the children pretend is a pram, and of course, the three children.
She would dream of having a job, buying a new dress and silk stockings, and a blue band for her hair to go to the Tilba Tilba dances.
She sometimes dreamed aloud on the front veranda, sitting between Kathleen and Patricia, with her feet among the arum lilies growing thickly on either side of the front steps.
“Mummy might get a job one day, you never know,” she said once, her eyes on a car racing along the road, going south. It might stop, she said silently, a man might get out and come up to me and say, I’ve got a job for you in my big shop. There will be clothes for you very cheap, and clothes for the girls. Come on, I’ll give you half an hour to get ready. All she needed to do was to wipe their faces and go.
Unfortunately the ‘dream’ doesn’t include the children:
The car had gone but there was another coming. Perhaps this time, Amy thought. The baby cried and Kathleen took a sharp breath and watched Amy’s face.
‘Lebby’s crying,’ she said gently as if Amy were sleepwalking and she didn’t want to shock her into waking, In a moment there were footsteps inside and the crying stopped. ‘Gramma’s got her,’ Kathleen said.
Inside herself Amy said, I won’t be taking her. She didn’t either. Or for that matter the other two.
Amy eventually makes it Sydney, solo, of course, and she moves in with her Aunt Daphne, Uncle Dudley, and their two sons. It’s an agreement given grudgingly, but then almost everything given in this tale–love, attention, food, relationships and even accepting responsibility–is given under some bitter constraint or unspoken protest. Once in Sydney, Amy, masquerading as a young single woman is able, with some struggle, to find employment and improve her circumstances, but it’s only a matter of time before her past arrives on her doorstep.
This is a novel which examines individualism and moral responsibility, and no matter which Amy chooses, there’s a terrible price to pay. These days, Amy’s small materialistic desires and dreams of city life seem modest, but due to the times and her circumstances, she chooses between staying in her parents’ home and being a mother, or abandoning her children to their grandmother’s care while picking up her life as if she’d never had children. Just as Amy effectively creates a narrative for her life in order to gain employment, Kathleen, the first of Amy’s three daughters builds a narrative of her own, and we see how two generations of lives are bitterly interlocked by Amy’s choice to abandon her children. Amy sheds her children lightly, like tossing aside yesterday’s clothing, but it’s not quite that easy. Amy’s husband Ted manages to disappear, and no one seems to think this is particularly strange or hold him accountable, yet Amy’s decision to do the same is seen as a moral failing by those who know her secret. Kathleen, who possesses a sort of twisted primness, seems to have a submerged desire to see her mother destroyed while there is no lingering resentment for the father who also abandoned her. This double standard isn’t overworked, but it’s there deep in the subtext of the story.
The introduction provides some background information on Olga Masters (1919-1986). The mother of seven children, she worked part-time as a journalist for the Sydney Morning Herald, and her career as a writer came late in life–in her 50s. It’s clear that Olga Masters wants us to treat Amy, a young woman who wants very little from life, with generosity. The introduction mentions the Misses Wheatley, Heather and Grace, two spinster sisters in their sixties, as unpleasant characters. Somehow I think that Olga Masters would want us to take the same generosity that we show to Amy and spread it to the Misses Wheatley. These two spinsters lead a fragile marginal existence on a monthly allowance. Their brother Henry takes over the family’s wheat & sheep ranch, and when he marries a widow with two children, he wants his sisters to have an “independent life.” There’s no share in the family sheep ranch for the Misses Wheatley; instead they’re shipped to Sydney, live in a boarding home and exist on ten pounds a month. They’re a postage stamp from disaster:
Heather, eating her half of the apple carefully because an unsteady tooth at the rear of her upper jaw, looked keenly at Grace, wondering if her pallor meant she was coming down with the bronchitis she had suffered all her life, and how she would cope with the expense of a visit to doctor if this were necessary. Their cheque was due to arrive at the end of the week, but it could fail to arrive should an emergency like floodwaters keep Henry from getting into Dubbo to the post office. Heather automatically and foolishly looked out the window to the sky, clear and blue, and hoped for the same for Dubbo.
The Misses Wheatley provide all the judgment on Amy’s behaviour that she’s managed to escape from her own relatives, and it’s through the behaviour of the Misses Wheatley, and their Victorian attitudes (they must have been born in the 1880s), that we see how toxic judgment is. These two women have never had to make the choices Amy faced, and because they’ve never been in Amy’s position, they feel free to judge her. Through the Misses Wheatley, Olga Masters shows the slippery ease with which judgment falls into place as these two sisters extend the lack of options in their own narrow sterile lives towards Amy. At least Amy never uses anyone as a moral crutch which is a great deal more than can be said for Kathleen. And yet Masters even gives us pause to understand and forgive Kathleen. Kathleen is Amy’s daughter, and yet her appearance, her existence causes Amy to feel threatened, and when she must sacrifice for Kathleen, she sees Kathleen as a resource sponge:
I won’t let her see that perfume, she will want it. And Amy slammed the drawer shut and shut out the angry picture of Kathleen eating a sandwich she didn’t want, while Amy’s throat craved for one. She saw herself drinking water for the rest of her life while Kathleen ate.
Olga Masters paints a quietly savage portrait of suburban Australian life: in the grab for limited resources, children step over their parents and siblings shove aside siblings; spouses depart to feed themselves, and parents begrudge the food and necessities their children require. This all sounds quite glum, and yet, miraculously, somehow Amy’s Children isn’t glum at all. It’s a wonderful, rich, life-affirming book, for we understand that while Amy makes new choices and her life heads in one direction, Kathleen’s adventure is just beginning…