Rewviewed by Rhoda Pooley
Hunger Town, by Adelaide-born author, Wendy Scarfe, is set in Port Adelaide during the Great Depression between the two World Wars and chronicles the years of unemployment, protest and reprisal, and the rise of communism in the union movement.
These historical events are seen through the eyes of Judith Larsen, daughter of a Norwegian immigrant, who grows up on a coaling hulk on the Port River. She marries charismatic Harry Grenville, a dreamer who embraces communism believing that under such a system the State would pay him to dance. Their relationship is played out against his idealism and her grasp of practical realities. As Harry struggles to find work and becomes increasingly embroiled with the Comrades, Judith finds fame as a political cartoonist, which only adds to the tension between them. When Harry disappears, having left Australia to fight in the Spanish Civil War, Judith leaves all that is familiar and safe and sets out to find him.
I learnt so much about Port Adelaide’s social history from this book, in particular that Adelaide was affected first, and hardest, when the Great Depression hit Australia, The many domestic cameos, such as Judith’s mother keeping important documents in a drawer under her recipe books, are such a telling pieces of ordinary life at the time. One such document is a letter confirming their tenancy of the coaling hulk so long as they don’t use it as a meeting place for communists. This proviso infuriates her husband who would have destroyed the letter except for her insistence that it is their insurance against eviction – the fate of so many in depression times.
The story held my attention from start to finish, but the point at which it truly sang for me was in the passages dealing with the women’s activities in feeding their families and supporting their men; they ran soup kitchens, organised marches to Federation Hall, and scrounged for food and fuel.
Hunger Town fits the bill as well-researched, and well-written, historical fiction, and in beautiful prose explains why Port Adelaide is such a close knit, and fiercely loyal, community to this day.