Another book for Australian Literature Month hosted by Reading Matters. But then you might have suspected that from the kangeroo on the right.
When I was a kid, I asked my mother, who grew up on a farm in southern Indiana what the Roaring Twenties were like for her, imagining I would hear about having lots of money, dancing the Charleston, getting her hair bobbed. She said farmers were never rich, life was always hard on the farm. So, this book held no surprises for me. If the mice don’t eat your crop and the drought doesn’t come, prices will drop.
Set in the mid-30s in the Mallee, the most unpromising farmland in Victoria, this book tells the sad tale of of an unfortunate couple. The narrator is Jean, a young woman who managed to get an education despite a sad beginning to her life. She has a job on the Better-Farming Train which visits around in Victoria, giving lecturettes, yes, lecturettes, on such topics better wheat production, poultry, sheep raising, raising children, and cooking. On the train she meets Robert Pettergree, who also had managed to get an education despite an even worse beginning than hers.
Except for a strong physical attraction to Jean, Robert is devoid of human interaction skills and has formulated his list of rules for scientific living which were predictably useless in the real world. Or perhaps they are necessary but not sufficient. Robert buys a farm, marries Jean and sets himself up as an authority on wheat production, promising local farmers that his methods will increase production. First came the plague of mice, then the drought and a resulting dustbowl. So, everyone loses everything, but though Robert encouraged them to spend more on fertilizer, he was hardly the cause of making things significantly worse.
The tone of the book is at times oddly light so you’re not sure where the story will go. It’s not a happy ending when the good part is that the husband goes off to war and the wife will stay there in the dustbowl and plans to ask neighbor woman to join her in the work. And she plans to go visit an old Japanese friend who has been interned. By all accounts Tiffany’s second book Mateship with Birds, due out in June, is quite good.
Available through Amazon, including the Kindle verison, and at UVa and the public libraries.
Carrie Tiffany, Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living, Scribner, 2005, 224 pages.