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The Harp in the South, by Ruth Park.

March 25, 2013

The Harp in the South, by Ruth Park. Including her Missus, Harp in the South AND Poor Man’s Orange. Penguin Books Australia (1987), Paperback, 684 pages. First published in 1948.


A deservedly popular Australian trilogy about working-class Australian life in the mid-twentieth century.

Ruth Park is an excellent, old-fashion storyteller who wrote an Australian classic in the late 1940s. The  first volume takes place in rural New South Wales and the next two follow a couple who married there and moved to the working-class slums of Sydney, and the lives of their children.

Harp in the South is a big book, not only in size, but in conception and scope. Its themes include life and death, coming of age and aging, love and loss and much more. While following one family through several generations, Park brings in the stories of their friends and neighbors. It contains a big cast of characters, each unique and finely drawn.  Some make cameo appearances while others are the focus of subplots.

For a book written 70 years ago, Harp is unusual in its full and sensitive depiction of ethnic diversity. The major figures cherish their Irish traditions and lifestyles, including adherence to a human but positive Roman Catholic faith. In their Sydney neighborhood, they interact with a variety of individuals with other backgrounds and faiths: Chinese, Italian, Jewish, and descendants of Indigenous Australians. In general they interact peacefully, but when provoked, ethnic slurs fly. Park herself presents all the groups sympathetically, with only a few exceptions.

Park is excellent writer. Her phrases and paragraphs beg to be quoted and remembered for their beauty and insight. The plot moves forward easily because we come to care about her characters and what happens to each. Reading her trilogy is sheer pleasure enhanced by her wisdom about human life.

In the first volume, Missus, readers join family and friends who watch the generation of young people who came of age in the 1920s and 1930s move into adulthood. There is lots of courtship with Hugh Darcy, a major character in all the books, promising to marry two different women. A couple of women chose singleness and reveal how difficult it is to remain outside marriage. Volume 2, from which the whole trilogy is named, marks a break in time and place. Mr. and Mrs. Darcy have moved to an inadequate house in a slum Sydney slum and over the twenty intervening years they have changed in ways we could have expected. Here the story highlights their older daughter and her tragedies and joys as she matures and marries. Volume 3 focuses on the younger Darcy daughter, bright and ambitious but unable to pursue her original dreams. In the end she discovers the beauty that can be found alongside the pain. She realizes that for her, life will be like the Poor Man’s Orange, which is the title of the volume:

She knew that the poor man’s orange was hers, with its bitter rind, its paler flesh, its stinging, exultant, unforgettable tang. So she would have it that way, and wish it no other way. She knew she was strong enough to beat whatever might come in her life, as long as she had love. That was the thing, the backbone of endurance itself, and she who possessed it needed no other.

I learned of this book through the Australian Women Writers blog and was able to borrow it on Inter Library Loan.

I heartily recommend the trilogy, The Harp in the South, to all who enjoy a big, well-written story of human experience with all its highs and lows. It will especially appeal to those interested in working-class Australia in all its diversity and those who have known their own mix of pain and joy.

One Comment leave one →
  1. March 25, 2013 6:45 pm

    So glad you got to read this Marilyn, and that you enjoyed them. Park is a wonderful writer in her depiction of character. You don’t easily forget them. They’re flawed but warm and real. It’s worth pointing out though that Missus was written last and many years after the first two. I read them in the order they were written – partly because Missus wasn’t written when I first read the first two. I’ve read The harp in the south a few times, but the other two only once. (BTW My next Monday musings which I am currently drafting will mention the Harp novels!)

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