An Ugly Duckling story: book review, Poor Man’s Orange, Ruth Park

This book was recommended to me and I read it without having read its predecessors, (Missus and The Harp in the South) in the trilogy. Poor Man’s Orange is an Australian novel first published in 1949.
PMO

In Poor Man’s Orange, we start off right in the middle of the family. The style has a slice-of-life feel. And it’s subtle. I didn’t know who the hero and heroine were for a long time.

Charlie’s transformation is so fantastic. I hate these lazily written books where the hero just has a sudden thought that he loves her and so he’ll be totally different now and become the man we want the heroine to marry.

No! Prove it to me. And Park does. How she does!

Charlie’s fall to the bottom is like a bungee jump in slow motion. We get to agonize for pages and chapters about whether that rope is going to be the right length. Or will he slam headfirst into despair and ruin as do so many people in the slum?

The slum, by the way, achieves that to which all writers either aspire or should aspire, an environment so alive, so vibrant in its detailed reality that it rises to the level of a character in its own right.

What Park does, not by standing on a soapbox and waving a finger as she lectures us about not judging the poor for being dirty, but by showing us the absolute impossibility of keeping a clean house when you are impoverished. Mumma is burdened and defeated by filth, Roie destroyed by it. Dolour fights it, but of course she cannot defeat it. The most Dolour ever accomplishes is cleaning one small corner. The way Dolour manages to escape the grip of filth cannot be to overcome it because that would defeat the author’s purpose of showing how impossible it is to defeat dirt when you are poor. Park manages to keep Dolour above it, not of it, by having Dolour turn away from it, to show us the unconquerable cleanliness of her spirit. But the inevitability of dirt reigns supreme in this book. The slum never gets cleaner, never improves, never changes, even as it is about to be wrecked.

The leveling planned for the neighborhood is for the benefit of the land owners and developers, not the poor inhabitants. They will all go somewhere even worse, the elderly shunted off to die prematurely from stress as the homes they spent a lifetime in are knocked down in minutes.

The resurrection and triumph of the hero is brilliant. Even as Charlie almost falls into the miasma of sin that Dolour feels swirls everywhere around her, ready to suck her and anyone who becomes weak into it, the reader sympathizes with him for the reader has lived through his reasons with him.

And then his transformation. Park earns it. At the end — no — I’m not really going to tell you the end. But Charlie’s transformation, wow. You get it. You can believe it.

Park also builds character by showing, again through a poignant scene, what Dolour admires. Or, to be more precise, who Dolour admires. The nuns who maintain inner tranquility and order, holding themselves bulwarks against chaos. I love the bit about Dolour and her friends wondering what the nuns take in their small travel valises, which represent the sum total of their worldly possessions. Park uses this as a way to show again, as she shows multifariously throughout the novel, the romantic sensibility of the heroine. In this scene, what Dolour imagines in the sisters’ valises is romantic, by contrast to the cynical guesses of her friends.

The crowning glory on this book was the subtle revelation only at the end that it followed The Ugly Duckling story archetype.

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