Poor Man’s Orange is a touching and humanistic novel, the final installment of a family-saga trilogy published in 1949.
I avoided reading about the book ahead of time and experienced some surprises, such as discovering the book contained a hero and a heroine only deeply into the novel. I was also surprised and delighted to discover at the end I had just read an “Ugly Duckling” story.
Australian author Ruth Park uses vignettes to show life in the slums outside Sydney and through various character’s points of view. The biggest craft take-away for me was showing character through scene.
The environment rises to the level of character with its vibrant, detailed reality created through the reactions and coping mechanisms of the various characters. Park shows the absolute impossibility of keeping a clean house when 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. Park manages to keep the heroine above the grip of the slum by showing 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, until the land owners, who have extracted every penny possible from these hardworking residents, cap their exploitation by knocking down their life-long homes for more profit.
Park shows Dolour through what and whom Dolour admires: The nuns who maintain inner tranquility and order amid chaos. In this tiny scene, Dolour and her friends wonder what the nuns take in the small travel valises that hold all their worldly possessions. Delour’s romantic sensibility is shown by contrasting her romantic guess with the cynical guesses of her friends.
Park also builds long character arcs like Charlie’s, whose story unfolds like a slow motion bungee jump. The reader wonders 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.
I’ve talked about some craft technique here, but really this novel is a masterpiece of feelings. The feeling the author has for the characters and the feelings the reader has for them as well. Ruth Park made me understand and feel for these people who live in poverty as if they were my own family.