No Small Shame
“I believe that, as long as there is plenty, poverty is evil.” ― Robert F. Kennedy.
‘No Small Shame’ is an important reminder of how far we have come in Australia since the beginning of last century – and how much we need to protect. Mary, a girl with dreams and immense character, is the daughter of a poor, working class family who migrates from Scotland to Australia in hope for a better life. Tragedy already darkens Mary’s young life when she leaves the country of her birth. It more than darkens the life of ‘Maw’, Mary’s mother. Years of despair and loss have damaged her in ways that has left her angry, and without hope. Poverty has twisted her ability to love to a fear that she expresses almost like hate.
‘No Small Shame’ tells a big story, opening the door to the reality of the lives of poor women at the beginning of last century. Poverty is still an unhealed wound on human society – but at the beginning of last century, the shackles were almost impossible to remove, choking the human psyche until the very choice of humanity came under threat.
Told through the point of view of Mary, we follow her from her childhood in Scotland, to migrating to Australia with her family. Mary is close to Liam, her childhood friend. A few years older than Mary, Liam is miserable about the direction of his life. Mary’s efforts to help him leads to the ‘no small shame’ moment of her life. The beginning of last century was a bleak time to become pregnant out of wedlock. With no other choice but to marry, Mary finds marriage to Liam a time of misery. Then Liam deserts Mary before the birth of their child. Believing Liam dead, Mary goes to Melbourne with her baby to start a new life. The closing days World War I brings Mary fresh heartbreak – and no easy solutions. The final pages of ‘No Small Shame’ is shattering, and haunting.
In all, ‘No Small Shame’ is the story of Mary’s survival overlayered with the promise of triumph. It is a story crafted with great empathy – and immense believability. For me, it not only brilliantly opened the door to past, but made me prouder of my ‘poor’ ancestors. What George Eliot once wrote in Middlemarsh also describes a life such as Mary’s:
“But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”