The Wonder Child by Ethel Turner

The Wonder Child is a gentle juvenile story about a family forced to be separated for years due to the gifted talents of one of the children. Challis plays the piano like a dream and goes off to Europe with her mother to make the family fortune.

The other four children stay at home with their hapless, but lovable father. Mr Cameron is a dreamer. He struggles to make his way in life, preferring to write verses, compose melodies and paint pictures. He doesn’t seem to have the necessary skills to hold down a job and he relies on his more practical, responsible wife to manage their finances. Mrs Cameron obviously loves her creative husband, but also has to live with his flaws on a daily basis. After five children, and constantly being forced to ask family and friends for help, a job is arranged for Cameron in western NSW as a Crown Land Agent.

Wilgandra is a fictional town, but it sounds just like most of the small country towns I’ve known. Turner tells us it is –

three hundred and seventy-three miles back, back, away in the heart of the country – the farthest town to which the Government sent its Land Agent….

The climate was intolerable in the summer, there was little or no society, the only house they could have was not over comfortable.

It doesn’t sound particularly promising or inspiring.

After their mother goes off to Europe with Challis, Hermie, Bartie, Roly & Floss are cared for by a very competent female ‘lady-help‘ and their State girl Lizzie, carefully selected by Mrs Cameron before she left. However this arrangement only lasts six months, until the very competent young woman is snapped up by a local romeo to be his wife.

Hermie and Lizzie attempt to run the household, until even Mr Cameron is forced to acknowledge that this isn’t working properly. Along comes the gentle, ineffectual Miss Browne. She’s a spinster who has been unable to hold down any other job and whose ways are even more hapless than Mr Cameron.

A gradual decline sets in. Compounded by Mr Cameron losing his job as a Land Agent.

The family is forced to move out of the home the state provided, to take up possession of a lean, mean selection out of town.

Their father’s selection stretched before them, eighty acres of miserable land, lying grey and dreary under the canopy of a five o’clock coppery sky, summer and drought time.

Five years drag on…five years of disguising their misfortunes from Mrs Cameron and Challis, until the day the letter arrives confirming the date they are due home from Europe. A Europe of adoration, comfort, new clothes and fine lodgings.

I don’t normally provide a summary of the story in my posts, but this is one of Turner’s lesser known works and I felt it deserved a fuller treatment.

Although this could be classified as a children’s book, the themes are wide ranging and topical (for 1901). Turner discusses her views on religion and atheism via Mrs Cameron beliefs –

She said she did not try to explain or understand God, only to believe in him. She is quite right. It is the hard names, the popular orthodoxies, the iron creeds, that take the souls and heart and warmth out of religion. When you were little, she did nothing but show you God as your Father, and Christ as your Saviour, to be tenderly loved and obeyed, and gone to for refuge and comfort…. 

She wanted the love of God to be a living thing to you all – a glad, warm, spontaneous thing, like the love you bore us, only deeper. She would have no lines and rules and analyses of it while you were small. It was not a thing she actually spoke about very often….Not to understand, only to believe.

She includes some lovely descriptions of the bush –

Wattle in bloom made a glory of the uncleared spaces, the young gums were very green, the older ones wore masses of soft white upon their soberness.

Farther away there browsed brown sheep, but this was the season for lambs, a dozen little soft snowballs of things had come close to the cottage and gambolled with the children.  

They drove up the road that wound out of civilised Wilgandra away to parts where the bush took on its wild character again, and rolled either side of them in unbroken severity and loneliness for miles.

The air was fragrant with the bush scents that rise after rain. A cool, quiet breeze swayed the boughs pf the ocean-waste of tress, here and there it lifted the long string of warm-coloured bark – autumn’s royal rags – that hung from the silvered trunks.

And the Boer War experience is covered off via the neighbouring squatter, Morty. Mortimer Stevenson is the youngest son of a strict father who runs off to war to avoid a romantic disappointment. Turner doesn’t glorify the war (too much). She describes the Macquarie St parade as –

And now the crowd took the reins off itself, and gave head to its madness. It hurrahed itself hoarse; it waved its arms, and its handkerchiefs, and its hat,and its head; it flung flowers, and flags and coloured paper; it hung recklessly from roofs, and walls, doors, chimneys, fences, lamp-posts, balconies, verandah-posts.

We also see young Roly embrace the war talk. He renames the selection Transvall Vale, sets up camp in the yard and spends his days fighting imaginary enemies. But it is Morty’s time in South Africa that hints at a more realistic and perhaps personal, view of war –

his first battle, with its horrid nightmare of flashing lights and thundering gins, its pools of blood, its contorted human faces, its agonised horses writhing in the dust.

She also shows us the other side with a quick glimpse into the life of a South African family who provide Morty with a place to sleep after he helps them bury their son/brother. –

it is the same everywhere; our lovers, our husbands, our sons – all gone from us! Some will come back, of course, but crushed and mutilated…. 

you must know why we are fighting….but our men don’t know. They have been told they will lose their liberty and homes if they don’t fight….your men, of course they come because they are sent, and they fight their best because they are brave and obey orders…. 

We are no different from you. We pay a few great men to do the thinking for us, and if they say it’s got to be fighting, then, whatever it seems to us individually, collectively we just shoot.

As I said, for a juvenile story, Turner has managed to include lots of meaty topics. Including a very brief view on Indigenous life in a colonial outpost –

Two or three aboriginal women were coming back from a journey to the house, cloths full of stores and broken food slung over their shoulder. Stevenson forty years ago had had to break up a big camp of them on the land he had just taken up, and drive them farther west. Ever since he had not felt justified in refusing food to any of their colour.

Let’s not forget young Hermie either, as the book is ultimately her coming of age story –

I can’t tell you how silly  and small I have been – thinking men ought to be just like men in books, and never looking at what they really are.

Just like, Turner’s more famous story, Seven Little Australians, The Wonder Child embraces it’s sense of time and place. Her characters are unapologetically Australian in sound and attitude. Their lives always teetering on the brink of hardship and poverty, with large family life being shown as chaotic. We see young children shoulder responsibility and adult cares at a far earlier age than we expect now and where most people lived their daily lives far removed from government interference or regard. Individuals and families fell through the cracks all the time. Life was hard work, money and resources were scarce and getting by was the best most people could expect from life.

According the Brenda Niall’s biography of Turner on the Australian Dictionary of Biography:

Her writing showed a continuing tension between her enjoyment of popular and commercial success and her wish to break free from the restrictions of juvenile fiction. Ethel’s publishers always insisted that her work should remain within the range of the sheltered young reader.

I sensed this tension throughout the book. The meatier, adult subjects were dressed up in neat moral bows suitable for the edification of younger readers. Yet, I thoroughly enjoyed this glimpse into a world gone by and I’m grateful that Turner has another 40 or so such stories for me to enjoy at my leisure.

Facts:

6 thoughts on “The Wonder Child by Ethel Turner

  1. What a thoughtful review! Of course I'll link it to my Gen 2 page. I've always regarded Turner as a bit on the conservative side so I'm very interested that you discuss her stance on the Boer War and Aborigines. And where did you find the book, online? Surely you don't have that beautiful copy above.

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  2. Sadly I do not have the lovely copy depicted in my image. I found it on project Gutenberg. They have a number of Turner’s lesser known books there. Project Gutenberg Aust also has a few. I remembered your comments about Turners conservative attitudes, which is why her comments about the war & Indigenous life stood out.

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  3. I rarely read children's books but do have at least one on my #AUSReadingMonth list. Although children need story, the gossipy power of 'what happens next' draws them into the book. What holds them there as you say it the feeling of tittering on the brink, bearing responsibility, the inner lives of the characters….not only the external circumstances. Wonderful review….to start off this AUS reading month!

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  4. I’ve downloaded a couple of Turner’s books (Seven Little Australians and Mist in the Mountains) so I hope to participate unofficially. We’ll see how I keep up with my other reads but I do enjoy reading about all the Aussie books during this event. Such a pleasure!

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  5. Glad to have your company and comments in whatever capacity Cleo :-)Turner's stories are easy reads, so hopefully you'll be able to fit them both in this month.

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