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Book Review: Sunshine from the North, by Nancy Sarre

Subtitled A true Australian love story of the 1920s, told mostly through letters (2014), this modest book is Nancy Sarre’s tribute to her parents, Cherry and Horace, and to the families of her mother and father. Letters between the young couple and other family members tell mostly of personal circumstances but also touch on some of the broader social issues shaping Australia at the time.

The book starts dramatically with a letter recounting the death of Cherry’s mother in childbirth in 1893. ‘”Behold thy house is left unto thee desolate” is a quotation which might be applied with awful truthful literalness to one today,’ writes William, the bereaved husband. Cherry was their second child, and it was William’s second marriage, his first wife having died leaving one child (two others having died in infancy). We follow the story partly through letters, and partly through Sarre’s commentary. William married again quite quickly – hardly surprising since he had two babies to deal with – and fathered five more children. They lived in Coolah, as small town in central NSW, where William worked as a saddle and boot maker, among other things. Sarre suggests that the family was a happy one, but the prospects in Coolah must have been limited, and when she was 17, Cherry left to work in Sydney, living there with an aunt. She worked at first at David Jones, but in her twenties, trained as a nurse, and worked at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney. She said she expected to be an ‘old maid’.

She met Horace in 1926 when visiting a friend – a former fellow nurse – in Albury, a town on the NSW bank of the River Murray. Horace’s family were partners in a hardware store, where he worked. Cherry’s and Horace’s story is something of a classic romance: boy meets girl, there are obstacles, but these are eventually overcome. The obstacles are partly the good old tyranny of distance, and partly, it seems, hesitation on Cherry’s part.  Horace begins their correspondence correctly enough – ‘Dear Miss Cole’ – but moves quickly from ‘Your humble admirer’ to “My dear Cherry’ … ‘Your ardent swain’. Cherry isn’t comfortable with this. ‘Horace,’ she writes, ‘we don’t know each other, and we should not discuss, anything other than friendship, now.’ Horace bows to the inevitable. ‘I must possess my soul with patience, and be happy with the privilege of exchanging thoughts with you’. So over the next six months they write about work in the hospital, friends in common, the weather, gardening, birds, poetry and music. Horace plays the piano and the organ; he likes Schubert and reads Joseph Conrad and Robert Browning. Cherry likes the Messiah – though neither has much time for reading or listening. They write about friendship – ‘it depends a lot on the number of things two people have in common’ – but nothing more profound. Cherry even wonders whether she might join the Bush Church Aid Society – an evangelical organisation providing pastoral and spiritual services in the outback. ‘It is the work I’m most interested in,’ she writes – but such a project wouldn’t have included a role for Horace. Then just before Christmas, Cherry changes. Suddenly it’s ‘Horace dear’, and ‘my Dear one’. Horace is delighted, and in a couple of weeks they are engaged – though for the time being Cherry is still at the hospital. ‘It is a beautiful letter,’ she writes in response to one of Horace’s, ‘and you are very wonderful to love me so and to tell me so.’ Nancy Sarre, who unfortunately can’t say what brought about Cherry’s change of heart, writes that her parents’ love affair continued for the rest of their lives; she was his ‘sunshine from the North’.

Amidst the family concerns, there are some letters that shed an interesting light on wider concerns. There is, for example, a letter from Roy, Cherry’s brother, from a hospital in London to which he has been repatriated after being wounded in the Battle of the Somme in 1916. ‘It cannot go on for long at the awful cost we suffered in the Somme. The Australian public will get an awful shock when the particulars and casualty lists are published in full’. But he goes on to praise his comrades: ‘we, as a whole, did our jobs without thought of the reckoning.’ Just out of the front line and undergoing a series of painful operations, his comments seem frank, and without any over-blown patriotism. Then there is Cherry’s endorsement of prohibition: ‘I have always been keen for prohibition,’ she writes. Poor Horace prevaricates: ‘There are arguments on both sides, of course’.  But he inevitably comes down on Cherry’s side …

The letters of Cherry, Horace and their families have a further historical importance in showing just how impossible it is to generalise about life in rural Australia in the early decades of the twentieth century. They are not the bush workers of the Australian legend – itinerant, unionised, disrespectful of authority. Nor are they the inhabitants of Don Watson’s The Bush (2014), who ‘battle to drive back nature and eke a living from the land.’ Cherry and Horace and their family were distinctly of the middle class of their country towns. Their letters show them as reflective, literate people who appreciated and participated in ‘high’ culture. They were beginning to engage with new technologies like wireless and motor cars. They loved the Australian bush, and noted with approval moves to preserve it. They moved freely between city and country – though increasingly the opportunities for work outside the home for women lay in the city, as shop assistant, nurse or teacher. I find it interesting that Cherry was thirty-three when she married; this challenges the idea that before World War II, marriage was the only acceptable role for women. They worked hard, and enjoyed the company of family and friends. They were certainly not rich, but could afford travel to visit relatives and for holidays. If public affairs or politics were important to them, they didn’t write about it.

Collections of letters like these are immensely valuable for teasing out such nuances in the social history of rural Australia. If you’d like to read more about country towns, try Struggle country: the rural ideal in twentieth century Australia, edited by Graeme Davison and Marc Brodie (2005). And here’s Professor Davison’s summary of the history of country life in Australia. If you like family letters, you could also try Growing Together. Letters Between Frederick John Cato and Frances Bethune, 1881 to 1884, edited by Una B Porter.

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