I wrote the first draft of The Secrets at Ocean’s Edge, very quickly, and driven by the characters’ storylines. I didn’t know anything about life in 1932, when the story was set; so for the second draft, I consulted digitised newspaper articles set in Dongar[r]a between 1925 and 1933, and travelled to Dongara in Western Australia to speak with the local historical society, historians, and elderly residents. What I learned through old photographs, oral history transcripts, and anecdotes, fleshed out by story, and in some circumstances, completely changed the story’s direction when what I learned about the Australian way of life in the early 1930s challenged my assumptions.
In the 1930s, women with the money to spend on new frocks, couldn’t just waltz down to the local boutique for a coatdress off-the-rack. If they were lucky, there was a local dressmaker who would make bespoke frocks, requiring at least one or two fittings. In The Secrets at Ocean’s Edge, Lily has seamstress skills and once nursed dreams of becoming a dressmaker – skills and dreams that my character of Lorna encourages so that she doesn’t have to travel so often to the regional town of Geraldton, or make the long journey to Perth to have her frocks run up. Lily uses the intimacy of Lorna’s fittings to learn her secrets and where everybody stands in town. Communities were highly stratified, and your social position could be judged by the clothes you wore.
Haberdashery stores were more ubiquitous than dressmakers, and, if a woman had a sewing machine of her own, she would have run up her own frocks. Other women might have only had one or two frocks, which they would have patched, mended, and made do. But they often kept one good frock to wear on community special occasions, and this was often their wedding dress.
Cars had been around for several decades by the Depression, and I had assumed they had made inroads into every part of Australia when I first set my novel at a mechanic’s garage. The Irwin District Historical Society threw a spanner in my motorcar plotline with the information that in the 1930s, only the well-off and those who needed cut-down Fords for their carrying businesses owned a car – the rest still got about by horse and buggy or dray. There was a paddock opposite the Dongar[r]a Hotel, near the school, where horses could graze while people went about their town business.
The research trip to Dongara also resulted in a few extra characters added to the story. Another assumption of mine was that Dongar[r]a would have been predominantly white/non-Indigenous, with Indigenous people employed as domestic servants and stationhands. Oral histories and anecdotes from older residents in Dongara yielded a ‘Polish’ man with an Italian-sounding surname, who had apparently jumped ship and settled in the sandhills, as well as a Chinese man, who lived on a sailboat. I knew my beach settlement wouldn’t reflect the social reality of the community if I didn’t add a couple of these characters.
I was confronted with little evidence of Indigenous people living within the township of Dongar[r]a during the Depression. Though many lived at camps outside inland towns or had been removed to nearby missions and reserves under the government policies of the time. I did uncover an exempted Aboriginal family living in Dongar[r]a in the 1930s, with the patriarch working as a porter at the local railway station. They became the Feehely family in my novel. It is possible that the Aboriginal children one elderly resident remembered having their school lessons by the Irwin River bank might have belonged to this exempted Aboriginal family.
While many people endured great economic and social hardships during the Depression years, these were unevenly distributed. Women, in particular, bore the brunt of finding enough to feed their families, keeping them clothed, and the maintaining an orderly house with few resources to do so. In the cities, there was some welfare relief and government work programs, though shanty towns sprang up in places such as the Dalkeith foreshore in Perth – which is now millionaire’s row.
In small country towns, people had each other, and found their community bonds gave them strength and a buffer to withstand the harshest of shocks. Life was not all doom and gloom. Towns such as Dongar[r]a in the early 1930s were buzzing with social activities. There were weekly dances at the town hall with live music and grain spread on the floor; Country Women’s Associations and Progress Associations; intertown sporting fixtures; fairs; and the church, which played a central role in community life.
Ten years on from the First World War, returned soldiers continued to suffer the effects of wartime trauma. While some in the community called these men, who suffered tremors, night terrors and flashbacks, “malingerers”, as my character of Ernie refers to Tommy, the medical community was finding new labels and forms of therapy to treat what we now know as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Tommy has spent three years on the road itinerant, swagmen being a common sight during the Depression. But Tommy’s aimlessness is not what it seems, as we come to see his journey has more purpose. He needs to find his sister Lily to answer questions about what happened to him before he was incarcerated in the Lemnos Hospital. This hospital was established in 1926, as many such institutions were around the country, in recognition that returned soldiers suffering from shell shock required specific mental health treatment. New therapies were offered to them, including ‘talking therapy’ – though men of the era might have been reluctant to open up about their personal traumas. They were also taught craft skills to help in their recovery. One such craft was pokerwork, etching designs in wood with a hot nail tip, which earns Tommy some cash during his years on the track. However, its benefits prove inadequate as his sense of self-fragments.
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