I discovered Rod Jones through a Melbourne Writers’ Festival event with Maxine Beneba Clarke. She was the drawcard for me, but Jones shared the billing at this special free event called “Footscray Fiction” in my new ‘hood. As I spoke about in my review of her Foreign Soil, Beneba Clarke bookended her collection with two stories based in Footscray; Jones’ new novel The Mothers is set decidedly, determinedly, historically, in Footscray and Melbourne’s West. At the event Jones was unassuming, quiet even, but what came through was a man with an incredible story to tell.
The Mothers started as an auto-biography of his family: told through generations, it’s a story of adoption, loss, and history repeating. Jones was told that he had been adopted when he was 17; through exploring his history, he dove into the story of the women who came before him, and what started out as his memoir evolved into their story.
At the Writers’ Festival Event, Jones shared a piece of advice that both his editor and wife gave when reviewing the manuscript for this book: that the character of David – a stand- in for Jones – takes over the story; that, in reality, it is not David’s book, but the womens’. Jones took this advice, interestingly, humbly, and reshaped the focus of those sections, and ended with an incredible story covering most of the 20st Century.
And it is definitely a story worth telling. Broken into parts, each one belonging to a different woman in a subsequent era, we open with Alma in Footscray, 1917. Left by her husband with two children and a suitcase, she deals with the stark reality of unsupported single motherhood, with the shame, poverty and and uncertainty that entails. The story evolves to Molly, opening in 1925, Anna at The Haven in North Fitzroy 1952, then Cathy in 1975. Across all of these lives there is this common theme of motherhood, shame, adoption, abandonment, and a seeking of home. It is stunning that throughout this one family the same themes keep repeating, the pattern layers over generations without them even realising.
And the women have a real humanity and heart as characters. I struggled with Jones’ writing – I found it dull sometimes, and dry – but it was easy to get past because these women matter and the story they had lived just echoed through the decades. Through their lives the major events of the 20th Century can be traced, but those events are given a genuine, individual face as we see how it impacts their lives. The book is littered with fascinating historical details – like the night soil man, the shop fronts and milk bars, the childhood nightmares – that help paint a picture of their daily lives. The Depression, both World Wars plus Vietnam, changing societal expectations and a shift in the labour force. We also see the development of Melbourne, the west shifting from heavy industrial to a local suburb.
Such a personal face is given to what some of these eras were like. An example is Anna’s experience at The Haven, a temporary home for pregnant unmarried women and girls, run by the Salvation Army. But, as Anna found, there is no salvation here. The women are housed, fed, punished, and when born, often forced to adopt out their babies. As the Matron says to Anna:
‘…what is at stake is not only the unborn soul you are carrying, but the stain you have put upon your own soul in lying with the boy…You see, God hates pregnant girls. He hates unwed mothers. The only good way to cleanse the stain is to repent…you will come to see that the right thing is to give your baby to a deserving married couple who are unable to conceive of their own. That way, you see, you will be passing on God’s gift to them. An open and generous heart would see the truth in that. You will be doing God’s work.’
God hates pregnant girls. God hates unwed mothers. God wants your baby to go to a good home.
I loved the layers in this story: from Rod Jones’ life to this book, across each woman over the generations, seeing the western Melbourne evolve over the years. There is a repetition and pattern that allows us to see change – and a real quiet tragedy when we see a woman in 1975 judged the same way a woman in 1917 was. I feel like I accidentally stumbled on this book – an incidental guest at a writers’ festival event – and I’m glad for it.