A couple of weeks ago, a group of uni mates and I took part in a literary trivia night (have you heard of anything greater? Me either). Well, we were trounced. While we did OK in the general knowledge section, pretty well in the movie adaptation section…we were absolutely stuffed in the ‘Australian Classics’ section. Basically, if the answer wasn’t Helen Garner or Tim Winton, we were screwed. Propelled by this, I thought it best to actually read some Australian Classics. Not only for patriotism sake, but you know, hopefully a large number of them will provide me with a job. First up was Ruth Park’s The Harp in the South.

Written in the 1940s, The Harp in the South journeys the lives of the Darcy family, a poor, Catholic family that live together in the run-down, poverty-stricken suburb, Surrey Hills. While nowadays living anywhere in Sydney, especially Surrey Hills, is pretty much a status symbol in itself (i.e. over-priced and expensive), back then it was a sign that an individual would not go far – they would always belong to the working-class, where prostitution, alcohol and desolation are rife.

While The Harp in the South deals with these issues, particularly the poverty that the Darcy family faces, as well as Hugh Darcy’s drinking problem, it is also a story about love, dreams and adventures. Roie Darcy is a teenage girl who dreams of getting married and having children, but is faced with perhaps one of the greatest challenges that a woman can face while making that transition from girl to woman. Dolour Darcy is only young, but is inquisitive, bright and keen to break from the shackles of Surrey Hills and get herself a proper education. And throughout is Margaret Darcy, the mum and figurehead of the family, who quietly soldiers on in the background, with quiet, burning love for her family.

Though The Harp in the South is set over half a century ago, and it deals with class systems and inevitable poverty, something I’ve never had to face, it’s testimony to Park’s writing that it still resonates with the reader. As a female, I sympathised with Roie when she fell out of love and was never entirely sure why. I felt for her when she had to face a responsibility by herself that many women go through, and which is still shunned by society. I remembered how similar I was to Dolour when I was young  – always keen to impress teachers, not to mention by older sister, and sure that if I were going to become someone one day it would be through my brains (that sounds rather arrogant, but hopefully I’m making my point). And although Hugh Darcy was an alcoholic, who spent more time complaining than actually doing anything to solve the problem, I felt sorry for him and hoped and prayed that things would get better for him and his family.

Though the novel is only short, Ruth Park has written a phenomenal story that encompasses so many aspects of family life that many of us go through – despite poverty, despite class systems, or even what country we live in. Each of us have dreams and hopes, particularly when we’re still young to make them happen (or are unaware of how impossible they may actually be). Park has captured this feeling of hope in each of her colourful characters, and you’re left finishing The Harp in the South as though they are your friends, despite their eccentricities or faults.

If you’re like me and your knowledge of Australian Classics is somewhat, eh…scanty, then I’d recommend The Harp in the South. Not only for this reason, but also because it is simply a terrific read that has stood the test of time.

Have you read anything by Ruth Park or The Harp in the South? Are you a fan of Australian writers? Let me know!

the harp in the south by ruth park

The Harp in the South – (image taken from http://www.booktothefuture.com.au)

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