‘The Ghosts Around Us’: Toni Jordan on Nadia Wheatley

Toni Jordan reflects on her own days of teenage unemployment, as she looks at The House that Was Eureka, Nadia Wheatley’s classic novel of workers rights and human relationships in 1930s and 1980s Sydney - during the Great Depression and the economic recession. As we live through precarious economic times again, it’s especially timely.

In 1985, the year Nadia Wheatley’s extraordinary The House that Was Eureka was first published, I was eighteen, unemployed and desperate, and sleeping on the floor of my boyfriend’s brother’s flat. I would wake early on a Saturday morning and circle job ads: those few that said ‘no experience required’. For a while, the only work I could get was selling aluminium siding door-to-door. My ‘job’ was to convince people who lived in broken-down houses in the western suburbs and were home during the day (so probably not working either), and who answered the door to clueless teenagers, that they needed to buy cladding. On credit.

The work was commission only. My two-week stint of walking miles every day earned me, oh, roughly: nothing. After that, I was interviewed and missed out on a job as a receptionist in an office- furniture showroom. I’ve never sobbed so hard, before or since, than when I received the ‘regret to inform you’ letter. I thought I was good for nothing. I thought my life was over before it had begun.

I was sometimes hungry in those early years, yes. And frustrated. I was surrounded by people who cared about me, though, and was never in any real danger of homelessness or starvation. My sense of desolation was not based on practical considerations. I’d been brought up to believe I should have two simple goals: to get a job and then, if you work hard and live a stable life, a mortgage. A mortgage, that shimmering Holy Grail, was the only thing that could save you from being at the mercy of a landlady.

This is the world Wheatley shows us. The House that Was Eureka is about two families in two different times: in 1931, in the middle of the Great Depression, and in 1981, during the economic downturn of the early 80s. These families live fifty years apart, but there is a great deal that’s similar: jobs are the source of freedom, of economic strength, of the ability to care for your family.

But there were also significant differences. In 1931, as opposed to the 80s, the dole was given as food or coupons. That’s why evictions were commonplace, and why communities sometimes banded together to prevent them. There was simply no cash for rent. Families would find themselves on the street, their belongings dumped beside them. Some families, especially those with young children, took desperate measures to prevent losing their homes.

In The House that Was Eureka, Lizzie’s father and brothers and supporters were determined not to let unemployment lead to homelessness. They make the fateful decision to defend their home against the police coming to evict them. They barricade themselves in, as if Sydney is a war zone. They are preparing for a riot.

Lizzie peered through the spy crack and saw Pa’s face on the other side. Heard him grunting. ‘Heave-ho!’ she heard, and Pa’s face and the spy crack disappeared. They must be building the sandbags higher. Five foot high they were already at the door, and six feet thick. No way the cops could get in the front. For the window to the loungeroom was boarded up too, with sandbags six feet thick behind it… Not that the cops would even get to the front door, for the front fence and gate and the little front yard were criss-crossed back and forth with roll upon roll of barbed wire, going up about six foot high.

The House that Was Eureka is gritty and realistic in its accounts of everyday life in a depression and a recession. Part of the thrill of the novel is the confident way that Wheatley balances the personal and the political, like the message that Lizzie writes in whitewash on the footpath in front of the landlady’s house:

DOWN WITH SCABS AND CLASS-TRAITORS. NO EVICTIONS FOR THE UNEMPLOYED.

In Wheatley’s hands, it’s not just a cheap slogan. We can feel Lizzie’s fear and anger. We understand what’s brought her to that point.

The House that Was Eureka was commended in the Children’s Book Council of Australia awards in 1986, and it won the New South Wales Premier’s Literary award for young people’s literature—yet despite writing for a young audience, Wheatley never backs away from the politics of real life. By meticulously weaving actual events and people and newspaper clippings with her imagined ones, she creates a novel that speaks for people rarely shown in fiction. She changes the way her readers see the world.

Intellect and theme and politics are well and good. In the end, though, what matters is what’s at the heart of a novel. At the heart of The House that Was Eureka are four young people: Lizzie and Nobby, in 1931, and Evie and Noel, in 1981. The thing that connects them is the house itself, where both families live: it’s a rambling Newtown terrace with a balcony and a scullery. It has changed little in fifty years. Wheatley possess great technical skill in showing us the similarities and differences in their times and lives and in gently weaving her characters’ stories together, but, when reading this book for the first time, I didn’t notice any of it. My notepad was on the table beside me but I didn’t make a jot. I was too involved in the story and the people; I was turning pages, busting to see what happened next. The later stages of the novel have a dream-like quality, as the shifting realities of Evie and Lizzie and Noel and Nobby intersect and collide. My heart was pounding for the final fifty pages.

History is never really past. We all live with our memories, every day, and stories and traditions are passed down to us. In 1931, when Lizzie was dealing with her father’s unemployment and the family’s eviction, my grandmother was fourteen and beginning her working life in domestic service. My childhood was filled with memories that are actually hers: her love of fresh bread and dripping, her fear of being caught in the outside loo when the dunny men came, her gratitude to the nuns for teaching her to read, her enduring distrust of green vegetables. The past lives on. It is always a part of our lives. To me, this is the central idea of the novel. There are ghosts everywhere around us, if only we could see them.

The ending of The House that Was Eureka especially pleased me. Wheatley treats all her characters with compassion, even the landlady, ‘the despot’. Many of the characters pay a dreadful price for the riot and hers is among the heaviest to bear, though Wheatley’s subtle lessons left me wondering what it was about the despot’s own past that led her to those fateful decisions.

My period of teenage unemployment was brief. Just a few weeks after the shocking loss of my potential career in office-furniture administration, I was finally hired: my job was in a mailroom in the Department of Physiology, at the University of Queensland. From there, I was even luckier. After a while, my supportive bosses allowed me to work back at night to make up time spent at lectures during the day.

My experience of unemployment did not define me. When I finished the final page of The House that Was Eureka, I hoped for the same for Evie. I hoped her years of teenage despondency left her with nothing more than an appreciation for work, and an empathy for people down on their luck. Right now, as the world struggles through the global economic collapse, kindness is more important than ever.

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