Friday, 10 February 2012

My Australian Story: Sydney Harbour Bridge


Sydney Harbour Bridge (My Australian Story) by Vashti Farrer (Scholastic Australia)
PB RRP $16.99
ISBN 9 781741 699531
Reviewed by Felicity Pulman

Vashti Farrer’s new addition to the My Australian Story series gives a detailed and valuable insight into the construction of one of the world’s most notable icons.

After a passing reference to August 1930 (with some fascinating information about how the bridge spans were finally joined together) the book begins in January, 1931. Through the diaries of Billie and Alice, we read about the year leading up to the opening of the bridge from two very different points of view.  Alice lives on the north shore. Her father is an engineer working on the Bridge so her perspective of the construction is very different from Billie’s, whose father has been out of work and whose employment as a ‘donkeyman’ on ‘the Iron Lung’ has proved a life-saver for the family.

The two viewpoints coincide nicely as we learn about different aspects of the Bridge’s construction from both the workers’ and the management’s point of view. Detailed information about the construction process is spread throughout the text, bringing home to the reader just what a mighty project this was, and how far-reaching the consequences.  The danger of working on the Bridge is also highlighted. There were 16 deaths associated with its construction, and many men were injured.

Because the building of the Bridge took place during the Great Depression, Billie’s diary is of particular interest, touching as it does on how some families struggled to survive during those hard years.  Billie is keeping the diary to share with his mate Bluey, whose family was dispossessed by the clearance of houses before building on the Bridge commenced. Unable to afford housing elsewhere, the family has been moved to Happy Valley Camp at La Perouse, home for the homeless. The resolution, at the end of the Diary, is touching. It also brings home the truth of why the Bridge was called ‘the Iron Lung’ – ‘because it employed a total of 1654 workers and so kept Sydney “alive” through jobs.’  The notes at the end of the Diary are of particular interest.

The politics of the time are skilfully interwoven through the narrative:  the refusal of Labor Premier Jack Lang to pay the interest on NSW’s overseas debt, his raiding of the State Savings Bank in an effort to keep NSW solvent, and his refusal to invite either the King or the Governor to formally open the Bridge are set against the rising popularity and machinations of the New Guard, culminating in the opening of the Bridge with all its attendant drama.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Sydney Harbour Bridge, and I learned a lot while doing so. Highly recommended.

© Felicity Pulman
www.felicitypulman.com.au 
www.youtube.com/felicitypulman 

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