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Book review: One Hundred Years of Dirt by Rick Morton

It might be no Angela’s Ashes, either in misery or in degree of poverty, but One Hundred Years of Dirt is an eye-opening reflection on inequality in Australia.

Rick Morton was a journalist at The Australian newspaper at the time he wrote his memoir of life growing up on a cattle station in Queensland, before his father left the family penniless for his 19-year-old governess.

The family scrounged around for every cent, and Rick saw clearly how he had to struggle to achieve the professional success that seemed to drop into the laps of the wealthy.

Much of the novel reflects on this disparity, and it seems that this book was written not as a misery memoir, but to shine a spotlight on the disadvantages of poverty that are both subtle (in the eyes of the wealthy) and punishing (for those who have to battle to survive).

I found this book to be illuminating, especially as I have never experienced the poverty that Morton writes about. Growing up comfortably in Australia’s middle class, I never had to support my siblings as they completed their training or university courses, and I never felt out of place in professional settings as Morton did when he realised he didn’t have the correct ‘uniform’ of the professional class: a pair of chinos.

If I had one qualm with this message, it was that Morton seems to disregard a glaring cause of the poverty he, his mother and his sister endure – his father. While there is systematic inequality, I found it hard to remove the blame from a father who left his family destitute, after he had drawn them in to life on a cattle station so far from any other life that might have been possible.

It was difficult for me to ignore this source of hardship, and made it impossible to place the blame for hardship and misfortune directly on the Australian welfare system.

Morton does try to give some background to why his father behaved in such a way, by describing the violence that his forefathers inflicted and endured. Of course, it is difficult that a child should suffer due to the crimes of his father, but it is hard to prevent this kind of generational trauma.

I don’t know what the answer to this situation is, and it is fortunate for Morton that his mother was a kind of hero to him – keeping him safe and surviving the shock and pain of her husband’s betrayal.

And in the end, this book is a kind of hymn to her survival, which ensured his own.

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