My Brother Jack is one of the most important books about the Australian depression in the 1930s that I’ve read. It shows it as it must really have been. And then there are the sequels. Clean Straw for Nothing and A Cartload of Clay. I’ve done my usual and read them out of order. I just finished A Cartload of Clay having not read Clean Straw for Nothing.
Here’s a recap. My Brother Jack is most set in Melbourne during the depression in the 1930s. It is gritty and shows us all the really hard parts of living during those days. Clean Straw for Nothing follows on from this story. It is shows us the same character, David Meredith, having decamped to a Greek Island. A Cartload of Clay takes us a step further. It follows David Meredith back to Australia, this time he’s suffering from ill-health and he’s suffering the loss of his wife.
There are issues with this book. The biggest issue is that it was released after George Johnston’s death and he didn’t get a chance to finish it or do a final edit, it shows. The book ends abruptly and leaves more unanswered questions than I normally have with a book. The writing is reasonable, if a little rough. When I say rough, I don’t mean the sentences are poorly laid out with bad grammar and there are certainly no typos, I just mean it feels as if there are jumps which Johnston would have certainly filled in if he’d had time. We don’t get to find out what was wrong with Meredith’s marriage nor how his wife died just as two examples.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m quite happy for this book to have been published and to have read it. I just wanted these questions to have been answered.
I was in the middle of speculating on ‘should someone have been employed to fill in the gaps and make the book better’ when I had second thoughts. The problem there is the balancing of what you add that the original author hadn’t gotten around to writing about yet. If you add in too much it becomes your book rather than the original author’s. If you add in too little then it isn’t a well-rounded book. And there’s the dilemma.
This book continues to be as autobiographical as My Brother Jack. It feels as if Meredith has come back to Australia to die, he has difficulty breathing and doing much exercise is an enormous challenge and he spends half the book just sitting on a bench. A lot of things happen in his mind while he sits on that bench as he goes back through various parts of his life. He even has some some thoughts and observations about the people he interacts with. My feeling it is these thoughts and observations about the people around him that are his strength, this is why My Brother Jack is such a strong book. A Cartload of Hay is missing a lot of this and this is the main reason I feel it’s rather weaker. If Johnston hadn’t died I’m sure he would have added in some information about his marriage, his wife and also his astute observations about people.