Claire Saxby is an Australian author of fiction, non-fiction and poetry for children, including the splendid Nature Storybooks series, The Anzac Billy and recently, the picture book Iceberg. The Wearing of the Green is her second middle grade novel after Haywire.
Biddy arrives in Melbourne in 1850, one of the many teenage girls, mostly orphans and homeless after the potato famine, who as part of the Earl Grey Scheme were indentured to work in Australia for two years. The Scheme intended to ease the crowding in the Irish workhouses and to bring young marriageable females to Australia, thus improving the gender imbalance.
Biddy has lost all her family to famine and only her older brother Ewen is left, maybe. He left for Melbourne about five years ago. She is desperate to reconnect with him but her attempts at contact are fruitless so she is sent to work for taciturn Morrison and his family on their farm out in the country. After a period of backbreaking work and constant heartbreak she runs away to Melbourne where she finds comfort, companionship and more congenial employment.
The start of this story is grim and bleak but Biddy keeps her spirits up by imagining words of comfort and inspiration from her dead Ma, buoyed by her determination to find her brother. The description of the country is masterly, showing how an immigrant contrasts the colours, smells, and light of the home country of the past with the very different conditions of the present. There is a poignant interlude where Biddy is given refuge by an indigenous girl and her family during her flight from Morrison. Family, losing one and finding one, and what family means is one of the pervading themes throughout the book. As Mrs Myrtle says:’ Family isn’t just blood. Family is everyone who loves you. Who cares about you.’ p 159.
Another thread running through the story is the relationship between the English and the Irish. The title of the book refers to a traditional Irish folk song created when wearing green clothes or a shamrock was considered an act of rebellion. In Australia in the 1850s the Irish were not highly regarded, an attitude that took a long time to disappear.
Biddy is resilient, resourceful, strong in every sense of the word. Gradually as her circumstances improve she allows herself to dream, of finding meaningful work, of belonging and being happy. This powerful story of one girl’s experience in a new world is dedicated to all new Australians and sheds a welcome light on an aspect of Australian history that still resonates today.