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The Paperbark Shoe

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The Paperbark Shoe

By Goldie Goldbloom (2009)

“We stop loving ourselves if no one loves us, Gin.” – from The Paperbark Shoe

OVERVIEW

Spending her early years on her family’s farm in the outback of Western Australia, Goldie Goldbloom—“an unmistakable writing talent” (Kirkus)—is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship and won the AWP Prize for her novel The Paperbark Shoe. Set during World War II, the novel is based on the true history of thousands of Italian prisoners of war who were sent to work the farms of Western Australia. It tells the story of a woman with albinism and a troubled past who lives with her family out in the Australian bush and falls in love with one of the Italian POWs that come to live on their farm. It’s a “masterpiece of characterization” (Good Reading Magazine). “Less gifted writers would surely veer into corny sentimentality, but chaste moments shared between the lovers are unbelievably romantic” (Newcity Lit).  “The plot is consistently surprising, the ending unpredictable and the characters fully realized” (Chicago Tribune). “Extraordinary…one of the most original Australian novels I’ve read for a long time” (Sydney Morning Herald).

INTRODUCTION TO THE BOOK

“I have been called some terrible names in this life, but now I only hear his voice in the mouths of my tormenters, saying, ‘You are beautiful.’” – from The Paperbark Shoe

It’s 1943 and Virginia “Gin” Toad—a 30-year-old pianist from the city of Perth, Western Australia—is trying her best to make a new life in the rural farming town of Wyalkatchem out in the vast and silent Australian bush. While World War II rages in Europe, Gin and her small, odd husband Agrippas Toad (“Toad”) receive two of the many Italian prisoners of war sent to Australia during that time to provide much needed farm labor. Antonio and John settle in over several months. They build their own lodging, feed the calves and harvest the wheat, sing and tell stories of back home, entertain Gin and Toad’s two children, and bring joy to Gin and Toad in unexpected ways. In stark contrast to her distrusting neighbors and a dark past, Gin finds herself feeling love and desire for the first time. But it can’t last. Secrets and their accompanying feelings of shame and guilt and longing begin to surface as the reality of war comes back to invade and unravel their isolated lives.

At the time Antonio and John arrive, Gin is pregnant with her fourth child. Mudsey, her daughter, is the eyes and ears of the household, missing nothing as she runs about in her sundress, a former feed sack that’s bleached and tied with a leather string. She and her younger brother Alf like to hide under the house with their collection of “magpie eggs, gumnuts, sheep’s knucklebones” and a mouse’s skeleton “laid out in a matchbox coffin” (p. 28). Gin, meanwhile, is haunted by the memory of her second daughter, Joan, who died of diphtheria. Unlike Mudsey and Alf who look more like Toad, Joan had albinism like Gin, a rare condition shrouded at the time in harsh and often damaging superstitions and myths.

Involuntarily committed to a mental hospital in Perth years earlier by her abusive stepfather, Gin had played the piano to steady herself. One day Toad walked into the hospital and, lured by her music and the need for a wife, asked her to marry him. He took her back to Wyalkatchem where he grew up, a town with a population of 68 adults and 43 children “counting the ones in the cemetery” (p. 14). Often the butt of jokes, Toad has a crass sense of humor and a penchant for Victorian corsetry. He can gargle his “after-dinner port to the tune of Waltzing Matilda” (p. 18). But he has a tender side that comes through in his paintings drawn on the walls of their outhouse that illuminate, according to Gin, “our deepest longings, our secret wishes for home and love and power and escape….” (p. 83). “Despite his squat physiognomy and prickly personality, [Toad] emerges as one of the book’s most emotionally accessible characters” (Huffington Post).

“There was an attitude in Australia amongst earlier generations that you just did,” explains Goldbloom. “You did and did and did until you died. I grew up with a hang-over of that attitude, a part of me that avoids complaining, that thinks of wearing goggles at the pool as an affectation of wusses and sunglasses as the devil’s spawn. As a child I saw some amazingly ill-matched couples who, nevertheless, worked together, raised families, rarely argued, just got on with it. I suppose you could say that the glue that held [Toad and Gin] together was simply the ‘isness’ of them.” (BookBrowse).

The arrival of the two Italian POWS turns that “isness” on its head. John, the younger of the two, is “tiny, nervous, pacing sideways, shaking his glossy mane, a racehorse of a man” (p. 16). He and Toad form an immediate bond. The older and larger Italian, Antonio Cesarini, is a 40-year-old shoemaker from the Italian village of Sant’Anna where his beloved wife and five children still remain. “Fastidious they were, in everything: their clothes, their bodies, their rooms, everything washed and groomed every day and reeking of otherness,” Gin tells us (p. 76).

As part of her research for the novel, Goldbloom wrote to the Australian National Archives about the prisoners of war who worked on her grandparents’ farm. “The documents they sent me included copies of the men’s work books, which had such personal information as who they were married to, the names of their children, what work they had done before being drafted, and where they lived in Italy…. Suddenly, those men weren’t old stories told around the campfire. They were real people caught up in a war and sent to a country not their own. And yet their real lives, for the most part, remained hidden from the Australians they worked for. I was fascinated with the disconnect between what was seen and what was not seen, not just with the Italian characters, but of course with Gin and Toad, and their children, too. In the novel, there is a constant peeling back of external layers that reflects my interest in secrets and hiddenness and internal worlds” (My Jewish Learning).

In the novel, Antonio and Gin share a love of opera and sometimes after dinner they sing music by Giacomo Puccini, Amilcare Ponchielli, and from Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata. He crafts shoes for Gin’s family and Gin sews clothes for his children. Antonio senses Gin’s pain and fragility and responds with gentleness and sensual affection, which she interprets as love. Shortly after she witnesses something shocking by the riverbank, she allows herself to return Antonio’s affection. But a drought is coming. Gin will encounter an Australian soldier she knew from Perth who will discover what is going on between her and the Italian prisoner of war. She will give birth and shock her community as they gather to watch and be amazed by the new movie The Wizard of Oz. And eventually, as secrets are hurled out into the open and tragedy strikes, the movie’s mantra will forever linger in the eerie silence of the outback: “There is no place like home.”

Goldbloom-author-photo.png

Goldie Goldbloom

Photo by Brian McConkey

GOLDIE GOLDBLOOM (b. 1964)

“I write about the opposite of love, in the same way that an artist will use negative space to define what is real and tangible and important.” – Goldie Goldbloom in an interview with Fremantle Press

Goldie Goldbloom’s family farm in the rural outback of Western Australia was founded when her grandfather moved there from England in the early 1900s as part of a search for a new Jewish homeland. Lining the road to the farmhouse were five miles of gum trees planted by her grandfather and long sheds for shearing and housing chickens and storing tractors, and also, if you were a child, for climbing haystacks and swinging from beams. During WW II, her grandparents housed three of the Italian prisoners of war who were sent to the area’s farms to help with the work, an event that Goldbloom later developed for her novel The Paperbark Shoe.

Her grandmother on her father’s side wrote books about Australian history, founded a summer arts festival, and was a founding member of the Federation of Western Australian Writers. She was “sassy and wonderful and hilarious,” Goldbloom told the NEA. Her grandmother on her mother’s side, meanwhile, was a concert pianist. “She performed all over the place in addition to being a farm wife,” said Goldbloom.

Elementary school in outback regions was delivered via the radio, or “School of the Air,” she explained. After that, most teenagers attended boarding school. Her mother had a house in Perth so Goldbloom could attend private school and her mother could pursue her career, first as a teacher—she taught sex education for the Australian Department of Education—and then as an owner of a business making uniforms for the military, nurses, and “lady bowlers” (women who played lawn balls in white skirts and gloves). Goldbloom was close with her “mum,” whom she describes as a “powerhouse” in stilettos and handmade clothes. She was over six feet tall and less than a hundred pounds, says Goldbloom. Her family entertained cousins from boarding school on the weekends and took care of a number of children with special needs. “They were a big part of my growing up,” she told the NEA.

After high school, Goldbloom traveled to Finland to take classes for a year at the University of Helsinki and then traveled some more before returning to Australia. She moved to Melbourne, received a degree in theology, then moved to Brooklyn, New York, where she earned a more advanced degree in pedagogy and theology. Later, she studied botany and midwifery, and later still, received an MFA in writing. As a member of the Hasidic Jewish community, Goldbloom was betrothed to a man through an arranged marriage. They had eight children. Over the next several years, the family moved to New Jersey and Connecticut and finally to Chicago where Goldbloom has resided for more than 20 years in an old Victorian house on the site of the original dairy farm that once supplied all the milk for the city.

Goldbloom has always been an avid reader. She grew up “sleeping on actual books, alphabetizing ancient leather-bound stuff in my grandmother’s study, going around to elderly folks’ homes with my auntie who had a traveling library, [and] learning how to hand bind and repair books…” (BookBrowse). Her home today has bookshelves in nearly every room, floor to ceiling, with books overflowing onto rolling carts scattered in the hallways. She’s been told she has a larger collection than her local branch of the Chicago Public Library. “I was formerly a research librarian, so my books are organized by category, and then within the categories, by either Dewey decimal system…or by alphabetical last names of the writers” (maureeneppen.com).

Goldbloom is just as passionate about writing. “I write whenever I can and that means you can catch me writing in the garden, in the car, at doctors’ appointments, on the airplane, waiting at school. Pretty much any old time” (BookBrowse). She loves writing letters to pen pals, a passion that began with her grandmother who encouraged her to write and be detailed about what she was seeing in her new country. “You’re my eyes and ears in that place, she would tell me,” said Goldbloom. “I think of her as an amazing teacher of writing.” Goldbloom writes letters and drafts of her books in longhand, often in the bathtub. “I empty the tub and put a big down quilt in there and then I hop back in” (BookBrowse). ''I tell everyone I do my best thinking in the shower and my best writing in the bathtub. They laugh but it's true'' (Sydney Morning Herald).

Though she has published book reviews, creative nonfiction, and essays, Goldbloom prefers to write fiction. She’s a recipient of an NEA Literature Fellowship, a Brown Foundation fellowship, and the Jerusalem Post International Fiction Prize. Her writing has appeared in such journals as Ploughshares, the Kenyon Review, Narrative, and Prairie Schooner, and has been selected for the Best Australian Short Stories anthology series. Her novel, The Paperbark Shoe, was “the first novel I ever wrote with the thought that it will be read by someone who doesn’t love me and forgive me,” she said. “I wrote it as a present for my mother” (BookBrowse). When the unpublished novel won the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Award in 2008 (an editor submitted the manuscript without telling her), the contest judges had a hard time tracking her down to tell her. Though it was published in hardback under the title Toad’s Museum of Freaks and Wonders, Goldbloom’s beloved version is The Paperbark Shoe published by Picador in the U.S. and Fremantle Press in Australia, which also published her novel Gwen—about the artist Gwendolen Mary John and her search for Auguste Rodin—and her short story collection You Lose These. “I was once being interviewed by a newspaper and the journalist asked one of my children if they wanted to be a writer like me when they grew up,” said Goldbloom. “My child frowned and growled, ‘I never want to be a writer. It’s such hard work, and you don’t get paid’” (Esme).

Today one might find Goldbloom writing and teaching; “climbing into dumpsters” and rescuing stained glass windows (she designed and salvaged the materials for a redesign of her entire house); sewing; puttering around her garden with her 12 chickens (one named Lola Lovelace); cooking for and hosting joyous Friday night dinners for friends, her children, and her children’s friends at her long, 22-seat dining room table (with the help of a salvaged oven once owned by Oprah Winfrey); or being an advocate for fellow queer Hasidic Jews. “Goldie has worked hard to create safe spaces where queer Jews can connect, share their stories, and exist outside of a community that wants to ignore them,” writes Tova Benjamin in the Hairpin. “I found Goldie’s home to be a sanctuary.”

“What’s next for Goldie Goldbloom?” Fremantle Press once asked. “If you are offering chocolate, it’ll be chocolate, thanks,” she wrote. “But if not, well then, I’d best be getting back to my next novel.” Goldbloom has signed a two-book deal with Farrar, Straus & Giroux; the first of the two novels is scheduled to be published in the fall of 2019.

September 2018


NEA Big Read Author Goldie Goldbloom on Bullying, Writing in the Bathtub, and Books (Art Works Blog 11/14/18)


  1. The Paperbark Shoe takes place on a remote farm near a small town in Western Australia. Are you familiar with this setting? Were there particular descriptions of the landscape that surprised you? Did you find the Australian bush to be a “lonely kind of a place” (p. 96)?

  2. The story also takes place in 1943 and illuminates a piece of World War II history in which thousands of Italian prisoners of war were sent to Western Australia unguarded to help on the farms. Were you aware of this history? How would you describe some of the cultural differences in the story between the Italians and the Australians of Wyalkatchem?

  3. The novel is written almost entirely in Gin’s voice and from her point of view. Did it strike you at some point in the story that she may be an unreliable narrator, i.e., someone who misrepresents—either deliberately or unknowingly—what’s really going on? If so, when? Why do you think an author chooses to tell a story from the perspective of a character who misrepresents reality? Why do you think Goldbloom included brief passages in an omniscient voice (e.g., beginning of part two, p. 135)?

  4. Gin admits that she has not been a good mother and is often filled with regret. Were there instances in which you found yourself reacting more negatively to her behavior as a parent? Were there instances in which you felt more sympathetic to her given her circumstances? Do you think she would have been a better mother to Mudsey and Alf if Joan had lived?

  5. How did Gin’s condition of albinism affect her physically and emotionally? What were some of the superstitions that surfaced in the story about people with albinism? What impact did they have on Gin’s self-image? In what ways did her condition contribute to her attitude toward being touched?

  6. What do you make of Toad? What aspects of his personality and circumstances elicit your anger? Pity? Admiration? Understanding? How would you describe Gin’s feelings towards him?

  7. Would you describe Antonio’s actions and words with regard to Gin—including his nickname for her—as honest or deceitful? Why?

  8. “Stories show a little of what we are,” says Gin when she, Toad, Antonio, and John are sitting around a campfire by Moore River (p. 117). What does each story in this chapter reveal about the one who’s telling it? Are there other moments in the book in which a shared story or anecdote reveals something about the storyteller?

  9. After Gin sees Toad down by the river with John (p. 128), she feels a surge of mixed emotions: anger, envy, shame, compassion, abandonment. Would she have been better off not seeing what she saw? Why or why not? What would have changed—for better or worse—had she not witnessed that scene?

  10. What is the relationship in this story between feeling love and feeling loved? Can you think of instances in which love is mistaken for pity and/or desire? Are there instances in which the absence of love leads a character to act against his or her better judgment? Do you agree with Antonio when he tells Gin she has “no idea what love is”? (p. 340)

  11. Authors make deliberate decisions about when to divulge information and/or secrets about their characters throughout their narratives. Can you think of some examples of secrets that were revealed at the beginning of the novel? At the end? How about at other heightened moments in the story? Why do you think Goldbloom chose these particular moments for such revelations?

  12. Toad identifies with a home that doesn’t accept him. Antonio identifies with a home that he loves but is far away and in jeopardy. Gin feels like she’s without a home and longs for one that doesn’t exist. If you had to choose among these fates, which would you choose? How does each character’s idea of home affect their attitudes and actions? What is your idea of home? How do you think it affects your attitudes and actions?

  13. Do you think Gin actually made it to Italy? What did she learn there—about Antonio, about war, about herself? In what ways has she changed by the end of the novel?

  14. While much of The Paperbark Shoe is fictional, it is based on actual historical events—such as the bombing of Darwin, the POW outbreak at Cowra, and the massacre at Sant’Anna. What effect did this weaving together of fiction and nonfiction elements have on your reading of the novel? How might historical fiction help us understand actual events in different and/or deeper ways than historical nonfiction?