Wearing Paper Dresses (with feeling)

Wearing Paper Dresses is a story you can feel. In its pages, even a city-slicker can begin to understand the stresses and strains of rural life – and to anticipate the troubles to come.

In this debut novel, Anne Brinsden introduces us to a family dealing not only with the struggles of drought but also the struggles of adapting to a ‘foreign’ lifestyle. For indeed that is what it is like for Elise, who marries Bill while he is working in the city (where she belongs). In the city, they start to build their family life.

When Bill’s father (known as Pa) calls him back to help on the family farm in the Mallee region of Victoria, Elise and their daughters must follow. Her urban background offers little to support her in her new environment (a working farm planted in tough conditions), and her own upbringing stands her apart from the community into which she must now try to blend.

“But Elise wasn’t from the Mallee, and she knew nothing of its ways.”

The Mallee, its weather and even their farmhouse are alive and important in this story. Each of these elements has emotions and thoughts, as they ‘watch’ events unfold. Through them, you are forewarned of looming difficulties. You really feel¬†ominous tremors as you read.

Mallee scrubland

Subtle changes in Elise arise as she tries to adapt to rural life. Unfortunately, Bill is either too busy, or reluctant, or unable to see these changes. While Pa and others try to point these out, their daughters Ruby and Marjorie run wild. They also bear the brunt of Elise’s difficulties and take on many of her family responsibilities.

Thus the girls spend their time ‘on eggshells’ – anticipating the next time Elise will do something strange or moody or threatening. Her attempts to become part of the rural community fail, as she is viewed as too glamorous for the country. Her cooking skills are too fussy (especially for the shearers who want plain country tucker). Some local women find her pretentious and show-offy in her Paris-inspired home-sewn creations. Even her musical talents don’t seem to impress – at least that is what she begins to think.

Indeed, much of the difficulty comes as Elise begins to doubt herself, and as she fails to understand how to adapt to her country home. Lacking emotional support, Elise suffers several breakdowns – which youngest daughter Marjorie identifies as the ‘glimmer’ beginning.

Wearing Paper Dresses speaks to the heart of the many struggles faced by those on the land, even though it focusses on the mental health of an outsider unable to cope, rather than the fraught farmer. But does Bill’s inability to act for Elise simply show a different coping mechanism? and a danger to his family?

At this time of drought, as Australian farmers struggle to survive, this is a challenging story which reminds us of the harshness of our beautiful land. It honours the resilience of many rural communities while illustrating the fragility of some personalities who may live there. It recognises the impact of things out of our control. Ultimately, it reveals the strength of human spirit and the optimism which ties people to the land, which we should aspire to and wholeheartedly applaud.

Recommended for 15+ / adult audience.

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