Title: Sweet Bitter Cane
Author: G.S. Johnston
Published: February 20th 2019
Publisher: MiaRebaRose Press
Genres: Fiction, Historical
Rating: 5 stars
Sweet Bitter Cane: An Italian-Australian World War II saga
One woman. Two men. A war.
Twenty-year-old Amelia marries Italo, a man she’s never met. To escape an Italy reeling from the Great War, she sails to him in Far North Queensland to farm sugarcane. But before she meets her husband, she’s thrown into the path of Fergus, a man who’ll mark the rest of her life.
Faced with a lack of English and hostility from established cane growers, caught between warring unions and fascists, Amelia’s steady hand grows Italo’s business to great success, only for old grudges to break into new revenge. She is tested by forces she couldn’t foresee and must face her greatest challenge: learning to live again.
Sweeping in its outlook, Sweet Bitter Cane is a family saga but also an untold story of migrant women – intelligent, courageous and enduring women who were the backbone of the sugarcane industry and who deserve to be remembered.
G.S. Johnston is the author of three previous novels, two of these are historical, and one is a piece of contemporary fiction. Johnston’s novels are described as, ‘noted for their complex characters and well researched settings’. I have to concur with both these statements. Sweet Bitter Cane, a 2019 publication from G.S. Johnston, is a beautifully composed family historical saga. This novel goes a long way in legitimising the real life experiences of Italian Australians from post World War I, through to post World War II.
Sweet Bitter Cane is a historical fiction novel that draws on the forgotten voices of migrant women that came to our shores in the hope of forging a new life, away from the poverty and expectations of their homeland. G.S. Johnston has does done a magnificent job of bringing to light the sad and sorry state of affairs involving the heartbreaking internment of Italian cane farmers (or enemy aliens) during the war. Johnston also looks at prejudice, lack of trust, suspicion and even jealously directed at these hard workers, which occurred last century.
Sweet Bitter Cane is a well written, thoughtful and engaging narrative. This Australian historical saga is carefully structured. The book is divided into three parts, with clear time periods marked out, which I appreciated very much. A comprehensive and moving epilogue rounds off the novel just perfectly. At every point in this novel I was drawn in, despite it being quite the family saga. My attention was maintained throughout and I remained loyal to the book from cover to cover. I enjoyed being taken on a sprawling journey from Amelia’s early days in Italy, to her adventurous voyage by ship to Australia and to her new life in Australia. Rich in emotion and period detail, I lost myself completely in Sweet Bitter Cane.
Johnston should be praised for his ability to seamlessly present a setting that is completely mindful of the time and place in which his book is set. He possesses the ability to very easily move his reader to a specific historical window. We effortlessly transition from the stressful times of post World War I, where Johnston contrasts Italy and Australia. In completing these movements, the reader is given a very good insight into the social, political and moral belief systems of the time. The prejudice and lack of understanding astounded me, despite having read a good handful of novels on this subject area. The impact of the opinions of the time never ceases to upset me greatly. Johnston also covers Amelia, Italo and the other characters gap in language and social customs, even clothing and food difficulties experienced during this point in time.
What made Sweet Bitter Cane truly special and a five star read for me was the intense focus on women’s history, through the experiences of the lead character of Amelia. Johnston is careful to ensure Amelia is no angel, she is flawed and she makes a devastating mistake that will haunt her for the rest of her life. However, Amelia comes across as realistic and personable. I was fully invested in her fight. This Australian historical reminds us that women were persecuted too. Many women were left to do men’s work in the cane fields themselves, manage financial affairs, care for children and get by on little money. It appalled me that the taxation department could take away hard earned money from the Italian cane workers so easily during World War II.
Another spectacular feature of Sweet Bitter Cane that really struck a chord for me personally was the Queensland sugar cane setting. Authentically presented on the page, Johnston outlines the farming processes and the back-breaking work involved in keeping a typical cane farm afloat. Johnston has obviously completed a great deal of research in this area and it shines through his novel. I could smell the smoke from the burning sugar cane fields and taste the dripping sugar cane plucked by the farmers. It was so evocative.
Johnston’s main character, Amelia, was an enigmatic woman indeed! Amelia displays stoicism, strength, willingness and independence. She is also quite ahead of her time as a woman and a migrant. She definitely left her mark on me! Amelia’s story isn’t a smooth one by any means. She experiences plenty of teething problems in the early days of her marriage, which results in an interesting forbidden love angle between Amelia and Irish farm hand Fergus. Johnston also uses the character of Fergus to highlight the levels of PTSD experienced by so many returning soldiers from World War I. All in all, Johnston proves he is very adept at delivering a mix of love, passion, loyalty, betrayal, bitterness, blame, resentment, jealously and secrets in his latest novel.
Themes wise, Sweet Bitter Cane delves into so many issues comfortably. Johnston highlights the migrant experience, prejudice, language barriers, discrimination, sexism, PTSD, infidelity, loss, separation, debt, suspicion, friendship, depression, fascism and culture. I loved the Italian culture injections, which were embedded throughout the novel. Johnston also puts the spotlight on a number of areas that I did know much about prior to reading this novel, the influence of the English-Australians, the support for fascism in Australia and the union movements. The part of the novel that held the most impact for me was the internment experience, suffered by males, females and offspring alike.
A touching and comprehensive epilogue rounds of Sweet Bitter Cane, it was both stirring and resonating – all in the same breath. Johnston has clearly set out to draw our attention to Australia’s hidden history, giving brevity to the experiences of Italian migrants and women. These were hard times and Johnston never shies away from revealing the cold hard truth. Sweet Bitter Cane is a book I easily see as deserving five stars.
Sweet Bitter Cane by G.S. Johnston was published on 20th February 2019 by MiaRebaRose Press. Details on how to purchase the book can be found here.
To learn more about the author of Sweet Bitter Cane, G.S.Johnston, visit here.
*With thanks to the author, G.S. Johnston, for providing me with a copy of this novel, in exchange for an honest review.