Book Review of GS Johnston’s Sweet Bitter Cane

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Reviewed by Angela Wauchop

“The war had left them idle. Each bomb and bullet and bayonet had torn the fabric of the village to ribbons, killed the youths, left only scarred old men and babies. But they all smiled, dulled and weary. […] Her marriage rebutted everything they’d fought for – she’d married to leave rotting Italy.”

I have recently had the pleasure of reading Sweet Bitter Cane (2019) by GS Johnston, an Australian historical fiction author. The story begins in Italy in the 1920s and depicts the ‘by proxy’ marriage of Amelia Durante to Italo Amadeo. Italo is a migrant sugar cane farmer, already established in Far North Queensland. Twenty-year-old Amelia has never met Italo. She is, however, able to marry him even though they are thousands of kilometres apart. Her brother acts as Italo’s proxy in the church ceremony so she may travel to join him in Australia and escape the escalating poverty of peasant life in Italy.

Intrigued from the beginning, I soon became hooked on the silky, flowing narrative. The well-paced chapters of easily manageable length describe Amelia’s arrival in Queensland after her lengthy voyage. Upon arrival, the union with her new husband does not go as planned. In fact, my heart broke a little for Amelia with each disappointment and hardship she endured in what was to be the new beginning of her young life.

I could not help but be affected by the author’s vivid descriptions of fields of sugar cane and the heavy, humid atmosphere of north Queensland summers. The story transported me back to the time I lived in Bundaberg – the rattle of 5.00 AM cane trains, booming thunderstorms over fields of lofty sugar cane; the cane trash from burning fields raining gently down on the neighbourhood if the wind changed a little. But Sweet Bitter Cane also addresses many societal themes still relevant today. The book ventures beyond topics sometimes dealt with in a family saga. It immerses us in Amelia’s everyday world in which she is confronted by sexism; Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – it was called “Shellshock” in those days; adultery; and the guilt overshadowed by religious faith and loyalty to the old country.

But most of all, the novel addresses shocking racism and unjust treatment of Italian migrant families during World War II in Australia. It was a revelation to subsequently learn that twenty per cent of Italian residents in Australia were held as internees and prisoners of war during the period. Even if they had lived and worked in Australia for decades, had married and had families here, they were arrested in their homes in the middle of the night, deemed “enemy aliens” and placed in camps around Australia for “security reasons”. People of Italian, German and Japanese descent – some of whom were naturalised British subjects or born in Australia – were interned. Did you know that around 7000 residents including women and children were rounded up and transported to those camps? Sweet Bitter Cane draws important attention to one disgraceful period of Australia’s modern history that did not happen all that long ago. I wondered if very much was learned during this time. Sadly, I doubt it, as appalling treatment of Indigenous Australians would transcend WWII and march all the way to the colour bars of the 1960s. The shame.

“‘I want to go to Marta.’

The words sent chills through Amelia. The child wanted to die.”‘