The construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge (or Lang’s Coathanger) in the late 1920s/early 1930s was not only a feat in engineering but an economic miracle, as Australia was in the grips of the Great Depression and New South Wales was firmly in the grip of governmental mismanagement. Headed by controversial premier Jack Lang, costs for the bridge spiraled out of control during a time when money was scarce and jobs were for begging.
Despite the exciting and heartening site of the bridge under construction, hundreds of families were tossed from their homes and rehoused in tented communities with little recompense, in order to make way for this monstrous harbour-straddling creation. Sixteen people died during the bridge’s construction, and workers had no safety equipment to protect themselves let alone appropriate clothing. Even the donkeymen who dangled from cables and risked their lives daily were relying on their own physical strength – and little more.
This remarkable account of the construction of the world’s widest single span arch was one of the most enriching historical experiences I’ve enjoyed in years. Told through the eyes of two tweens – Billy, son of a donkeyman living in The Rocks, right beneath the Bridge, and Alice, daughter of an engineer living in the ritzier northern suburbs – this book took me sailing back to 1930s Sydney – to a time of massive highs and lows for the local people, as they battled abject poverty, a fragile economy, and the thrilling, soaring creation of one of the world’s finest bridges – right over their impoverished heads.
Farrer has left no stone unturned in Sydney Harbour Bridge. Packed with statistics and facts about the construction process that are quite mind-boggling, especially for the time, Farrer has also managed to emotively describe the minute detail of daily life during the Great Depression, from the way hair is curled to way a parent reprimands a child – and the deft with which she combines fact with emotional tenderness is quite extraordinary.
Very quickly you are drawn into Billy’s difficult life – and very quickly you learn that, compared to other children like Billy’s friend Bluey, who was evicted and now lives a less than happy life in the tented commune at Happy Valley – things aren’t so bad. Sure, his mum needs to get creative with the meals and glue the shoes back together, but at least Billy’s dad has a job, even if it means dangling from a cable in the sky. There are a lot worse off.
It’s intriguing to witness this time in Australian history through the eyes of two children living very different socio-economic lives. Alice’s life is far better off, living in a fine house with a father earning a solid wage, yet she is as impassioned as the next child to help out and ‘do her bit’ for those in need, albeit through tennis tournaments and unwanted clothing drives. Hearing these two children opine on the politics of the time and what is ‘right and wrong’ as the bridge construction process unfolds, is also fascinating and enlightening. I particularly love it when Billy and Alice meet up at the end of the story – and hint at the possibility of greater equality amongst all Australians.
But the most remarkable thing was how Farrer managed to turn something potentially quite dull (steel stats and cranes) into a story of emotional beauty, drama and hope. This is a intensely researched and beautifully written book, with heartwarming and well-rounded characters. Farrer uses clear and very real voices for her children, complete with delicious and timely slang.
She isn’t afraid to tell it like it is – opening wide the horror of life at that time – yet also openly celebrating the thrill experienced by the people of Australia at this stunning engineering feat. A moment in time, beautifully-captured and revealed for all to enjoy. I’m loving learning the intimate details of our country’s extraordinary history through such superbly researched books, and yes, this book is planted firmly in historical fact – but it’s also, quite simply, great storytelling.
Sydney Harbour Bridge is published by Scholastic.