The Paperbark Shoe

The Paperbark Shoe

3.6 3
by Goldie Goldbloom

View All Available Formats & Editions

Winner of the 2008 AWP Award for the Novel

From 1941 to 1947, eighteen thousand Italian prisoners of war were sent to Australia. The Italian surrender that followed the downfall of Mussolini had created a novel circumstance: prisoners who theoretically were no longer enemies. Many of these exiles were sent to work on isolated farms, unguarded.



Winner of the 2008 AWP Award for the Novel

From 1941 to 1947, eighteen thousand Italian prisoners of war were sent to Australia. The Italian surrender that followed the downfall of Mussolini had created a novel circumstance: prisoners who theoretically were no longer enemies. Many of these exiles were sent to work on isolated farms, unguarded.

The Paperbark Shoe is the unforgettable story of Gin Boyle—an albino, a classically trained pianist, and a woman with a painful past. Disavowed by her wealthy stepfather, her unlikely savior is the farmer Mr. Toad—a little man with a taste for women's corsets. Together with their two children, they weather the hardship of rural life and the mockery of their neighbors. But with the arrival of two Italian prisoners of war, their lives are turned upside down. Thousands of miles from home, Antonio and John find themselves on Mr. and Mrs. Toad's farm, exiles in the company of exiles. The Paperbark Shoe is a remarkable novel about the far-reaching repercussions of war, the subtle violence of displacement, and what it means to live as a captive—in enemy country, and in one's own skin.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“I have never read anything quite like this, nor has anyone else. . . . The voice is acid, funny, at first commonsensical and un-self-pitying, later lyrical, later madly deluded. . . . Brilliant.” —Andrea Barrett, author of The Air We Breathe

“What an astonishing book this is! It's hard to believe The Paperbark Shoe is Goldie Goldbloom's first novel--because she has the audaciousness, the wildly inventive language, and the historical mastery of--well, it would be hard to think of any one writer she resembles.” —Rosellen Brown, author of Before and After

The Paperbark Shoe is a strange, mesmerizing tale about characters uncomfortably defined by superficial eccentricities. It is also a wrenching love story.” —Joanna Scott, author of Follow Me

“Extraordinary . . . one of the most original Australian novels I've read in a long time.” —The Sydney Morning Herald

“An assured debut written in beautifully precise language.” —The Age (Australia)

Library Journal
In the 1940s, 18,000 Italian prisoners of war were sent to Australia to work, some of them on isolated farms in the western part of the country. Antonio and Gianpaolo, known as John, are assigned to the Toad family. A young couple with two small children, the Toads are feared by their neighbors. The diminutive husband secretly maintains a museum of vintage ladies corsets, while his wife, "Gin," is an albino whom he rescued from an asylum, totally forsaken by her family. Their world changes for the better when the two POWs arrive; the four adults become friends, and the Italians open the Toads' worldview. During a fishing trip, however, Gin witnesses her husband in an intimate embrace with the young, handsome John and uses their relationship to justify her own with Antonio, with whom she has fallen in love. But her plan to return to Italy with Antonio is shattered when he receives terrible news from home. VERDICT Winner in manuscript of a 2008 AWP Award and published in a limited edition as Toads' Museum of Freaks and Wonders, this heartfelt tale succeeds in every way. Goldbloom has a real gift for persuasively conveying people and events that are strange, disgusting, and beautiful.—Lisa Rohrbaugh, National Coll. Lib., OH
Kirkus Reviews
An albino woman suffers with her desperate need for intimacy in the wilds of World War II-era Australia.

This debut novel, which marries unmistakable writing talent, a rare narrator and a garishly vivid story, was originally published in Goldbloom's homeland of Australia and had a small press run in the United States asToads' Museum of Freaks and Wonders. Its narrator's testimony is tainted by her deep-seated desires and her altered perception of her equally bizarre husband. Gin Boyle Toad is 30, an albino pianist who was sequestered in an asylum before she was "rescued" by marriage. Her husband, the eponymous Toad, is a holy terror, a five-foot ball of mean that keeps a collection of women's corsetry in the shed and hides every hint of affection from his desperately lonely bride. The story is set in the midst of WWII, when 18,000 Italian prisoners of war were sent to Australia to work on isolated farms like the one that serves as Gin's new prison. A pair is sent to work Toad's westernmost farm, the more subtle John and the exotic Antonio, who inspires uncomfortable and unfamiliar feelings in Gin. This tense stew of feeling becomes more heated when Gin secretively spies on John and her husband exploring long-buried feelings on Toad's part. Gin's disappointment and confusion are palpable. "It wasn't good, what Toad and I had, but at least we were in it together, yoked together like mismatched beasts pulling a plough," Goldbloom writes. "But his beautiful boy has come between us now and gnawed through Toad's traces. I can't pull this plough by myself. I resent seeing him frolic while I stand here, abandoned in the field, tied to a burden I never wanted."

A simmering, colorful story about castaways and the deviance they inspire.

Nora Krug
The narrator, Gin Boyle, takes something from Cinderella, Hester Prynne and Ibsen's Nora yet is wholly original…[the story]may be grim, but it's rarely depressing, thanks to Gin's narration, which is both lyrical and plain-spoken…
—The Washington Post

Product Details

Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.20(d)

Read an Excerpt

I was hiding in the orchard, pretending to check for creepy-crawlies rutting on the beginnings of the fruit when the Italian prisoners of war arrived, descending from the sergeant’s green Chevy: one fella tiny, nervous, prancing sideways, shaking his glossy black mane, a racehorse of a man, sixteen if he was a day; the other bloke a walking pie safe, draped in a freakish magenta army uniform, complete with a pink blur in the buttonhole that I reckoned was an everlasting. Some prisoners. They looked more like two obscure French artists mincing along behind the curator of a museum of primitive art. The curator, my husband Toad, pointed to the house, and I imagined him saying, ‘And over here is the Toady masterpiece – The Farm House – painted in a mad rush in 1935 before the wife had her first child – notice the delightfully eccentric stone chimney, the listing veranda, the sunburnt children lurking under the mulberry.’ And the tame cockatoo, Boss Cockie, saw them coming and raised his crest in alarm and muttered under his breath. ‘Shut up,’ he said. ‘Go away. Bad bloody cockie.’

I turned thirty the year the Italians came to our West Australian farm, and I was afraid of them, so afraid of those over-sexed men we’d read about, rapists in tight little bodies with hot Latin eyes, men who were capable of anything. Of course, we didn’t know much about them, just what we’d heard on the wireless or read in the paper, and if Mr Churchill had said donkeys were flying in Italy, I do think we’d have believed him. We women of the district, none of us wanted the Italians, but who were we to say? It was impossible to get help for ploughing and seeding and shearing, the young bloods gone to splatter themselves all over Europe, New Guinea, North Africa, and even the old retreads in the Volunteer Defence Corps were busy drilling on the football oval. They didn’t know that their crushed paper bag faces were enough to repel any Japanese invasion. Men were rationed, like everything else, and so when the government offered prisoners of war as farm labour, the control centres were mobbed from the first day by farmers in search of workers.

Oh, I knew those dagoes were coming all right, and that’s why I hid in the orchard, crouching there in Wellington boots, the hem of my dress bunched in one hand. Over sixty trees were in bloom, and I was busy brushing petals out of the valley of fabric between my knees, trying to breathe, because the scent of orange blossom was chokingly sweet. And the rabbits – the bloody rabbits – had ringbarked all the newly planted almond slips, their buds already wilting.

I didn’t want to put those men in Joan’s old room. I didn’t want them in my house at all. But we couldn’t keep them in the shearing shed like a mob of sheep, so I was forced to scrub her tiny room – really just a closed-in part of the veranda, a sleepout – and beeswax the jarrah boards, and spread the old hospital beds with sheets white and brittle as bones. And, as a final touch, a welcoming note that I didn’t feel, I stuffed some golden wattle in a canning jar and put it on a box between their beds. I’d cleaned the whole house too, so that if the prisoners killed us while we were sleeping, the neighbours wouldn’t have anything to talk about, and I’d sent my children, Mudsey and Alf, to pick up the wee droppings that their poddy lamb had left all over the veranda. And lamb chops were on my mind, with mint sauce, baby potatoes and – on the side – a fricassee of brains.

I had a fairly good idea why Toad wasn’t taking the Italians over to the room, and even though I knew it was wrong, even though what he was planning to do to them was possibly a breach of the Geneva Convention, I waited, gurgling with delight in the lusty orchard, attacked by platoons of bees drunk on orange blossom wine. All my senses were walking with the men, waiting for the sound of those baby-eaters howling when they were shoved into the sheep dip. They’d bellyflop into the stinking, arsenic-laden waters and they’d wonder about the greasy black pellets floating past them like mines and they’d be picking some of the sheep shit from their eyebrows right when Toady pushed them under again with his crook.

You’ll have to forgive me for my language. Gin Toad is no longer a lady.

Oh, those men would be unhappy to be deloused the way we out here in Wyalkatchem delouse our sheep. They might even complain to the authorities at the Control Centre, but it would be worth it, because it would make a good story. It’s a story we will be telling for years.

Toady told me that when he saw Antonio Cesarini’s cordovan wing tips, he gestured to the man to take off his shoes. This consideration didn’t save the men from a plunge in the long concrete cesspool that thousands of sheep had just swum through to rid themselves of fleas, ticks, lice and other blood-sucking parasites, but it did save their shoes, and especially the wing tips, which were such a luxury item, an Italianate extravagance. Toady had stroked those shoes while the men drip-dried in the hot spring sunshine; the leather looked as if it had been tanned in blood, and gave off a heady aroma reminiscent of the one and only cigar he had ever smoked. The soles were tissue thin, unscuffed, impossibly new. Toady had just resoled his ancient boots for the third time, with slabs of ironbark.

He tried to remind himself that the Italians were fascist pigs, cowards, and prisoners as well, lowly slaves in the Australian hinterland, but it felt more like jealousy speaking, so he kicked the shoes back to their oily owner, and satisfied himself by thinking he had bruised the bastard things with his boot.

Meet the Author

GOLDIE GOLDBLOOM's fiction has appeared in StoryQuarterly, Narrative, and Prairie Schooner. Her stories have been translated into more than ten languages. She lives in Chicago with her eight children.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >

The Paperbark Shoe 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
cloggiedownunder More than 1 year ago
“The tin roof of the Italian’s hut flashed like a semaphore at the clouds scudding over the moon, smoky white clouds, fraying at the edges, with deep purple bellies” The Paperbark Shoe is the first novel by West Australian-born novelist and short story writer, Goldie Goldbloom. It won the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Award for Fiction in 2008, and the Literary Novel of the Year from the ForeWord Magazine (Independent Publishers) in 2011. In 1943, Italian Prisoners of War were sent out to work on West Australian farms, a welcome source of labour at a time when able-bodied men were away at war. Antonio and Gianpaolo arrive at Mr Toad’s farm on the Cemetery Road, five miles west of Wyalkatchem, dressed in their maroon-dyed uniforms.  This remote holding (“On one side of us stands the uninhabited coast, thousands of rocky miles patrolled by sharks, and on the other stands the vast, appalling desert of the great red centre, studded with the bones of animals and men that have strayed there and melted into the earth”) is home to Gin Toad, albino, prize-winning pianist, mother of three and two months pregnant; and Toadie, known for his collection of women’s corsets. Both misfits in society, together for reasons that never included love.  When Antonio flatters Gin with attention and compliments, her attention is drawn to Toadie’s shortcomings: “I can hear him now, his voice so like the croaking of a frog in a bucket, his deep sniffs punctuating each sentence”. The nature of their marriage irritates her more than ever: “He never touched me in the daytime, in the light, that man who ran his hands so tenderly over the horses, who touched his nose to their velvet muzzles and murmured to them as he gazed into their eyes. He had it in him, a capacity for love. But he hid it from me”   Goldbloom’s plot goes where expected, but with a twist. Her characters are a breed apart: many are quirky, all are in some way flawed, and while this can be endearing, the only truly appealing character in this tale is young Alfie. All the rest are selfish, some to an appalling degree. Her descriptive prose is beautiful and she certainly captures the feel of the West Australian desert and the small town attitudes of the 1940s. An outstanding debut.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
AAR More than 1 year ago
THE PAPERBARK SHOE by Goldie Goldbloom is a unique historical fiction set in 1940's Australia.This this author's debut novel. The characters are complex but opaque.Toad,a farmer seeks out and marries Gin, an albino classical pianist.They are bullied by the townspeople.Gin.Tragedy strikes them.Toad and Gin are plagued with misunderstandings,an unhappy marriage with few if not rare words of kindness to each other.They have four children one of which dies at four years of age.When two Italian POW's are sent to the Toad farm to work as laborers they get close to Toad and Gin.Their relationship will lead to disaster.The title Paperbark refers to the paperbark gum tree for which one of the prisoners uses to make shoes.Gin and one of the prisoners have a sexual relationship. This is a complex story that is touching and at the some times full of tragedy. If you enjoy a complex story full of World War II drama,infidelities,complex emotion,misunderstandings,misfortune,and the entanglement of four adults than is a story for you.To me the writing is intense,full of difficult and complex emotions,but than war and what happens is also. It is a little draw out with details but overall a good read.It is a little strange but it will hold your attention.It is a heart wrenching love story,its hardships,choices,and consequence. This book was received for the purpose of review from the publisher and details can be found at Picador,a trademark of St. Martin's Press and My Book Addiction Reviews