Paperbark: Sonja Livingston on Goldie Goldbloom’s Toads’ Museum of Freaks and Wonders

Goldie Goldbloom, Toads’ Museum of Freaks and Wonders, New Issues Poetry & Prose, 2010


Ghost gum, snow gum, paperbark, white
Little Gin Boyle is an ugly sight.


And so it goes for poor Gin. In addition to the singsong taunt of her childhood, the young albino suffers other things: A rare but unrewarded musical talent. The loss of a mother. Confinement. It’s no wonder then, that Gin allows herself to hope when the stooped and “sawn-off stranger” Mr. Toad claims her hand and carts her off to the wilds of Western Australia, to a landscape where the only water comes from rooftop run-off, is smashed from eucalyptus roots, or sucked from gum leaves. Years have passed when the novel opens and Gin, who is resigned to a hardscrabble existence, has long since learned the foolishness of hope:


The sky over Wyalkatchem is hotter and bluer than any other place, and the winds are stronger, the thermals rising tens of thousands of feet straight up, lifting the litter of the desert in its embrace: shards of quartz and shale and flakes of limestone, spinifex, the lost tails of geckoes, scraps of paperbark, the hot smell of the red dirt, the taste of the sky like salt from the sea, cracked pieces of pottery, parrot eyes, wedge-tailed eagles looking for prey, the broken hearts of men and women, the souls of the children who died in that great isolation, sadness, unwillingness, anger, strands of horse hair, nuts and bolts, chicken feathers, sand.


With its backdrop of WWII, “Toads’ Museum of Freaks and Wonders” is, I suppose, an historical novel. And while it tells the story of Italian POWs sent to Wyalkatchem and describes what the war means to all of them, Italians and Australians alike, one of the joys of this novel is the way it refuses to be pinned down.

Goldbloom’s language and setting are almost too raw to think of as lyrical, and yet, Goldbloom pulls readers into a world that thumps and sings. A dark world, yes. But even in the dark, Goldblooms manages to play with language, stringing words together in ways that are always alive. At times, the telling is elliptical, coming in swatches of narrative in Gin’s voice: You’ll have to forgive me for my language. Gin Toad is no longer a lady. Other times the story is told from other points of view, as with Gin’s forbidden (and perhaps imagined) dance with one of the Italian prisoners. Occasionally Goldbloom stitches the narrative together in more surprising ways, such as associative inventories and lists. The result is that while we travel most of the novel at Gin’s side, crouched in the orchard with her or seated at the piano, there are times when we come at Goldbloom’s world from different angles; a dangling pair of eyes thrust into the room from above, running along the walls, the ceiling, coming up from under the dirt floor:


These are the things I learned to do after coming to Wyalkatchem: I learned how to make yeast, to bake bread, to make a bread pan out of an old kerosene tin, how to clean a kerosene tin and flatten it and smooth the edges with a rasp, how to trim the wick on a kerosene lamp, to clean the chimney of a kerosene lamp with a piece of newspaper crumpled in a ball, how to move creosote from my skin with yellow soap, how to make yellow soap from ash and lye and fat, how to make lye, how to render fat, how to cook on a wood stove, how to split wood with an axe, how to treat burns from a woodstove, how to treat burns from hot ashes, how to treat burns from lye, how to treat a man who has been burnt, how to treat a man, how a man likes to be treated, how to make a maternity dress, how to make a layette, how to push out a baby, how to cut an umbilical cord with the knife used for castrating the lambs, how to feed an infant, how to hang a blanket in the boughs of a gum tree and rock a baby to sleep, how to sit quietly at night with a child in my lap, how to feel for a fever, how to boil willow for its cooling sap, how to paint a throat with gentian violet and listen for the smallest breath, how to make a coffin, how to line it with pieces of cotton, how to dress a dead child, how to lower a coffin into the ground, how to put one foot in front of the other and keep on doing it every day.


No matter how she gets us to the material, we are touched, our guts are sometimes wrenched. But Goldbloom knows her task, and does not keep us any place longer than we can bear, so that in the very next line, we are deposited back into the kitchen with Toad, the children, and the POWs come to stay at Wyalkatchem.

Clearly I’m smitten. It’s tough not to be. Goldie Goldbloom creates characters as richly hued as her language, as magnetic as her voice. No one is what they seem. Not Gin, not Toad, nor their Italian prisoners. Each of them, in turn, shock and disgust and delight. Gin must hide her glory box from the corset-collecting Toad to keep him from stealing her mother’s wedding dress and other finery. Toad, for his part, barely looks at Gin, and then only to dish cruelty or to demand. But at one point, Gin says of her husband:

He liked to approach from behind, in the dark, on a moonless night when no stray gleam of light could illuminate my hair. He liked the sheets to be cool, he liked my shoulders to smell of grass, he liked to taste the skin at the back of my neck. He was embarrassed by the sound of springs, by kisses, by talk of any kind. He liked, afterwards, to take hold of my smallest finger and to fall asleep with it in his grip.

A tiny and all-too-temporary point of connection for the Toads.

Indeed, what ties them together, this collection of oddballs in the Outback is their mutual isolation, despite the various ways their lives entwine. They move in and out of each other’s company; seeing and not seeing, knowing and not knowing the other. Gin with her transparent skin and hair “like fishing line” is haunted by the memory of a child who might have quelled her longing. Toad, the brute who brags of eating his father’s pet cat, harbors his own collection of tender desires. The POWs, Antonio and John, think of home, but are far-removed and helpless as the Germans storm through Italy, destroying villages and murdering civilians.

But that is not all. The novel shows us longing in ways that make the heart sag, but that is not its power. Its power is in how it blooms, despite those things. What matters most is the necessity and revelation of beauty in the hardest of places and among those that society believes shouldn’t care about such things. In the dust and despair of Wyalkatchem, even as the POWs arrive and are marched toward the cesspool into which they’ll be dipped for delousing, orange blossoms fall fast and heavy onto Gin’s lap. The same white skin that robs her of the concert halls of Europe also glows and even once, is said to smell of apricots. The POWs sing opera, one wears wingtips and makes miniature shoes of feather and paperbark. Even the cranky Toad has his gallery of corsets and uses blue medicine meant for the marking of sheep to fashion lush paintings on the outhouse walls.

Goldbloom’s place and people are harsh and heartbreaking, broken, but not altogether lost. Indeed, for all the grit of a landscape rotting under the sun, each of these characters has access to a flutter of something light and unexpected; a salve, a much needed balm. Toads’ Museum of Freak and Wonders reminds me why I read. Goldie Goldbloom reminds me what to aim for when I write.


Sonja Livingston’s writing has been honored with a New York Foundation on the Arts Fellowship, grants from the Deming Fund and Vermont Studio center, as well as an Iowa Review Award, AWP Book Award, and Pushcart Prize nominations. Her writing appears in many literary journals and textbooks on writing. Sonja’s first book, Ghostbread, won the AWP Award and was a Foreword Magazine Book of the Year. She is teaches Creative Writing at the University of Memphis.