Today’s Canberra Times features an article by David Marr about Australian novelist Patrick White’s forgotten first book, Happy Valley, ‘the thylacine of Australian literature’. It was written while White was working as a jackaroo at Bolaro (or Bolero) in southern NSW. He took horses to be shod in nearby Adaminaby and there encountered the Anglo-Chinese Yens, who formed the basis for the novel’s Quong family. A review in the Adelaide Mail wrote:
Mr. White has set his novel in an Australian town — but what a town! In the winter it is snowed in; in the summer it is burning hot. Its inhabitants are the mixed lot you find in any town — but what a lot! The sanest and most decent people there seem to be the family of half Chinese, two of whom conduct the general store … (The Mail, 22 February 1941)
The Yens (or Yans) were not the only Anglo-Chinese family who had made Adaminaby their home. For a long time Adaminaby was also home to the Booshang (later Booshand) family, among others, but they had moved on by the time White arrived in the town:
Twin sisters Anastasia and Jane Thomas married John Booshang and Charles Chun Yin, later known as Yen, within a few years of each other at Cooma in the early 1880s. Anastasia and Jane, born in 1864, were the daughters of Cooma residents Thomas Thomas and Johanna Shanahan who had married in the town in 1858. Anastasia and John, who married in 1881, had three children and Jane and Charles had two, before both families moved to Adaminaby in around 1888. Here they settled themselves, opening a store and Jane and Anastasia having four and five more children respectively.
Both families became established members of the Adaminaby community. John Booshang lived there until his death in 1923, at which point Anastasia moved to Sydney to be with her children, dying there in 1934. The Yen family maintained their businesses in the town and were compulsorily moved in the early 1950s when the old Adaminaby township was flooded as part of the Snowy Mountains Scheme. (Kate Bagnall, Golden Shadows on a White Land, p.131)
Happy Valley was published in 1939 and won the Australian Society of Literature’s gold medal in 1941. Despite this acclaim, White never allowed the novel to be reprinted in English. According to David Marr, this was because:
White could never shake the fear that … [the Yens] … could sue for what he did to them in the pages of Happy Valley. He could not be reassured about this. White went to his grave fearing the revenge of the Yens.
A century after White’s birth and more than seventy years after Happy Valley first appeared, the novel is now being republished, with its release due in August this year. Apparently printed copies of the original version are rare and valuable, but if you can’t wait until August to read Happy Valley, a digitised version is available in the Haithi Trust Digital Library.
The Sydney Morning Herald and the Age both published the same article by Marr about Happy Valley. The Herald received a response from a Yen descendent named Laurann Yen, which it published on 30 May 2012. She wrote:
In Happy Valley White does indeed steal my grandparents and report them spitefully: they are without humour, without grace, without respite from the bleak town and their bleak relationship; two dry peas in a miserable pod. But there is wonderful White as well – a sense of place, where every tree, every verandah, every small comforting pretension gets into your bones. I know, more from White than from memory, every person.
The letters page of the Herald on 2 June 2012 also includes a postscript which talks a bit about Marr’s unsuccessful attempts to track down members of the Yen family:
After all these years comes this generous response: acknowledging that White looked on their grandparents with a cold and unforgiving eye but nevertheless wrote a fine book,’ he says. ‘Such forgiveness is rare.’