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Fiction and reality: Sandra Arnold on writing The Ash, the Well and the Bluebell

After the second major earthquake in Christchurch in 2011, I wrote a short story to capture some of the horror through two fictional characters who were caught up in it ‒ Lily and her daughter Charlie. Charlie dies in the earthquake and Lily returns to her childhood village, Eshwell Bridge, in England, with her daughter’s ashes. There was more to be added to this story and over a period of six years it turned into a novel, The Ash, the Well and the Bluebell. It was published by Mākaro Press in August 2019.

The novel is set in England, New Zealand and a kibbutz in Israel with time switches between 2012, 1967, 1955/6, 1944 and 1676. Its themes include social inequality, discrimination, loss, the search for identity, love and enduring friendship.

I set part of the novel in the 1950s when Britain was focused on rebuilding after World War 2. The government was pouring money into education and infrastructure and a Child Migrant Scheme was established to relieve overcrowded orphanages. Not only orphans but children from poor families were sent to the colonies through this scheme to give them a better life. I read documents about the Child Migrant Scheme and a former child migrant to New Zealand shared his experiences with me.

The novel explores the lives of four friends, Israel, Lily, Francine and Christine. Israel’s synaesthesia and poverty-stricken background have alienated him from his peers. Lily is set on a path to failure by a teacher with a troubled past. Francine’s mother looks down on those she considers beneath her, but has secrets that could destroy her. Christine is an illegitimate mixed-race child who is ostracised by many in the community.

I used a village in the north-east of England near where I grew up as the model for Eshwell Bridge. The name derives from the fictional River Esh and an old well dating from the 17th century. Esh is also the Anglo-Saxon name for ash. In real life the area is rich in history. One aspect that fascinated me as a child was that the village green was the site of a pond where women accused of witchcraft had been ducked in the 17th century and that there was an unconsecrated part of the churchyard where they were buried in unmarked graves.

In the novel, the three girls work together on a school project about the life of a 17th century woman called Nancy who was accused of witchcraft and drowned in her own well. Lily begins to see parallels with the way those outside socially accepted norms were treated in that period and in what she observes in her own community. After one of the girls drowns in the same well, the community becomes strangely reticent about the tragedy.

Soon afterwards, Israel is sent to New Zealand on the Child Migrant Scheme. In later years, attracted by the idea of a society built on social justice, Lily volunteers to work on a kibbutz by the Sea of Galilee. There, she realises the lives of Christine, Israel and Nancy parallel the stories the kibbutzniks tell about why they were drawn there – racial and class intolerance and alienation from roots and identity. In the kibbutz she meets Sebastian, a New Zealander, and goes back with him to New Zealand. After the death of her daughter in the Christchurch earthquake Lily hopes that her return to Eshwell Bridge will help her exorcise the past.

Writing crept along at a glacial pace because of work commitments. In 2014 I was awarded the Seresin Landfall/ Otago University Press Writing Residency, which gave me the impetus to resign from my job and focus on completing the novel. I then travelled to the UK for three months to do background research with the prospect of time at the residency to work on the novel on my return to New Zealand.

I read documents on the history of the area and absorbed the atmosphere of the village and buildings. In the mysterious way that connections can sometimes be made when thinking fictionally, there was synchronicity at play. One such parallel was meeting an old man in the churchyard who told me his story. He said that one of the historic houses, now a museum, was where he had grown up along with other impoverished families. He showed me photographs of his mother and said he had donated some of her furniture to the museum. He told me where to find the room he had lived in and also described a ‘white lady’ who had sometimes been seen in the house and whom he had seen twice as a young boy. His stories were corroborated by museum staff when I went to look at the room and photographs of the era. Some of these strands were woven into the novel.

Further up the road there is another large house which, in its many incarnations, had at one time been an orphanage. When I was a child waiting at the bus stop opposite, it seemed to me to be a magical place and I liked imagining I could fly over the treetops to a faraway land. I’d only once seen the inside of the house when I went to a church fair. In my book it is the model for the orphanage, Baribeau Hall. As a child, Lily attends a party there for the orphans who are being sent to the colonies. When she returns in 2012 the orphanage is now a nursing home where Israel’s father is living. She visits him, hoping to find answers to questions that have haunted her for decades. In Esh Wood, her former childhood retreat, she learns a disturbing secret.

On my return to New Zealand I lived in the residency house in the beautiful secluded Waterfall Bay in the Marlborough Sounds. With no distractions I was able to make headway on the first draft of the novel.

Waterfall Bay is the setting for the fictional Weka Bay where Israel was sent to be brought up by a foster family. In Waterfall Bay I read books from Michael Seresin’s extensive library on the history of the area. The caretaker, Scotty, was also a mine of information and showed me where to find a concrete bath that had once been part of the house, now hidden in the bush. The bath found its way into the novel too.

Sandra Arnold lives in rural Canterbury. She has a PhD in Creative Writing from Central Queensland University, Australia, and is the author of five books. Her most recent are a novel, The Ash, the Well and the Bluebell (Mākaro Press, NZ, 2019), which was a finalist in the 2019 New Zealand Heritage Book Awards, and a flash fiction collection, Soul Etchings (Retreat West Books, UK, 2019). Her short fiction has been widely published in New Zealand and internationally. sandraarnold.co.nz.

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