Vintage Read: Turkey at Twelve, by Mary Scott

Novelist Mary Scott lived first at Pirongia, then in the Te Awamutu area.

Novelist Mary Scott lived first at Pirongia, then in the Te Awamutu area.

Turkey at Twelve, by Mary Scott

I had to own a bookshop to learn about Mary Scott, which is a bit embarrassing, since she is one of our most successful popular fiction writers - and local to boot.

She lived at Pirongia for 13 years from 1914 with her husband. They were sheep farmers on a "back blocks farm". It sounds like life was pretty tough while she was there - not only did the cattle suffer from bush sickness (a deficiency in the soil), but the couple endured two fires as well. One destroyed their home and all their possessions and the other swept through the bush, on to fences and pasture, killing a lot of their stock. Eventually they moved to another farm in the Te Awamutu district.

Mary Scott was a prolific author, putting out some 23 novels, together with articles and stories. Most of her work was done in the 1950s and '60s. Her first bestseller, Breakfast at Six, was published in London in 1953. It was reprinted six times in the first three years, and not just for a New Zealand audience. After 1956, all her works were published by Paul's Book Arcade in Hamilton.

Turkey at Twelve is one of several novels set in the same farming community in the back blocks. It is lighthearted and fun in tone and follows the same families and characters in the district. There are three farm wives, all with kids, who are great friends. The novel essentially deals with them meddling in the lives of those in the district, punctuated with a bit of chaos provided by the kids.

It's a little bit Famous Five in tone, with words like beastly and wretched and splendid peppered throughout the text. It's also a little bit upper crust, with references to how hard it is to get help and looking down their noses at those who work in trade.

It did have me wondering, from a social history point of view, just what these farming communities were like in the '60s. However, there were parts that were unmistakeably familiar and Kiwi in flavour.

Her books have sold steadily in the shop over the years, but have slowed up more recently. I found the novel a bit dated, but I can see why it would have been popular at the time. I didn't click with the humour, and the meddling I found incredibly paternalistic. That said, Mary Scott is not one to dismiss out of hand. She was the first woman to write about back-blocks farming and the first woman to write romantic comedies firmly grounded in the New Zealand life. It's this that distinguished her from other romance writing and ensured a wide readership.

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 - Stuff


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