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At a glance, Helen Meany’s novella Every Day Is Gertie Day might seem like a harmless debate about if an old lady did or did not have elf ears. Although, the novel is much more deep and dark than its premise suggests. Meany delves into hard-hitting discussions of aged care and our responsibility to old people; group hysteria and cults, media controls, and fake news; and classism, poverty, and our dying environment.
The story centre’s on Nina, a museum tour guide at the Thrift House Museum, a fictional historical museum in Sydney, Australia. The museum was built after Gertie Thrift was found dead, after many months, in her Regency Street home. The outcry from the public centred on how inhumane it was that an old woman should die alone, and worse, that her body should go unnoticed for months. The museum is built in Gertie’s honour as a part homage and an attempt to relieve collective guilt.
The museum becomes a catalyst for Nina and Sydney’s diverse communities. It is where debates about telling history, honouring those who have died, and manipulating the truth stem. The painting done by the artist Hettie P. Clarke entitled ‘Girl with the Greyhound No. 3’ becomes the centre of the scandal. Many believe that Gertie Thrift, the girl who posed in the painting, did indeed have pointed elf ears. It is seen as a mark of pride, of marking oneself as free and individual. And so, people start to visit plastic surgeons to have their ears augmented to look like Gertie in the painting. At first it seems absurd, almost unreal, that people could be so caught up with the question: “Did Gertie really have elf ears?” But it doesn’t take long to understand how something like this could get out of hand.
One only has to look at media pile-ons – especially on Twitter – to see how simple it is to create chaos through media speculation. There are those in the story, like Gwen, who are Elf Ear Truthers, who believe that not only did Gertie have ears, but that the government and the museum are trying to hide all evidence to the contrary. The hashtag #GertiesForTruth is always trending, and the media circus and protests around the Thrift House Museum unfold in strange ways throughout the novel. While reporting ‘facts’ and governments playing on the insecurities of the population is a big part of Meany’s political commentaries in the novella, the story hidden underneath these trending tweets, protests, and elf ears makes Meany’s novella politically witty.
The Trollos, as they are called in Meany’s novel, are a large non-homogenous group of poor people who collect recycling outside of people’s homes to take to ‘recyc-u-pay’ stations. It seems they get a small amount of money for the products they bring to be recycled, and it seems to be one of the only ways they can get any money to sustain themselves. Benj, Nina’s partner, repairs these recycling stations and one day, the machine stops working, and the Trollos riot and Benj is injured. Every now and then, the story of the Trollos pops up in the novel, but it is quickly buried by the Gertie Truthers and the elf ear conspiracy theories.
Benj does not recover by the end of the novel, and his skin is damaged by the incident and his work with the recycling stations. Occasionally we see people come to the Gertie protests to show signs or yell about the treatment of Trollos and the recycling workers. But every time this happens, the person is removed by police and any evidence of this on social media or in news stories is deleted. Wiped clean.
When I think about how stories might reflect our contemporary time, I feel that what Meany is getting to at the core of her novel are the questions: How do we look after each other, and how do we care for the earth? We live in a hyper-individualistic world where it can be easy to think because we separate our recycling from our landfill waste, we have solved the problem of climate change and environmental crisis. It is clear that in, Every Day Is Gertie Day, the characters don’t really know how to look after each other or care for one another. There is suspicion, conflict, and real harm done in many different communities. And sadly, those that are the most vulnerable are the most affected.
Instead of trying to look after the old, the poor, and the young – we are arguing over elf ears.
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What dystopian novels you are loving of late? And please let me know if you will be picking up Meany’s novel “Every Day Is Gertie Day”. This book would be great for teen and adult readers. As always, share the reading love.
Here is the promotional video for Meany’s novel: