Monday, March 1, 2010

Hopping: An East End Family at Work and Play, by Melanie McGrath

Are East Enders any more “resilient, energetic [and] resourceful” than the rest of us? Probably not, but it’s a useful myth for people coping with poverty, overcrowding and disease. There’s plenty of hardship in Melanie McGrath’s East End, where a rotten banister results in the death of a child, the faces and bodies of beautiful young women are “coarsened by bad diet, poverty and childbirth”, and a boy in calipers is tormented for fun. It was once traditional, however, for thousands of East Enders to descend on Kent in the summer to pick hops and McGrath captures well how peculiarly liberating this was (she also reveals how the Blitz made Londoners randy). Hopping is a strange beast: social history with a novelistic twist. McGrath recreates the texture of East End life in great detail, but the dialogue and introspection are fictional. If it were a novel, one might object that too much research is showing; if it were history, that her treatment is too suppositious. As it is, Hopping succeeds perfectly on its own terms.

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