One of the seemingly never-ending debates among both writers and readers is the question of plot versus character. Although often a circuitous question, proponents of the character side of the equation may well point to Goldie Goldbloom's The Paperbark Shoe.
This isn't to say the book lacks or is deficient in plot. It just isn't one for those looking for a potboiler. This is instead a plot that unfolds, examining individuals and their lives through the eyes of a highly memorable narrator.
Gin Boyle Toad and the book's other characters are prisoners, literally or metaphorically, and for reasons largely beyond their control. Born an albino, Gin's life has been one of indelicate stares at a freak. Her life is to some extent almost Dickensian. Although raised in a well-to-do family in Perth, Australia, educated in a private school and trained as a classical pianist, she is ultimately abandoned and institutionalized by her stepfather. She is rescued by Toad, a dwarfish, illiterate farmer who falls in love with her when he sees her playing the piano. They marry and Toad takes her to his homestead in remote, sparsely populated western Australia.
Gin's albinism and Toad's small stature and crude manners alone are enough to make them the talk of the country folk who also eke out a living battling the elements in this often hardscrabble region. Although they have two children — a third, an albino, died — this is a marriage based on needs other than love. Gin and Toad "didn't have anything in common besides the basic need for companionship and a joint wish for protection from the eyes and comments" of area residents. Yet the comments will turn to scandalous gossip in 1943 when two Italian prisoners of war, Antonio and John, are assigned to work on their farm. In fact, some 18,000 Italian POWs were sent to Australia between 1941 and 1947. To alleviate the labor shortage caused by the war, many were assigned to work on isolated farms and ranches.
Gin's perspective, which she admits are slanted at times, describes the growing feelings and alienation that arise among the four as they get to know Antonio and John. In a number of ways, these include "thoughts that must be murdered before they are born." Various events increase the locals' perception of scandal, including Gin naming her and Toad's new son Anthony, even though she was already pregnant when Antonio and John arrive. Goldbloom does not rush the reader through these developments. Gin's voice patiently unveils not only these relationships but the story of her life before Toad. Throughout, we get a measure of the strengths, flaws, hopes, and dreams of each of the four and how the outside world defines and treats them based on their physical attributes or political status.