I really loved this book. It covers so many poignant things about the history of my country (we celebrated Australia Day a few weeks ago), and it’s well told with wonderful characters that you really get to know. They are real characters, each one independently taking the story where they will, you never feel that there’s an overbearing author pushing everyone about. 

Jackie French is renowned for highly readable historical fiction with an Australian flavour, and this novel explores Australia’s early years as an emerging nation, around 1900 (…how young!). It centres around twelve-year-old Matilda O’Halloran, who in 1894 leaves the city slums to go and find her father who is making his living on the land. It’s a time of unrest: drought and desperation have strained the relations between workers and landowners, the poor and the wealthy, and Matilda’s own father is wanted by the troopers. 

French has taken inspiration from the well-known poem by A B Paterson, known to many through the famous Australian tune Waltzing Matilda. She’s also incorporated events from actual history – just suspend your disbelief that so much of it involved our heroine. There’s the reality of life on the land, erratic at best: drought, flood, bushfires, and the constant battle to keep crops and livestock alive. There’s the political instability of a land of non-unified governments, the inequality between owners and workers, and the lack of money all round.

Telling the history of a nation through specific characters requires that circumstances work to make everything fall into place, and sometimes the events are rather unlikely. Some may call this contrived, but I think in this case it is part of the author’s license, for she is making history into a story which helps us to personally engage with the reality far more than we would with an unimpassioned account. 

One of the more unlikely friendships formed is between 15 year old Matilda and her elderly neighbour. Yet such comradeship is a natural part of our heritage, because the determination in both of them – one youthful and adventurous, and the other ingrained and stubborn – made them so similar that it was only natural that they became friends. There is something of our heritage in both of them. 

French doesn’t shy away from the messy elements of our history: illegitimate children born to unsanctioned relationships between whites and indigenous Australians, or the struggle of a rightful feminism that fought for respect where it was lacking, or even the racism towards the Aboriginal people that was the prevalent attitude of the time. But her history is not bitter, she is sensitive to these issues and makes them evident but does not allow them to devalue the good as well. 

One of most beautiful qualities that comes through her characters and their story is resilience. This has been claimed as an Aussie quality, and I only hope it is so. Her characters have no self-pitying victim complex, they ‘get on and have a go’. They are not afraid of hard work, and they are not afraid of death – it happened so quickly and so often that they had no choice but to make an effort and continue on. This is the same generous attitude I love in my dear Australian Grandmother, and I feel this book could have been written about her and the strong line of Aussie women who came before her. It makes me consider how weak we can be facing our little problems, which are nothing compared to what was faced by everyone back then. Theirs was a story of starting out, failing, and beginning once again.

There’s a beautiful passage on the good that can come from suffering, because without a need, no solution is sought. 

If there had been no drought you’d never have come here. You’re a gift to me from the drought. Like many things. The drought gave us much more than it took. If there had been no drought there’d have been no shearers’ strike, no union. If times had been better no one would have worried about tariffs between states or kanakas coming in to take white men’s jobs. Without all of that we’d still be a collection of states, bumbling along side by side. The drought gave us Australia. (p423)

These characters radiate wisdom, something we young people can learn from so many of our ancestors. It’s about living in the present and throwing our all into what we do, learning to give and to suffer well, to really live instead of seeking false fantasies that are shallow and short lived and lead to bitterness. 

There is also a great deal of wisdom in the romance in this book. Matilda asks the right questions about what freedom there should be in a relationship, about the need to accept some inevitable differences between people, but not having false hope about differences that are irreconcilable. There is tremendous honesty when Matilda considers a nice, romantic proposal – it was everything she had hoped for – with the objectivity it needs: knowing there are fundamental differences between them she realises her motives for getting married may not be right. She sees that love can include failings, but not lies. And it needs courage to live it well, and sometimes even the courage to say no. 

Her wisdom may feel old-fashioned to some, but she lives the same struggle that many young romantics face: a sweet but blind attraction, fed by wishful thinking, but dampened by a little doubt that won’t go away. Her characters have the courage to face that doubt, passing on invaluable experience to the reader. 

How does French make ‘bone-deep integrity’ the most irresistible part of the hero’s character? She shows that waiting patiently – especially when one is longing to act – is the most effective fuel for a happy and lasting relationship. And it really is beautiful, especially when contrasted with the charm of false consolations. Yet these too can contribute to beauty of character when they are faced with honesty and integrity. 

A charming yet substantial historical novel; even if written for teens, adults will find much to love in this story.

Clare Cannon is the editor of www.GoodReadingGuide.com and the manager of Portico Books in Sydney.

Clare Cannon lives in Sydney where she is editor of The Good Reading Guide and manager of Portico Books,...