Heart of the Grass Tree by Molly Murn (2019, Vintage Australia) is a novel which tells several stories over multiple timelines. All of them are interlinked by place: Kangaroo Island, off the coast of South Australia. The island today is known for its wildlife, pristine beaches, beautiful scenery, a thriving arts scene and tourism. In the time of the earliest story told by Molly Murn in the book, the1820’s, it was a place with a darker, bloodier purpose—sealing.
We learn about the white men, who gravitated to the island to hunt seals for the lucrative skin trade, and the Aboriginal women from the mainland and Tasmania who lived with them. The author wrote that she wanted to tell the story of the women in particular because their history is in large part, lost to time. Most, if not all of those indigenous women were taken against their will and lived as slaves. They were stolen for the obvious reasons—white women being in short supply in the colony at the time, especially in such remote locations—but also because of their skills in hunting and skinning the seals which gathered around the waters and beaches of the island. Murn’s narrative allows the reader to imagine the brutalities to which these women were subjected, but we also get glimpses of their strength and the skills they possessed.
Another plotline in the novel is set in the present-day and involves a family of two sisters, Pearl and Lucy, who with their mother Diana, their husbands and children, come together on the island to mourn the death of their grandmother, Nell. We learn of their personal struggles, and the role played by Kangaroo Island in their lives.
It was Nell who had shown Pearl the quiet private things of her childhood island. Not the ‘grand swathes’,as Diana mockingly called Nell’s constant imparting of local history, but the small gleaming things.p.133
And we learn of Nell’s own history. Nell was born and raised on the island, and her first love was Sol, a boy from the farm next to Nell’s family. Sol is Aboriginal. When Nell falls pregnant she is sent away to Adelaide to have the baby—and her son is taken away for adoption. Her parents insist on this not just because of Nell’s youth, but also because they cannot live with the shame of their daughter bearing a mixed race child. Such were the attitudes of the time. This loss haunts Nell for the rest of her life. Its effects are felt by the children she has later, her daughters who mourn her death in their different ways.
I love fiction with dual or multiple timelines. Novels like this allow me to look at a place, familiar in our own time, through a different lens. I can get a deeper sense of the way in which ‘history’ is never just in the past—it’s tendrils can be seen and felt in our own time, if we are open to that.
Molly Murn’s novel is beautifully written, imbued with a deep sense of place and poetry.
I’ve not yet been to Kangaroo Island. This novel makes me want to visit. And while I’m there, to watch out for the small gleaming things.
Have you been prompted to visit a place because of a novel you have read about it? Let me know in the comments.
A copy of this book should be handed to anyone who expresses the view that “Teachers get so many holidays”, or “Teaching must be an easy job – look at the hours they work – 9 to 3 Mon to Fri and no weekend work.”
For much of my working life, I was a teacher. Mostly in adult education, but a couple of years as a casual primary teacher, working across ages from kindergarten to year six. So I read Gabbie Stroud’s memoir of teaching in primary schools with interest. It might surprise you to know that much of what she describes about her experiences in working in primary education in Australia and the UK, is increasingly relevant to the vocational education and training situation as it currently stands, here in Australia.
The tag line on the front cover of ‘Teacher’ reads: One woman’s struggle to keep the heart in teaching. The author’s heart shines out through her portrayal of her childhood years, her decision to train to become a teacher, her first job in an East London school, teaching in Australian schools, including in socioeconomically disadvantaged regions and in a brand new school. Her approach to teaching was all about relationship – with her students of course, and also with parents, colleagues, and her schools’ communities.
She describes her experience of burnout – an overwhelming workload, juggling time with too many things on the “to do” list, and the “stealthy encroachment of more and more demands for accountability, “evidence”, assessment grids and rubrics…A teacher could literally spend their working week creating the documentation required to teach.”
You might be thinking: Other occupations have these sorts of pressures. And you’d be right. Many people – nurses, social and community workers, doctors, aged care workers, people who work in childcare, would nod in recognition of the issues discussed in this book.
For me, the fact that these workplace issues are so widespread, makes the arguments put forward in this book more important, not less. Ms Stroud describes struggling with unsympathetic systems imposed from above, usually by people with no experience or understanding of education or teaching, and very little knowledge of what teachers, schools and students need to excel. The introduction in Australian schools of “NAPLAN” testing (standardised testing in literacy and numeracy), and a National Curriculum, are two examples examined here.
One of my favourite lines in the book is a quote from one of the author’s colleagues: “All this collecting of evidence. Evidence for everything. I feel like I work for a crime squad.” (p.221)
Sadly, this reliance on standardisation of teaching and assessment practices and “evidence” (a belated effort to stem the rise of less than reputable training organisations) has crept into the vocational education and training sector in Australia. It’s a lucrative market nowadays.
What is often lost, is the importance of relationship and heart in the teaching and learning process. Teachers and students can get so focused on their grades and on completing assessment tasks that they have little time to think about actually teaching and learning. They lose sight of what they have achieved and what they can do. As the author states, it becomes a deficit approach to teaching and learning.
I’ll leave the final word to Gabbie Stroud:
“We need to contemplate not only what we should teach our children, but also how we should teach them. And we must start valuing our teachers.” (p334)
Postscript: Over the first weekend in March, my husband and I went to the Cobargo Folk Festival. It’s a lovely little festival in a beautiful part of the south coast of NSW. I was pleased and surprised to see in the program, a discussion panel called “What’s Happened to our Education System?” The three speakers were all enthusiastic, creative, professional teachers – who had all left teaching. (Though one of them, Nick Thornton, is about to return to the classroom, to focus on the educational needs of children who have experienced trauma. And the second, Kate Liston-Mills, has completed a Librarian Studies course.) The third speaker was none other than Gabbie Stroud. It was a delight to meet her and hear her speak about her experiences and what prompted her to write the book.
If you are interested in finding out more about her work, check out her website (I love the retro illustrations! Classic 1950’s twee) https://gabbiestroud.com/
This is the debut novel from Claire Coleman, a Noongar woman from southern Western Australia. The book was published in 2018 by Hachette Australia and it won the black&write! Fellowship in 2016, from the State Library of Queensland.
It’s a hard book to describe, being one of those books that bend or fuse genres. The first half reads as historical fiction, based on all-too-real stories of the invasion and colonisation of Australia by Europeans, the bloody frontier wars, the massacres, the church run Missions and the Stolen Generations. It’s hard going, difficult and uncomfortable reading, but important reading for all Australians.
Given that these awful events in our nation’s history have been told through story and in non-fiction works, in films and songs, it is astounding to me that so many non-indigenous Australians can still plead ignorance, or worse, disinterest, in these darker parts of our history. While many of us are now proud to acknowledge our connections to other challenging periods of the Australian story, for example, our convict heritage, it does seem strange to me that some remain unable or unwilling to acknowledge the reality of what happened to indigenous people in this country. Let alone to respect the resilience and tenacity that enabled Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders to survive.
Halfway through the book, we realise that what we are reading is, in fact, speculative fiction. It switches our viewpoint in a way that feels quite disconcerting, at least to begin with. It is cleverly done.
The writing is at times clunky, with some repetition and laboured sentences. But the overall effect of this book is to leave you thinking and wondering. What if? What would that be like? How would that feel?
Which is, I believe, one of the best things that good fiction can bring: an increase in empathy.
Have you read other fictional works that do this?
Let me know in the comments below.
This is Holly Throsby’s second novel, following her debut Goodwood. Like it’s predecessor, Cedar Valley is set in a small Australian country town. In an interview I heard with Throsby, she admitted that she’d not lived in rural Australia, but is drawn to small towns in her writing. She does capture the feel of small town life very well in this novel.
The book’s plot is an interesting mix of ‘coming of age’ (the story of Benny, a young woman seeking information and connection with her lost, dead mother by returning to the town where her mother once lived) and gentle mystery/police investigation story (local cops trying to figure out the identity and story behind a man who arrives, and dies, in the town on the same day.)
I say ‘gentle’ because this is not a crime novel. There is no blood, no murder weapon, no tense climactic scene. The stories of Benny and the mystery man gently unfold throughout the book. Seemingly unconnected, there is a ribbon of plot that ties them together in the end. The conclusion is nicely done.
Throsby’s style is almost ‘naive’, if that’s a term that can be used in literature. The book moves slowly, as Benny absorbs the sights, sounds, and people of the town she has come to live in for a while. The mystery plays itself out in a measured, thoughtful way, never taking over from the emotion of Benny and the other characters, but somehow, in odd ways, drawing the town’s population together as they variously try to puzzle out the story of the man who died in front of the Antiques shop.
I enjoyed this book. I read it in between Kristina Olsson’s Shell (slow moving plot but exquisite language) and Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things (an important but harrowing book). It contrasted nicely with both.
I was surprised to learn that the author of this 2018 published book is Australian. It is set in a town in the US state of Ohio and Foxlee captures the atmosphere of an American town in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s so well.
But,to the story…
What a lovely read this is.
The story centres around a young girl, Lenny Spink, who lives with her struggling single mother Cindy and her younger brother Davey. The family dynamics (siblings sharing secrets from the grown ups, occasional bickering, the kids’ more or less missing father, Cindy’s wannabe suitor, financial struggles and Cindy’s constant worrying) are portrayed from the viewpoint of Lenny, resulting in warm humour, the wisdom of children, and real sadness.
Davey suffers from a condition (unnamed at the book’s opening) which causes him to grow and grow and grow. Lenny reports on her brother’s growth and unusual physical appearance in a matter of fact way but the reader senses her fear and confusion.
There are moments of humour, too, in the sometimes odd, sometimes endearing, sometimes unsympathetic neighbours and others who people Lenny and Davey’s world: their babysitter Mrs Gaspar from Hungary, the revolting Mr King, ‘Great Aunt Em’, Peter Spink the absentee father, Lenny’s friends CJ and Mathew from school, the kindergarten teacher, the children’s unseen grandmother Nanny Flora…and of course Martha, from Burrell’s Publishing Company, who sends weekly issues of the Burrell’s Build-it-at-home Encyclopedia. The two children explore the world through the pages of this publishing marvel as they receive issues covering the A’s right through to ‘WXYZ’. They weave fantasies about things they are learning into their everyday lives with humorous and at times, heartbreaking effect.
The book describes a more innocent time, when home encyclopedias were to be treasured for the knowledge they held. At the same time we, the readers, wish that the setting was a modern day one because of advances in medical science that might, just might, save Davey.
This is a sweet, funny, sad and hopeful book.
I discovered this initiative only this year, at a writing workshop I attended: thank you Julian Leatherdale (http://www.julianleatherdale.com/) for the information.
The AWW aims to encourage, via Twitter and Facebook, email and websites, librarians, booksellers, publishers, book bloggers, English teachers and authors were invited to examine their reading habits, and commit to reading and reviewing more books by Australian women.
Quoted from the AWW blog, which you can find at: http://australianwomenwriters.com/
Readers can link their reviews via the AWW website, and sign up for regular emails in which AWW volunteers give ’round ups’ of the latest batch of reviews in particular genres.
If you are a reader who’d like to discover more of the wonderful works created by women writing in Australia, this is a terrific way to keep informed and across the latest (and not so recent) from women authors.