• Children's & Young Adult Books

    Simply wonderful: the work of author/illustrator Freya Blackwood

    A few years ago I was fortunate to see an exhibition of works by award-winning children’s book author and illustrator Freya Blackwood. She has illustrated books by such leading authors as Libby Gleeson, Margaret Wild, Nick Bland, Jan Ormerod, Danny Parker and Mem Fox. See more about Freya and her work here.

    If you follow my blog posts, you’ll know that I adore children’s literature and in particular, picture books. There is something magical about the combination of carefully chosen words and intuitive illustrations that bring a story to full, vivid life. Each component are integral, essential: one does not work without the other.

    With The Garden of Broken Things, Ms Blackwood has created both words and pictures. It tells of little Sadie, who investigates the garden of Number 9 Ardent Street, an old house avoided by the other children because it has

    windows like sad eyes, and

    Thick like cobwebs,
    the tangled vines concealed
    things from another time,
    revealed things twisted and bent,
    seized and rusted;
    things that had come to a final halt.

    The Garden of Broken Things

    Sadie discovers an old woman there, sitting slumped on a garden bench. Rather than running away, Sadie stays to chat, telling the woman about her friends, her school lessons, her pets. By the time she has to go home, she has made a new friend, and the garden of broken things becomes, once again, a wild and beautiful playground for the local children.

    It’s a simple, sweet story about stopping to look and to listen, and how friends can appear in the most unlikely places. The soft evocative illustrations add so much to the book’s beauty and depth.

    The Garden of Broken Things is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in May 2024.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading

    Legacy of war: ‘Hungry Ghosts’ by CJ Barker

    English-born Australian writer CJ Barker has created a novel that delivers profound truths about war and about the ways in which trauma’s effects on lives and relationships can endure.

    The protagonists are working class Vic and Ruth, whose experiences in WWII inform their relationships and life trajectories for ever.

    First we meet Vic’s father Frank, a veteran of the first World War, described as a quiet reserved man who keeps to himself. He deals with the unwelcome memories of his war years by turning to alcohol and work. Young Vic witnesses his father’s drunken episodes and times when ‘volcanos of rage’ rip through the house. Then Frank deserts his family to wander the countryside, a vagabond. He leaves a gift for his son – an old camera rescued from a rubbish heap. That camera is to become a salvation of sorts, but it also adds to Vic’s later grief and despair.

    After his mother is killed in a bombing raid, Vic goes to live with his aunt Amelia, an unorthodox, modern woman who introduces him to photography as an art form. When war starts he joins the RAAF and hopes to be a pilot; instead he becomes a bomb aimer: a role that requires him to lie flat in the nose of the plane, directing the pilot to the target, then release the bombs at the right moment. On each mission, the crew expect to die.

    Meanwhile, Ruth grows up in a poor neighbourhood in East London. She dreams of getting an education and a proper job that would allow her entry to the bigger world that beckons. But the best her world offers is a shorthand course and a secretarial job.

    Then the war begins and she endures the Blitz along with her neighbours, crowded into air raid shelters at night. She volunteers for the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force where her clerical skills are put to use. She has ambitions beyond what’s expected for women at the time – she aims for work interpreting arial photographs taken by Allied reconnaissance planes, roles mainly given to university educated women, as are officer positions.

    The inequalities and unfairness of their society are painfully apparent to both Vic and Ruth, even as they serve their country and what they believe is the greater good.

    At RAF Medmenham base in Buckinghamshire she and Vic meet. Their attraction to each other outlasts the war and while they must endure their own wartime tragedies separately, they eventually marry on VE Day. Their child, James, is born and Ruth must give up her job and become a full-time wife and mother, something she’d never planned.

    It isn’t long before the lasting effects of the war begin to impact on the little family. Vic has found work as a professional photographer and his career is promising. But his inner torment and lingering mental and spiritual injuries find expression in the same way he’d seen with his father – alcoholism. Vic becomes a distant father, often cruel, and little James grows up under the shadow of two generations of war-induced suffering.

    So a third generation enters a world dominated by conflict.

    James begins study at Cambridge University – an opportunity denied his parents, but he questions its relevance in the face of the protests, drug use, anti-war sentiment and counter-culture of the sixties and early seventies. His father is lost to him – not even widespread praise for Vic’s stark photographs of the conflict in Vietnam can convince James that his father is anything but a useless, cowardly waste of a life.

    There is a resolution – imperfect as these often are, but one which allows us to feel more hopeful for James’s future.

    The settings and characters of the story are beautifully realised; the details of wartime in Britain conjure the darkness of that time, the reality that whether civilian or military, you could die at any moment. The hope that some held for a better world afterward:

    For him, England, or at least East Anglia, had become a giant aircraft carrier littered with runways and rubble. He was familiar with the Nissen huts and landing strips of his base. He was intimate with the night sky over Germany and the tracer bullets that sped towards him like a stream of malicious fireflies. His homeland, though, felt like another country, alien to his memories, like a long-lost relative with whom he hoped to be reunited, only to find that they had grown apart during the missing years. And yet this ashen graveyard – this England – this was the place where he hoped that justice would spout like crocuses in spring.

    Hungry Ghosts p99 /30% (ebook)

    Hungry Ghosts is a beautiful, engrossing novel about all the hurts that humans can inflict on each other; and also about resilience and vulnerability:

    Over and over, a question arose in his mind, like a bad dream, or a Zen riddle: after we have seen the horror, how do we go on?

    Hungry Ghosts p227/67% (ebook)

    You can read a guest post by the author on the blog Whispering Stories, in which he discusses the genesis of the book and describes it as a ‘letter of understanding and forgiveness to my (now deceased) parents.’

    Hungry Ghosts is published by The Book Guild in March 2024.
    My thanks to the author for a review copy.

  • Books and reading

    Art + History + Crime = ‘The Engraver’s Secret’ by Lisa Medved

    This first novel by Australian author Lisa Medved shines with historical detail and the beauty of the artworks which are the main subject of the plotlines – two plotlines, as it is a dual timeline novel.

    The modern-day story features art historian Charlotte, recently arrived in Antwerp in Belgium. Recovering from the death of her beloved mother, Charlotte has just landed her dream job at the university, and hopes to do more research on her artistic hero, Rubens, while in the city where he created so many of his famous works in the seventeenth century.

    She is also nursing a secret: an unwelcome last minute disclosure by her mother about the identity of her father – a man she had been led to believe was ‘no good’ and long dead.

    While at the university, she discovers a clue that could lead to a ground-breaking discovery about Ruben’s work, and his relationship with the eponymous engraver who worked in his studio for many years.

    This is where the second timeline comes in. It’s the story of Antonia, a teenaged girl living in Antwerp in the 1620’s, the daughter of the engraver, Lucas Vosterman. Raised by her father to pursue academic and artistic interests, she later finds that the options available to a young woman are much more limited. And like Charlotte, Antonia is the recipient of an unwelcome admission by her father – a secret that she must carry to her grave.

    As Charlotte sets off on a quest to find the centuries-old clues that could establish her career as an art historian, she experiences the serious consequences of the competition and professional jealousy amongst her colleagues at the university.

    Meanwhile, as Antonia deals with her own heartbreak and the barriers to leading a fulfilled life as an independent woman, she must struggle with the consequences of her father’s behaviour:

    I owed him my gratitude and loyalty, yet something inside me – my ingrained stubbornness, whispers of doubt, a yearning for independence – stopped me from fully submitting to his will. How can I remain loyal to my family and stay true to myself?

    The Engraver’s Secret p 371

    Underlying both stories is the relationship between the two protagonists and their fathers, and the constraints imposed by the times and places in which they live.

    I loved the mysteries at the heart of the novel; the wonderful detail provided of seventeenth century life and culture in (what was then) the Spanish Hapsburg Empire; the descriptions of the beautiful artworks and their creators. The author has a background in both art and history and her knowledge and love of these subjects inform the book in a natural and accessible way. As always I enjoyed reading about places and historical periods that I know relatively little about; it always makes me want to know more.

    But most of all I enjoyed the very human dilemmas of the two women and the relationships at the heart of their stories.

    The author’s next book will be set in Vienna and feature the artist Gustav Klimt. I can’t wait to read that one!

    You can find out more about Lisa Medved and her work here.

    The Engraver’s Secret is published by HarperCollins Australia in April 2024.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading

    Different worlds: ‘The Sea Captain’s Wife’ by Jackie French

    Possibly one of Jackie French’s more unusual historical fiction creations, The Sea Captain’s Wife takes us into a vivid world of her own imagination, informed by folklore and research.

    The protagonist is Mair, a young woman who lives on a remote fictional island. It is 1870. Her tiny community is made up almost entirely of women, after a tsunami hit a nearby island, sweeping away many of the men who’d gone there to collect bird’s eggs. It’s a matriarchal society where women make the decisions. They wait for those men who’d survived The Wave to return from sailing ventures, or search the beaches in case a shipwreck washes a man onto their shore.

    ‘Wait’ and ‘search’ are perhaps misleading verbs here. These are not passive women, pining for a man, or immobilized by grief. They build gardens on the poor rocky soil of their volcanic island, birth babies and raise children, fish, prepare meals and create beautiful, functional garments. It’s essentially a subsistence life, where what they grow and produce is supplemented by occasional visits from a ship with goods to trade. They are busy and, largely, content.

    They wait for, or seek out husbands for companionship, support, procreation. Potential husbands must be approved by the council of women. The community has their own way of dealing with any man who poses a threat to their way of life or to the peace and safety of the island. There are strong expectations and rules; however the individuals who live here enjoy freedoms only dreamt about by most women in western society at the time.

    They named their island ‘Big Henry Island’ after the active volcano that rumbles beneath them, throwing out black boulders and sulphur-laden fumes. Islanders have lived with Big Henry for two centuries and know its moods. But they are mostly unaware of the danger it poses.

    Into this world arrives Michael, a ship’s captain washed onto the beach. Mair takes him to her cottage and nurses him back to health, during which time he learns a little of the customs and ways of living. He can barely comprehend the enormous differences between the world of colonial-era Sydney, and the seemingly free and easy lifestyle on Big Henry, especially for women. However he admires Mair’s intelligence, kindness and skills. Admiration turns to love and when the next ship arrives, Michael takes Mair back to live in Sydney.

    Here is where the different worlds of Michael and Mair collide. She is shocked and bewildered by the restrictions on women, in a society where wives are expected to be helpmeets to their husbands, and have little in the way of individual freedom or agency.

    Michael tries to understand, but he is preoccupied by the challenge to find a ship laden with gold that he discovered on the voyage which ended in him washed up on Big Henry Island. His upbringing leads him to believe that once Mair experiences his wealthy family’s life in Sydney, she will be happy there:

    But all across the world women left their childhood homes to follow their husbands. It might not be the island way, but it was the natural order of things, and surely Mair would find it so once she had the luxuries and comforts that awaited her in Australia, with three women to make her feel she had family and a home there. The most important criterion for a sea captain’s wife was a woman who was used to waiting in a household of women for her husband’s ship to sail to harbour.

    The Sea Captain’s Wife, p83

    There are several mysteries that wind through the narrative: the ‘ghost ship’ that haunts Michael’s dreams, and a series of accidents and deaths that take place within his family. Does the gold ship really exist? Were the accidents really mishaps or something more sinister? The conclusion brings these to a satisfying end.

    But the novel has deeper themes. It asks questions about humans’ lack of perception of danger – all too relevant in today’s world, threatened by climate change and conflict. And it asks readers to reflect on our own lives. What makes a worthy life? What responsibilities do we have for others?

    As always Jackie French has brought her setting to life, creating not one, but two very believable worlds.
    Readers who enjoy her historical fiction will not be disappointed in The Sea Captain’s Wife, which is published by HarperCollins in March 2024.

    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    As I sit down to write this review, it is leading up to ANZAC Day in Australia, an annual day of commemoration of those who served in military campaigns in Australia’s name. Up until recently, those who served as medical staff and nurses in wartime seem to have been ‘add-ons’ in our military histories.

    Take the story of Sister Vivian Bullwinkle. Her name should come easily to Australians thinking about their nation’s involvement in war, like Simpson and his donkey in the ANZAC story, or ‘Weary’ Dunlop in WWII.

    There is now a statue of Sister Vivian in the grounds of the Australian National War Memorial. But when it was unveiled in 2023 – last year! – it was the first statue of a woman at the memorial.

    I’ll move on from my bewilderment at why it took such a long time to recognise this woman, and onto Grantlee Kieza’s story of her life. What a tale it is.

    Vivian Bullwinkle completed her nursing and midwifery training at Broken Hill Hospital in the 1930s. Then came the announcement in September 1939 that Australia was at war with Germany. From the Melbourne hospital where she was working, Viv enlisted as an army nurse. By 1941 she was on her way to Singapore, where she would face the new enemy of the war, Japan.

    The book includes vivid descriptions of the rapid and vicious attacks on Malaya and Singapore by Japanese troops. On reading these pages I had a sense of the fear that must have been in every heart, knowing that the Japanese were moving south at a rapid rate, killing anyone who stood in their way. I also felt anger at the apparent lack of preparation on the part of Allied authorities; the complacent belief of Western superiority which was then prevalent, certainly worked in favour of the Japanese. Rumours began spreading about the merciless nature of the Japanese soldiers.

    On a personal note, an uncle of mine was involved in that first encounter with the Japanese on Singapore Island; he was reported missing, presumed dead; a fate confirmed by the Australian Army at the war’s end. His mother and siblings never got over the loss of smiling, kind, lovable Ernest Harvey Newton, known as ‘Snow’ to his family. Learning about the cruelty inflicted on those who survived encounters with the Japanese, perhaps Snow’s fate was preferable. Who can say? All I know is that the whole thing was an shocking savagery that should never have happened.

    Eventually the nurses were evacuated from Singapore; it is telling that they apparently felt great reluctance and shame to be leaving the sick and wounded soldiers they’d been caring for. The author paints an appalling picture of the chaos and desperation of a defeated Singapore. The nauseating smell of death and raw sewage, oil fires and explosions, terrified civilians climbing over each other in their panic.

    Worse was to come for Sister Vivian and her comrades. Put aboard the Vyner Brooke, formerly a royal yacht of Sarawak, over two hundred people endured a terrifying voyage from Singapore heading for the relative safety of the Indonesian islands not yet occupied by Japanese. The stories of those on board are poignant: sixty-five Australian nursing sisters, including one who was seven months’ pregnant; a family of Polish Jews who had fled to the assumed safety of Singapore only to find themselves refugees once again; and many women and children.

    The ship was bombed by Japanese aircraft and went down off the coast of Bangka Island near Sumatra. Viv and her nursing colleagues tried to assist the wounded and terrified civilians, before the inevitable order to abandon ship as it broke up underneath them.

    But Viv had never learnt to swim.

    Somehow, she survived, with the aid of a life jacket and an upturned lifeboat, despite continued bombing from above and the threat of sharks below. She stumbled onto a beach where she recovered enough to find other survivors washed up on the island by the strong currents. At least twelve nurses had died in the water that night. With no food, shelter, and with many needing urgent medical care, the survivors agreed that they had to surrender to the Japanese and hope that the rumours they’d heard about the Japanese taking no prisoners were not true.

    What follows is a story of unbelievable cruelty, even sadism, by some of the Japanese they encounter. Men and women alike were coldly gunned down or bayoneted on Radji Beach, left to bleed out in the shallow water or drift off on the tide. Twenty-one of Viv’s nursing companions were murdered that day.

    Amazingly, after being hit through her middle by a machine gun and left in the water, Viv did not die. Some instinct told her not to show that she was alive, and even though she couldn’t swim, she allowed herself to float until the men with guns were satisfied that they had killed everyone. Eventually she was taken to a prison camp where she was reunited with others of her nursing sister colleagues.

    Moved from camp to camp, starved, with no medical care, minimal fresh water, no way to preserve their hygiene and health, beaten and abused…this was the experience of nurses and civilian refugees on Bangka Island and Sumatra for three and a half years. They survived by caring for each other, pooling any resources they could scrounge, making efforts to raise the spirits of their companions, burying the dead as one by one, women began to succumb to the ravages of malnutrition, tropical diseases and mistreatment by their captors.

    It’s a terrible story of unimaginable hardship and suffering. As I read, I often wondered ‘What would I do in this situation? Could I endure it? Would I have survived?’

    It’s also about stoicism, bravery, sacrifice and the comradeship that we often hear about amongst soldiers, but is less often applied to those who care for the sick and wounded.

    Of course the war did end, Japan surrendered, and the prisoners were eventually found and returned to Australia. We should remember that in the midst of their suffering, none of the nurses knew what would happen. They had no way of knowing what the eventual outcome of the war – and their fates – would be.

    After the war, Viv’s strength of spirit, her compassion and her pride in the nursing profession, did not abate. She devoted the rest of her working life to improving the standing and professionalism of nursing in Australia, as well as speaking at many memorials and events where she kept the memory of her dead sisters alive.

    And in 1975, aged nearly sixty, she played an instrumental role as one of twelve nursing volunteers in Operation Babylift, the mass evacuation of orphaned babies and children from South Vietnam, aboard a chartered Qantas jet from then Saigon to Sydney.

    I was so happy to learn that just a year or so later, she married and was able to enjoy more than twenty years with husband Frank Statham.

    Sister Viv is a gripping account of a woman who endured great suffering but went on to live a full and productive life in spite of her awful wartime experiences. Grantlee Kieza has written a biography worthy of this truly remarkable Australian.

    Sister Viv is published by HarperCollins in April 2024.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading

    Lives of crime: ‘Sanctuary’ by Gary Disher

    Gary Disher writes the kind of crime stories I like best: ones that focus on the people more than the crimes. He manages to show the how and why of the crimes committed, sure; but also the impact on both perpetrators and victims. This is meaningful fiction, not showcasing crime for its own sake, but to say something about humans and why they do the things they do.

    Sanctuary is unusual for this genre in that the workings of the world of law enforcement are of minimal importance to the narrative. It centres on several people whose stories overlap, though for much of the book we don’t necessarily know how or why.

    There is Grace, formerly known as Anita, who grew up in an unlovely and unloving foster home, along with Adam. They become a team involved in petty crime, just the two of them against a hostile world, until Anita meets a man who teaches her the tricks of a higher level criminal life. When she decides she has had enough of this man’s cruelty and control, she becomes Grace and continues her life of crime alone.

    But Adam harbours a grudge and when they inadvertently cross paths on a ‘job’, she runs again, fearful of what he might do.

    So begins a series of intricate and well planned moves; staying several steps ahead, constantly checking on surrounds and on people, distrusting of others, always looking for an escape, adopting a series of disguises.

    Disher vividly conjures the loneliness and insecurity of this life, and we feel some sympathy for Grace as she tries to adopt another way of being, the kind of ‘legitimate’ and ordinary life that she now longs for. It takes enormous mental and physical energy to live like this. I was reminded of Maxwell Smart in the 1960’s cold-war spoof series Get Smart, in which he often says of the ‘baddies’: If only they could use their cleverness for niceness instead of nastiness.

    Through the viewpoint of another character we are given insight into the mind of someone who indulges in digital stalking and illegal surveillance of people. It’s an unpleasant place and I was always relieved to move onto another scene, away from this sordid and rage-filled character’s world view. But I am very aware that sadly, technology has provided increased opportunities for people like this to frighten and hurt others.

    The tension mounts as the trajectories of Grace, Adam and other characters head towards collision, with complications cleverly woven in.

    The resolution does not tie everything up in a neat bow; that would be unrealistic and too tidy. But we are left with a hope that perhaps, at some future time, Grace and Adam can find a more satisfying way of being in their world.

    Sanctuary is published by Text Publishing in April 2024.
    My thanks to the publishers and to NetGalley for an early review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    ‘Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind’ by Yoval Noah Harari

    While we homo sapiens might feel pleased to be the species that has seemingly evolved to ‘rule the world’, this book should give pause for thought.

    It’s a sweeping story of our history: how we evolved and separated from other human species such as the Neanderthals, why we have paid a price for the development of our relatively large brains, how the ‘cognitive revolution’ distinguished our species from other animals (and what we have done with this advantage since), how and why myths such as gods, race, nationalities, money and human rights were created.

    There are some ideas that I am certain would be controversial to some, including:

    • the ‘agricultural revolution’ actually resulted in humankind spending more time and effort feeding itself than in hunter-gatherer communities
    • it is possible that, far from grains such as wheat or rice being ‘domesticated’ by humans, it could be the other way around: that these grains trained humans to spend huge amounts of labour tending them, allowing them to become masters of the grain world.
    • the three unifying forces of humankind have been money, empire and religion, and of these:
    • capitalism is the most successful religion invented by humans, requiring high levels of trust to operate effectively.

    Sapiens is definitely a thought-provoking book. Always interested in the ‘back story’ in how things came to be as they are, I found the historic elements deeply fascinating.

    The last section of the book ventures into territory which for me was far less comfortable, involving scary questions about the future of humankind, as technological developments seemingly outpace our collective ability to predict where they might lead or to place conditions on their use.

    First published in 2015, the questions in this book are now more relevant than ever, surrounded as we are by the growth of cyborg, genetic and other technologies which could conceivably lead to the end of homo sapien and even devolution into a new species.

    More questions than answers; but perhaps a book of this nature needs to raise issues that can’t be easily addressed. If the idea is to make readers sit up and take notice, to think more deeply about the rapid pace of change, and to appreciate our collective past as a species, Sapiens achieves this very well indeed.

    Books like this should be read by scientists, ethicists, teachers, medical professionals and legislators, because these are the people holding the reins of our collective future.

    Sapiens was published by Vintage (an imprint of Penguin Books.)
    I listened to the audiobook version, also released in 2015 and read in English by Derek Perkins.

  • Writing

    Short Story: ‘The Bitterness of their Woe’

    This is a story about the horrific flood of the Hawkesbury River in 1867, in which twelve members of the Eather family perished. I wrote this back in 2021 as a fictional response to the tragedy, and was thrilled when it received first prize in the E.M. Fletcher family history writing competition that year.

    The terrible events were referenced in my post of 4 March 2024 ‘Travels with My Ancestors’ #15, which concludes the lives of my ancestors, Robert and Mary Eather, who were great-uncle and aunt to the children who drowned in the flood.

    The Bitterness of their Woe

    ‘The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away.
    Blessed be the name of the Lord.’

    I stare at Emma’s memorial stone. It wasn’t the Lord who took my darling wife away from me. It was my own foolish, stubborn nature. I thought I could keep them safe—Emma, our children, and my brother’s family. I’d reckoned myself smarter than the Lord himself, who’d sent the rains. But what did I know? Not enough.
    I do, however, know how to mourn.

    Cornwallis, near Windsor NSW, 1867

    That cursed rain began mid-June. When the fields around our house became a seething sheet of water, my brother George rode over to see me.
    “The water’s reached the level of the ’64 flood,” he said. “You’d best bring Emma and the children to my house. I’ve told William the same.”
    I agreed. George’s house was newer than mine and our brother Will’s, and on a higher point of land. We could wait it out in safety there.

    Emma carried little Maudie and gripped Angelina’s hand as they sloshed across low ground, already sodden from days of rain. I could barely see our two boys, walking ahead with Annie and Eliza. We covered our heads with our coats but were soaked and chilled when we reached George’s door.

    George ushered us inside and passed around towels to dry ourselves as best we could. William and Catherine were already there, their five youngsters gathered in a tight knot. The smallest ones were grizzling from cold and Emma went to help them get dry. Always kind, my Emma.

    George said, “I’m taking Dora and the children by boat to Windsor. Shall I take Emma and your youngsters too?”
    I hesitated. “What about your workers?” George had two young lads who worked his farm alongside him and his eldest boy.
    “I can come back for them, if the river keeps rising.”
    I shook my head. “Take them now, and send another boat back for us if it’s still raining by nightfall,” I said. “We got through the last flood; remember how we’d worried my place would go under? Turned out fine. We’ll be safe enough here. Get the lads into Windsor and send help if you think it needed.”

    I turned to Emma and the children. Emma was pale.
    “Don’t you think we should send the three youngest, at least? And Catherine’s?” she said in a low voice.
    I gave her a reassuring smile.
    “The river has never reached George’s house, not once. I’ve lived through plenty of floods. We’ll be safe here. Wouldn’t you rather we stayed together? George can send another boat for us, but I don’t believe we’ll need it.”
    Emma went to answer, but I cut her off.
    “Trust me, the children will be safe. Now, you and Catherine get something hot for them to drink.”
    Emma bit her lip and turned away.

    I had a moment of doubt then. Should I allow them to go with George? But George’s boat wasn’t big enough to take them—eleven children and their mothers. I’d shepherded us through the last big flood and would do so again. I knew this river and its moods.

    We watched as George rowed his boat upstream. It dragged in the water under its heavy load and I was glad I hadn’t trusted our little ones to it. George had enough to manage with his family and the lads. His wife turned to wave and shouted something back to us, but her voice was lost in the turbulent river as it raced past.

    When night fell, I wished I had that time over to decide differently. I’d thought the rain heavy before, but as the world darkened, water crashed from the sky in torrents, a powerful wind behind it buffeting the sturdy walls and roof of George’s house. Emma gasped at each thud. Then Charles called out in a frightened voice I’d not heard since he was a tiny boy.
    “The water’s coming in!”

    We hurried to staunch the flow with towels, sheeting, anything we could find, but nothing stopped the cold rush of water under the door. Young Eliza, in a panic, opened the door and was knocked to the ground by a wave two feet high. She screamed before Emma scooped her up to safety.

    William shouted, “We need to get everyone up on the roof. We’ll drown otherwise.”

    With difficulty we got outside, Maudie in my arms, Angelina on my shoulders. Emma, Catherine and Charles followed with the others. William struggled with the ladder, finally tying its base to the gum tree outside the front door, and leaning it against the house. We helped Catherine, Emma and the children climb to sit astride the ridge top. The women’s legs tangled in their sodden skirts and Catherine reached a hand to steady Emma as she teetered. By now all the children were crying, except Annie and Charles, who held on to their siblings and cousins with grim determination.

    The wind was ferocious up there.
    I tried to say “We won’t be here for long. George will send a boat—” but I broke off as no one could hear me above the din. I heard a dismal wailing and thought it was one of the children, but it was a cow, swirling past in the rushing water below us.

    And still the rain sheeted down.

    We stayed on that roof all night. A long, inky, fierce night. The rain and wind never let up, even for a moment. William and I made sure that no one fell asleep, by poking or nudging each of our group at intervals. I shivered so hard from the chill; I feared I’d jolt myself off the roof. I could see nothing below, but heard the evil gurgling of the water as it continued to rise.

    When at last dawn arrived, I choked back a horrified cry when I saw how far up the house it had come. Surely it could not reach us on the roof? But how much longer could we last, cold and wet as we were?

    It beggars belief, but we endured another whole day on that roof. The children were silent now, which was horrifying, much more so than their earlier tears. Catherine clasped her baby in her arms with little Clara slumped between her knees. Emma’s lips moved; I think she was praying. She shuddered from the cold, gripping on for dear life and holding Maudie’s legs to keep her safe.
    My chest and stomach tightened. They were all here because of me. If only I had taken up George’s offer and sent them to safety. Right then, if I could have saved them all by plunging into the roiling waters below, I would have done so.

    We looked in vain for George’s boat—any boat. Why hadn’t he sent help? The light faded and we were once again in darkness. I had not thought things could be worse but there, too, I was wrong. The storm intensified, thrashing us harder with rain that stung like shotgun pellets. Spiteful gusts of wind whipped at us. I was growing weary, so tired…how could the little ones keep holding on? But how could they not?

    Then it came, a groan and a crack, audible even above the noises of wind and swollen river. The walls of George’s house began to crumble and fall. There was a shifting in the roof beneath me and before I could think, I was plunged into the icy water. A scream…Emma or Catherine? Or one of the girls? I will never know whose voice I heard.

    The shock of the cold water stunned but I got my head above it. Hidden things knocked and bumped me as the river swept me along. I reached out blindly and my hands closed around something solid. It was a tree branch, half submerged but steady. I wrapped my arms around it, calling: “Emma! Charles? Eliza! Can you hear me? Come to my voice if you can! I’ll pull you to safety!”

    Charles called, close by, his voice ragged in the gusting wind.
    “I’m here, and Uncle Will.”
    I swallowed a sob. “Thank God! Are your sisters and mother near?”

    There was no answer. I screamed Emma’s name, crying out for my children, and for Will’s family. Above the noise of the wind and water I heard Will doing the same. My hands splashed about in futile attempts to find a leg, hand or arm. When I tried to call again, icy water filled my mouth. Choking, spitting, eyes squeezed shut; I bent my head and wept. How could this be happening? How could I have been so wrong about this flood, the danger of it? I wanted nothing more at that moment than to let go and sink beneath that hateful water.

    Then I roused myself. Charles was here, and Will. I had to help my boy and my brother; if I could save no one else I had to save them. I took one hand from the branch long enough to undo and remove my belt.

    “Charles!” I called, “take my belt and tie yourself to the tree with it.”
    His hand fumbled under the sloshing water towards mine and found the leather strap. Will shouted that he and Charles had made themselves fast. I could see nothing; could only pray that they would stay safe.

    I clung to the branch, holding my head above the water that slapped and pulled at me. My limbs grew heavy with the intense cold and fatigue. I called words of encouragement to Charles and Will; they gave answering shouts to let me know they were still there. At times I had to fight the urge to let myself be washed away. Somewhere in the river’s turmoil were my Emma, our children, and my brother’s entire family. Why should I live?

    But there was Charles, whose answering cries grew fainter as that hellish time wore on. I had to live, for Charles’ sake.

    At last I heard a voice, not Charles or Will. Someone was calling out to whoever might be lost in the river or on its banks. There was the wavering light of a lantern held high.

    “Here; over here!” My voice cracked, but the fellow in the boat heard and pulled towards us. I heaved myself over the edge of the boat, turned to help Charles and Will. We collapsed in a huddled heap on the floor of the vessel.

    Will gasped out, “Our wives, children…” and the oarsman turned the boat in slow circles, calling into the darkness, but there was no sign of them. Eventually he gave up the search and turned the boat back towards safety.

    We shivered and groaned in our misery, huddled in that boat. Two wives and ten children—vanished. Gone from us, forever.

    The waters receded after three days. Charles and I lay in bed, weakened from our ordeal. Searchers found Will’s Catherine and their children—all drowned. A neighbour spotted my boy James, washed up downstream from George’s house. We buried him the next day. Eliza’s body was discovered two months later, on a sandbank a mile away. But my Emma, and Maudie, Angelina and Annie…they were never found.

    I thought it would fell me, the pain of it. I didn’t care about the farm—the stock and crops and our house, all gone. Charles, Will and I stayed with George and Dora for a time. We rose each morning and went to bed each evening. The hours in between were lost to me for weeks. I registered nothing, except the loss of Emma and our children.

    A newspaper report about the floods described the awful losses—of people, homes, farms, livestock. It said:

    ‘The inhabitants of our district have not yet begun to taste the bitterness of their woe.’

    Truer words were never written.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    Book bonanza: Five new picture books for littlies

    I’ve had these newly published picture books on my desk for a little while, waiting for the opportunity to read through them and put my thoughts in a post. Finally I got to them and as always, it was an absolute pleasure to see such beautiful work created for our littlest readers.

    In no particular order, here they are:

    Little Book Baby by Katrina Germein and Cheryl Orsini is all about the fun of books, from waking to a cuddle and book with mum, books in the car and on a picnic, book and playtime on the rug, squeaky book at bath time, and a goodnight book with dad. The scenes pretty much sum up any book lover’s ideal childhood, and show how sharing books together can add so much to family or play time.
    Published January 2024.

    As Bright as a Rainbow by Romy Ash and Blue Jaryn explores the idea of gender, and how individuals can express their gender in a multiplicity of ways. It might seem like a hard concept for very young children, but let’s not forget that by the age of two or three most children have been socialised in being a ‘boy’ or ‘girl’ in the ways sanctioned by their own culture. This book offers the view that rather than being an ‘either/or’ proposition, gender is more like a circle: we can be anywhere in that circle. Offering examples from the world of nature, where there are many different shades of colours like blue or green, it’s a gentle way to introduce the idea that each person can ‘just be yourself.’
    Published January 2024.

    Mimi and Buwaarr, Mother and Baby is another offering by Melissa Greenwood, a taste of Gumbaynggir culture and language. A mother (mimi) shows her baby (Buwaarr) the wonders and beauty of the world around them, especially their totem, the ocean (Gaagal) which heals and cleanses the spirit. The sun, the moon and the land offer wisdom to help a little one move into the world with love. The illustrations by the author are absolutely gorgeous, little works of art in themselves.
    Published March 2024

    My Dream for You by Ash Barty with Jasmin McGaughey and Jade Goodwin. Most Australians celebrated the news when tennis champion and all-round star Ash Barty had her first baby. This book celebrates the special bond between mum and baby and the hopes and wishes a new mother holds in her heart for her child. The illustrations by Jade Goodwin are sweet and soft.
    Published March 2024

    How to be Invisible, another in the Bunny and Bird series by Nick Bland, continues the friends’ story. This time Bunny is wearing a hat that he thinks will make him invisible. Bird has to do a lot of convincing to make Bunny see that he’s not, actually, invisible. As in the earlier Bunny and Bird book, How to Hatch a Dragon, there is tongue in cheek and visual humour that sharp eyed youngsters will appreciate.
    Published March 2024

    Australian children’s literature is in pretty good shape, as these new picture books show.
    All published by HarperCollins Children’s books.
    My thanks to the publishers for the review copies.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Fitting end to trilogy: ‘The Settlement’ by Jock Serong

    The Settlement is the conclusion to a trilogy of historical fiction novels by award-winning Aussie author Jock Serong. Set in early colonial times in Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) the three books tell the uncomfortable story of the violence of the colonial project, the evil manifested by those involved, and the defiance of the island’s First Nations.

    I can’t recommend the first (Preservation) and second (The Burning Island) highly enough. If you enjoy both historical and crime fiction these novels are for you.

    The Settlement again moves forward in time to the 1830’s, where we meet the real-life George Augustus Robinson, the evangelistic character who took it upon himself to try to solve the problem of spiraling conflict between First Nations people and the settlers in Van Diemen’s Land.

    The so-called ‘Black Line’ – a very expensive and (for the British authorities at least) completely unsuccessful attempt to corral and capture Aboriginal people to eliminate the problem, had been a failure. Robinson convinced the authorities to allow him to locate and meet with the leaders of the groups posing a threat to white settlement, with the aim of convincing them to quit their homelands and move to a settlement on an island in the northeast.

    So the ill-fated and eponymous settlement of ‘Wybalenna’ on Flinders Island was established.

    The narrative moves between key characters: Robinson himself, and other historical figures including leading First Nations figure Mannalargenna, among others; and fictional characters such as two Aboriginal orphans, Whelk and Pipi. A sympathetic, if powerless and conflicted character is the settlement’s Storekeeper, who wrestles with his conscience and his own personal issues throughout the novel.

    Robinson himself, now called the settlement’s Commandant, also struggles with the morality of his actions, but always manages to hide behind his religious beliefs and expediency, with an eye to his future position and legacy. He becomes an illustration of the moral blankness at the heart of colonisation.

    The chilling character of the Catechist is a remake, of sorts, of the evil figures from the first two books. I heard the author in an interview describe this recurring / reincarnated character as embodying the evils of colonialism and the violence inherent in it. Or, as described in this novel, as an embodiment of the place, the hands and face of an otherwise formless despair. (p108)

    The scenes involving the death and funeral of Mannalargenna are almost unbearable, lifted only by the strength and dignity of the man’s spirit even as his body fails, and beautifully conveyed:

    Mannalargenna cared little for displays of suffering. He continued to use the grease on his skin and the ochre in the short tufts of his hair, in defiance of the Commandant’s wishes. He persisted in adorning himself in other ways, and in speaking language. Far from rendering him an alien in their midst, it made aliens of his captors. Like a holed and smoking ship of war, he would slide beneath the waves imperious.

    The Settlement p174-175

    Jock Serong has again woven a dark story around the equally dark bones of historical fact. He has cemented his place as one of my favourite Australian contemporary authors.

    The Settlement was published by Text Publishing in August 2023.