A Name and a Voice for the Drover’s Wife

Cover image courtesy of Penguin Australia

Leah Purcell’s novel The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson takes Henry Lawson’s 1892 short story of the same name and infuses it with female wisdom and understanding.

A story originally set in a parched and lifeless terrain is relocated to the fertile country of the Ngarigo people—the high country of the Snowy Mountains. And the ubiquitous ‘wife’ who features in Lawson’s story is, in Purcell’s reimagining, granted a name and a voice and a properly fleshed-out life.

The novel is framed around themes of motherhood, family violence and Aboriginal dispossession  but, as I read, two further underpinnings caught my attentionthe importance of names and the role of storytelling.

 

Names and Naming

Extract from The Bulletin, 23 July 1892

In Lawson’s story, the main character—the drover’s wife—is never named. Her son (Tommy) is named, her dog (Alligator) is named, but she is not.

Lawson’s protagonist is an adjunct to her husband: ‘The drover—an ex-squatter—is away with sheep. His wife and children are left here alone.’

Purcell begins her story with a prelude set in 1913. A thirty-two-year-old man flicks through the pages of a notebook he has kept since boyhood.

Contained between the pages of the old notebook is the story of a great woman, strong, steadfast, reliable and loving: his ma, Molly Johnson, nee Stewart. Daughter of Jock Stewart, Scotsman and jack-of-all-trades.

Lawson offers his 19th century readers a nameless woman with no backstory; Purcell gives her 21st century ones a stoic but tender Molly whose lineage seems to peg her firmly within a man’s world.

  • The female cast

Purcell incorporates a raft of named female characters in her more expansive story.

In the novel, ‘Black Mary—the “whitest” gin in all the land’ from Lawson’s tale, is given a new and proper name (Waraganj). Then there’s Molly’s daughter Delphi, minister’s wife Miss Shirley, social agitator and journal editor Louisa Clintoff, Ngarigo medicine woman Ginny May, various members of the white-settler Edwards family, (Florence, Bertha, Eleanor, Ulla and little Leaellyn), and brothel owner Elpida Sava.

  • The ‘Guugu Yimithirr adopted Ngarigo’ man

But it is not only women who are accorded the honour of a name in the reimagined story. There is Yadaka—Purcell’s equivalent of Lawson’s unnamed ‘stray blackfellow’. Soon after Yadaka and Molly first meet, Yadaka introduces himself:

The Aboriginal man steps forward and offers his hand, saying: ‘Yadaka. Of the Guugu Yimithirr adopted Ngarigo’ … Molly doesn’t take his hand but says, ‘Missus Joe Johnson’.

It is a long time before Molly discloses her first name to Yadaka.

In a pivotal scene, she finally opens up: ‘“Molly, pet name to Mary” … Yadaka catches his breath, shocked she’s offered this piece of personal information … Her name.’

No longer ‘Missus Joe Johnson’, Molly is in the process of becoming and acknowledging her own self. Revealing her name is part of that journey.

 

Storytelling

There are different kinds of stories, and different purposes for storytelling.

In The Drover’s Wife, Molly tells stories to her children to pass the time as they walk, and to fill their long and isolated nights. Yadaka tells his personal story as well as one that has been entrusted to him—a story that ‘someone needs to know’. Louisa Clintoff channels her experiences in a new land into ‘a great story to write home to her parents’. And, as a grown man, Molly’s son Danny retells the story of a childhood at his mother’s side, understanding it as a ‘story of survival’.

  • Molly

Main Range Walk, Snowy Mountains. Etienne Maujean / CC BY

On Sundays, Purcell’s Molly (like Lawson’s drover’s wife) goes walking with her children. The children, says Molly, ‘love our walks. We make up yarns and see who can spin the best story for the longest time.’ The children have heard Molly’s stories many times over but, as she says, ‘that’s what life stories are for: to be told and retold. To remember. The memories livin’ on long after you’re gone. Family history.’

  • Yadaka

Yadaka shares his life story with Molly and then discovers he’s ‘a little embarrassed to have revealed so much of himself. He hasn’t felt safe, ever, to share that story with anyone, until now.’ When Molly asks why he has chosen to tell her, Yadaka replies:

A life’s story untold is a life not lived.

But it’s not only his own story Yadaka has to share. He’s been entrusted with another story by his adopted Ngarigo mother, Ginny May. It’s a story the Ngarigo woman ‘held very dear but was forbidden to share with others in her clan’. When Molly hears the story, she is shocked. Yadaka offers some calming words: ‘It’s the truth, your truth. I was given it by a great woman. Part of my lore—our lore—is to share the stories so we live long into tomorrow and beyond.’

  • Louisa

Towards the end of The Drover’s Wife, Molly Johnson talks with Louisa Clintoff, an Englishwoman newly arrived in the colony. Louisa has accompanied her husband, Sergeant Nathan Clintoff, to the high country. While he enforces British law, she plans to run a newspaper championing women’s rights.

Molly admonishes Louisa for her first journalistic effort: ‘You write from the outside’, observes Molly. Louisa protests that she has been trying to ‘give women a voice’. Molly replies: ‘I could only hear—you’. Suitably chastened, Louisa asks: ‘Can I hear your story, Molly?’ And Molly obliges, ‘for my children’.

  • Danny

Twenty years on, at the novel’s end, Danny looks back over the years since 1893. He stands beside his mantelpiece where an old framed copy of Louisa’s The Dawn rests on the shelf. The journal’s headline reads: ‘The Drover’s Wife: Molly Johnson’s Story’. Surrounded by his own wife and children, Danny says: ‘It’s the story I lived, it’s the story I have told and will retell. The story of survival I will pass down.’

Snowy Mountains as seen from Kosciuszko Lookout. Cimexus from Canberra, Australia / CC BY

The stories of people and places continue being told. From mouth to mouth, from pen to page, from culture to culture.

And thanks to Leah Purcell, Lawson’s unnamed wife now has a story of her own.

 

Background

Leah Purcell. © Marnya Rothe. Used with permission.

Leah Purcell is a Goa, Gunggari, Wakka Wakka Murri woman.

Her play, The Drover’s Wife, opened at Sydney’s Belvoir Street Theatre in September 2016. It won a swag of awards in 2016 and 2017.

Purcell has also written and directed (and starred in) the film The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson. A Bunya Productions/Oombarra Productions collaboration, the film is scheduled for release in 2020.

In a 2018 interview for Screen Australia, Purcell said that her love of storytelling ‘came from her mother reading her “The Drover’s Wife” often when she was a little girl. “It was my favourite and she’d read and recite it to me day after day.”’ It was when Purcell was working on the 2006 film Jindabyne, that she knew ‘the dramatic sweep of the country around the Monaro and the Snowy Mountains was the right place to tell her version of The Drover’s Wife’.

 

Links and Sources

Image credits

Aboriginal Australia map, section showing location of Ngarigo country. The Encyclopaedia of Aboriginal Australia. David Horton (ed.)

Bushfire Books for Children

The 2019–2020 Australian bushfire season began early. Weeks turned to months and the fires expanded and intensified. Words like ‘catastrophic’ and ‘unprecedented’ peppered the media reports. The coverage was unremitting—television, radio, newspapers and social media. Constant updates; microscopic detail.

Some children were directly impacted by the fires. They lost relatives, homes, pets, treasured possessions, favourite places. Others were affected indirectly—disrupted holiday plans, cancelled activities, unrelenting smoke haze. Sometimes, the impact was felt internally, and manifested as anxiety, fear, lassitude, sadness.

Australian authors of children’s books have written about bushfires for many years, but particularly in the last decade following the 2009 Black Saturday fires in Victoria. These  books provide a way to open conversations with children who have been affected by the fires. There is comfort in knowing other children, even fictional ones, have experienced the same losses. And storybook children can offer new ways and words for exploring and comprehending the emotional and psychological impact of fires.

Here is a selection of some of those books about bushfires. The selection is separated into two categories—picture books and junior fiction—with the most recent publications listed first.

PICTURE BOOKS

Cover image courtesy of the publisher.

The House on the Mountain / Ella Holcombe (text); David Cox (illus.) (2019)

Point of view: 3rd person (girl)     Ages: 7+

Author Ella Holcombe’s parents died in the 2009 Black Saturday fires in Victoria. In her picture book, Holcombe seeks to capture ‘something about continuity, about movement, about regrowth’. Told from a child’s perspective, The House on the Mountain captures the fear and confusion of both adults and children. It describes the noise of a bushfire and the silence after it passes; the experience of staying in a community evacuation centre; the displacement of relocation when a house is lost; and the ongoing, sometimes inexpressible trauma.

Teaching resources available via the Allen & Unwin website.

Cover image courtesy of the publisher.

Through the Smoke / Phil Cummings (text); Andrew McLean (illus.) (2019)

Point of view: 1st person (plural, 2 boys and one girl)     Ages: 4+

Through the Smoke tells the story of a fire through the lens of imaginative play. Three children play in the bush near farmland, creating a medieval world with mock swords at the ready. When a dragon (fire) appears, they take cover in their imagined kingdom of Everdell. Before long, knights (firefighters) arrive and quench the dragon’s fire with ‘sabres of silver water’ (hoses).

Cover image courtesy of the publisher.

Spark  / Adam Wallace (text); Andrew Plant (illus.) (2016)

Point of view: The fire     Ages: 6+

Fire is Spark’s narrator. ‘I began as a tiny spark all alone in the dry grass.’ The spark seems an innocuous thing until captured by the wind. ‘We tore through forests. We flew over rivers. We razed homes. The clouds cried.’

The book’s illustrations start small, grow in size, and subside again as the fire dies. The text is handwritten (by the illustrator, Andrew Plant) giving the words a lively presence on the page.

While suitable for lower and upper primary school children, this book could also be used with older age groups exploring concepts of design, visual language, point of view and anthropomorphising.

Teaching resources are available from the publisher, Ford St.

Cover image courtesy of the publisher.

The Bushfire Babies / Debra O’Halloran (text and illus.) (2016)

Point of view: 3rd person     Ages: 3–6

Four young animals—an echidna, an emu, a wallaby and a possum—are stranded by a bushfire. They team up to search for their mothers and to find food, water and shelter. The animals are rescued by a firefighter, cared for, and released into unburnt forest. In a reassuring ending, each animal finds its mother.

Three further picture books for very young children that feature the impact of bushfires on Australian fauna are Aleesah Darlison’s Mama and Hug (2016), Maryanne O’Flynn’s Polka Dot Float (2015), and Joanne Crawford and Grace Fielding’s Bilby and the Bushfire (2007). Bilby and the Bushfire is no longer in print, but it is available second hand and in some public libraries. It is worth seeking out for Fielding’s illustrations which combine traditional dot art with contemporary art styles.

One of Grace Fielding’s illustrations from Bilby and the Bushfire

Cover image courtesy of the publisher.

Fire / Jackie French (text); Bruce Whatley (illus.) (2013)

Point of view: 3rd person    Ages: 4+

Jackie French’s text in Fire takes the form of rhyming couplets. The writing is spare and lyrical, leaving room for readers to explore the emotional range of the story. Bruce Whatley’s illustrations, as always, immerse the reader in the heart of the story.

The narrative takes a ‘circle of life’ approach—as time passes after the fire, there is room for grief, friendship and regeneration.

Fire is part of French and Whatley’s Flood/Fire/Cyclone collaboration. Whatley notes on his website: ‘Fire is probably the hardest thing I have tried to paint as its shape constantly changes’.

One of Bruce Whatley’s illustrations from Fire.

Scholastic has teaching resources available for Fire. Enquire directly with the publisher, or key the following terms into a search engine to find a direct link: fire french whatley resources.

JUNIOR FICTION

Cover image courtesy of the publisher.

Bushfire: A Story of Bravery and Survival / Sally Murphy (2019)

Point of view: 1st person (girl)     Ages 9+

Sally Murphy’s Bushfire is part of Scholastic’s My Australian Story collection, a series of carefully researched novels, each depicting ‘a young person living during an important event or time period in Australian history’. Bushfire’s setting is 2009, during Victoria’s Black Saturday bushfires.

Amy is staying with her grandmother in Marysville. Her older brother is in the UK on a gap year; her mother, a climate scientist, is travelling overseas for work; and her father is employed by Parks Victoria and volunteers as a firefighter. On the day of the bushfire, Amy and grandmother face the fire alone. Murphy includes detailed information on enacting a fire plan and preparing for evacuation. The book also includes historical notes, factual inserts, explanatory notes on climate change, and ‘Ten Ways to Fight Global Warming’.

Cover image courtesy of the publisher.

47 Degrees / Justin D’Ath (2019)

Point of view: 3rd person (girl)     Ages: 10+

Justin D’Ath’s  47 Degrees, like Sally Murphy’s Bushfire, is set during the 2009 Black Saturday fires. D’Ath’s own home was destroyed in those fires and much of his personal experience is channelled into his fictional narrative.

Zeelie is preparing to start Year 7 when the bushfire strikes. Zeelie’s mother and younger brother are in Melbourne and unable to return home. Zeelie and her father enact their fire plan and evacuate from Flowerdale to a community centre in Yea.

D’Ath effectively captures the challenges of caring for pets during a bushfire; the constant interactions with, and the kindness of, strangers; and Zeelie’s underlying sense of displacement and anxiety.

Teaching resources are available from the publisher, Penguin Australia.

Cover image courtesy of the publisher.

Where There’s Smoke / John Heffernan (2010, 2019)     

Point of view: 3rd person     Ages: 10+

Luke and his mother are escaping family violence and building a new life in a small, regional community. The fear of being discovered by Luke’s father (the perpetrator of the violence) is ever present, but then a new danger emerges—bushfire. Heffernan introduces a range of characters, from different age groups, ethnicities and socio-economic backgrounds, to build a sense of community and relationship.

Heffernan’s story is particularly effective in conveying the way the community comes together to care for vulnerable people. The shock of a sudden fire is well realised, as is the resultant trauma.

Cover image courtesy of the publisher.

Now / Morris Gleitzman (2010)

Point of view: 1st person (girl)     Ages: 10+

In Now, Morris Gleitzman, picks up the story of Felix, the young Polish Jewish boy he introduced in the novels Once and Then. Now moves Felix’s story forward from his childhood in World War II Europe to his old age in the bush-covered ranges to Melbourne’s east.

Felix, now an octogenarian and retired surgeon, is sharing his home with his granddaughter Zelda. (Zelda’s parents are doctors working in Darfur.) Felix and Zelda share a close bond and their relationship is drawn with great detail and affection by Gleitzman.

When a bushfire strikes, Felix and Zelda fight off ember attacks and spot fires as best they can, but soon realise they can neither extinguish the flames nor escape to safety. They bunker down in a hole and survive the fire with the assistance of dampened blankets, the contents of Felix’s medical bag and a dose of good fortune.

Throughout the novel, memories of Felix’s wartime experiences are triggered by everyday occurrences and by the realities of living in extremis.

Now won a Speech Pathology Australia Book of the Year Award in 2011 and was shortlisted for the Australian Book Industry Awards (Book of the Year for Older Children) and the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards (Children’s Fiction). In 2010, it was also shortlisted for the UK Guardian’s Children’s Fiction Prize.

Teaching resources are available from the publisher, Penguin Australia.

Cover image courtesy of the publisher.

Ash Road / Ivan Southall (1965, 2013)

Point of view: 3rd person     Ages: 12+

Ash Road was originally published when the grandparents of today’s children were children themselves. Its author, Ivan Southall, died over a decade ago. But, despite its sometimes dates language, Ash Road remains a classic for both children and older readers.

Three youths—all male, and itching to stretch their wings of independence—accidentally start a bushfire while camping. Southall explores the ramifications of the boys’ actions in their own lives and in the lives of those impacted by the fire. The character development is complex and sophisticated. Interior lives are fleshed out and emotional responses explored. Adult characters are realistically flawed. Across the generations, there is panic and meanness and desperation; but there is also courage and personal growth.

A compelling aspect of Ash Road for today’s readers is the scenario of being confronted by a bushfire without the communication back-up of mobile phones or social media or even ABC radio updates.

Ash Road won the Children’s Book of the Year Award from both the Children’s Book Council of Australia and the New York Times Book Review in 1966.

Teaching resources for Ash Road are available from Reading Australia.

LOOKING FOR MORE?

There are many other Australian books with a bushfire theme. When searching Australian library catalogues for books about bushfires, use (separately) the subject terms Wildfires and Forest fires, in combination with Australia, and either Juvenile literature or Juvenile fiction.

Cover image courtesy of the publisher.

This blog post focuses on fictional works. A good starting point for those looking for non-fiction responses to bushfire is Neil Grant and David Williams’ From Kinglake to Kabul. First published in 2011, the book is an anthology of writing created by students from Kinglake, Victoria and Kabul, Afghanistan. Each of the student contributors has experienced tragedy, either in bushfire or war; each finds a way forward.

Published by Allen & Unwin, From Kinglake to Kabul is suitable for students in the early years of secondary school. Teaching resources are available via Allen & Unwin’s website.

LINKS AND SOURCES

  • All books referenced in this blog post were sighted at the National Library of Australia. One criterion for selection was that the books be easily accessible through public or school libraries, or available for purchase through bookstores or from the publisher. For this reason, some older and out-of-print books were excluded.
  • The Australian Psychological Society offers a range of information sheets to assist people recovering from bushfires. One sheet is specifically for ‘parents and carers looking after children who have been affected by bushfires’.

The final illustration in Jackie French and Bruce Whatley’s Fire. ‘And time itself defeats the pain As dry air thickens into rain.’