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.)

Words for Winter—Australian Children’s Books

Winter in Australia. What picture forms in your mind when you read those words? Beanie-clad children throwing snowballs? Chilly afternoons at the footy? Maybe you’re imagining a goanna hunt, or perhaps you’re thinking about an altogether different name for the cold season—Wurrgeng.

English-language children’s books with winter settings often feature seasonal motifs from the northern hemisphere. Think of C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe: ‘It is winter in Narnia,’ said Mr. Tumnus, ‘and has been for ever so long …  always winter, but never Christmas’, or Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising which opens on mid-winter’s eve: ‘The Dark has its strongest power of all rising between now and the Twelfth Day. This is their preparing. Theirs is a cold strength, the winter feeds it.’

But winter in Australia doesn’t coincide with Christmas or the Twelfth Day, and it doesn’t always bring snow. How have Australian authors interpreted the season in their writing for children?

Here is a collection of Australian titles about, or set in, winter. There are picture books, junior fiction titles, books for readers in early adolescence, and poems.

PICTURE BOOKS

Cover image courtesy of Allen & Unwin

The Snow Wombat /  Susannah Chambers (text); Mark Jackson (illus.) (2016)

Ages 3+

Wombat traverses a snowy landscape through Australia’s high country, encountering a variety of fauna and flora, en route to a warm, deep burrow. Lilting, sometimes rhyming, text; double-page, borderless illustrations.

Snow on the stockman’s hut.
Snow on the crows.

Snow on the woolllybutt.
Snow on my…
nose.

(Shortlisted for 2017 CBCA Book of the Year, Early Childhood)

Cover image courtesy of Stephen Michael King

A Bear and a Tree / Stephen Michael King (text and illus.) (2012; 2019)

Ages 3+

Ren is sad that her favourite tree has lost its leaves. Her friend, Bear, needs to hibernate, but keeps Ren company for a time before gathering some of the leaves he has collected for his winter bed and placing them on Ren’s favoured tree.

A Bear and a Tree was first published in 2012. It is no longer available as a separate book, but it is included in the 2019 release, The Puffin Book of Bedtime Stories.

Cover image courtesy of Penguin Random House

Snow Rabbit, Spring Rabbit: A Book of Changing Seasons / Il Sung Na (text and illus.) (2011)

Ages 3+

Although not created by an Australian author, I’m sneaking this one in because of its world-wide appeal. South Korean author/illustrator Il Sung Na traces the winter lives of land animals, sea creatures, and birds across different continents, and through a variety of  seascapes and landscapes. With minimal text, the reader follows creatures that hibernate, migrate, change layers (fur, feathers) for winter warmth, and search for food in inhospitable environments.

First published in Australia as A Book of Winter (2009) by Koala Books, it is now available through Penguin Random House as Snow Rabbit, Spring Rabbit: A Book of Changing Seasons.

(Selected for the Best of 2011 Children’s Books List by Kirkus Reviews)

Cover image courtesy of Little Pink Dog Books

Johnny’s Beard / Michelle Worthington (text), Katrin Dreiling (illus.) (2018)  

Ages 5+

Johnny’s beard is his pride and joy. One day, he meets some animals and birds afraid of freezing when the snow comes. Johnny offers a warm, safe haven in his splendiferous’ beard, but soon regrets his decision—the creatures stab and peck and poke. Johnny chops off his beard. The creatures snuggle into their hairy nest, and, come spring, Johnny sports a new whiskery adornment—a moustache.

(Shortlisted for 2019 Speech Pathology Australia Book of the Year Awards, 5–8 years)

Cover image courtesy of OUP

Winnie and Wilbur in Winter / Valerie Thomas (text) and Korky Paul (illus.) (2016)

Ages 5+ (Series: Winne and Wilbur)

Although Valerie Thomas is an Australian author, Winnie and Wilbur in Winter has a distinctly northern hemisphere feel. Winnie, a witch, and her black cat, Wilbur, are  tired of winter so Winnie casts a spell and turns her immediate environment into summer. Her garden erupts—hibernating animals waken, spring flowers bloom and wither in the heat, neighbours crowd around seeking warmth. Winnie casts a new spell and returns to winter. With a good slug of hot chocolate and a serve of muffins, she decides that ‘Winter is lovely too’.

Cover image courtesy of Honeyant

Tracking and Hunting Ruumiya / Margaret James (text); Jesse Young (illus.) (2018)

Ages 5+

This book, part of the Reading Tracks series, was originally designed for ‘Indigenous learners, Middle School age and older’, but is also suitable for younger children.

The book opens:

It is winter in the Western Desert, real cold.
The land is dry and the grass is long.

A young girl, her older sister and their cousin set out on a goanna hunt. (The Luritja word for goanna is ‘Ruumiya’.)  ‘The goanna is sleeping because it is winter, and its body slows down in the cold.’ The family group catch a goanna, gut it, and cook it under hot coals. Later, they ‘light the long, dry grass … so it will burn down and clear the country’, enabling them to ‘see the goannas’ burrows better next time’.

Tracking and hunting Ruumiya was inspired by a hunting trip led by Elder Daisy Tjupamtarri Ward in her country near Warakurna in the Ngaanyatjarra Lands, Central Desert.

Cover image courtesy of Starfish Bay Publishing

Seed Magic / Natalie McKinnon (text); Margaret Tolland (illus.) (2018)

Ages 6+

A gentle spider shows Anxious Ant how seeds can be saved over winter and planted in the spring, thereby yielding new food for another season.

(Starfish Bay is due to publish The Wildlife Winter Games in late 2019: ‘Competing against each other in 10 winter sporting events are a selection of Arctic and Antarctic creatures that are experts on snow and ice.’)

SEASONAL PICTURE BOOKS

The next three books take readers through one year’s complete seasonal cycle.

Cover image courtesy of Penguin Random House

All through the Year / Jane Godwin (text); Anna Walker  (illus.) (2010)

Ages 3+

It’s hard to go past any book with illustrator Anna Walker’s name on the cover, and Jane Godwin’s text uses rhyme effectively.

Teachers’ resources for this book are available via Reading Australia.

(Shortlisted for the 2011 Australian Book Industry Awards, Book of the Year for Younger Children)

Cover image courtesy of HarperCollins

The ABC Book of Seasons / Helen Martin and Judith Simpson (text); Cheryl Orsini (illus.)  ( 2014)

Ages 3+

A book for the very young. From an illustrated selection in the section on winter, children choose which clothes are most suited to cold weather.

(Shortlisted for the 2015 Speech Pathology Australia Book of the Year Awards, 5–8 years)

Cover image courtesy of Allen & Unwin

Walking with the Seasons in Kakadu / Diane Lucas (text); Ken Searle (illus.)  (2005)

Ages 5–16

‘In the Gundjeihmi-speaking people’s land in Kakadu, there are six seasons in the year.’ The months of June, July and August fall in the season of Wurrgeng when the mornings are cool and the wind blows from the south-east. The creeks dry up, but the floodplains are rich with flowering waterlilies and visiting birds, insects and people. Freshwater crocodiles (gumugen) lay eggs, the blue quandong (yirrlalal) flowers and fruits, the kapok trees (andjed) lose their leaves, and the yams (angindjek and garrbaba) are ready to dig. This is a book to pore over and learn from.

Detailed teachers’ notes are available via Allen and Unwin.

JUNIOR FICTION

Cover image courtesy of Penguin Random House

Goblin in the Snow / Victor Kelleher (text); Stephen Michael King (illus.) (2010, 2014)

Ages 6–7   73pp. (Series: Gibblewort the Goblin) Adventure

Gibblewort the goblin thinks he is headed for Austria but, at the last minute, the address label on his postbag is changed to ‘Snowy Mountains, Australia’. In his unexpected destination, Gibblewort encounters snow gums and brumbies and a wedge-tailed eagle. His adventures continue when he inadvertently becomes a champion snowboard rider. Eventually, Gibblewort is trapped in a giant snowball and has to wait until the spring thaw before he can make his way home to Ireland.

This title, first published in 2010, is no longer available as a separate book, but is included in the 2014 release, Gibblewort the Goblin: The Winter Escape Collection. (The second title in the collection, Goblin at the Zoo, is set in Australia, but not noticeably during winter.)

Cover image courtesy of HarperCollins

Baffled! / Jen Storer (text); Claire Robertson (illus.) (2018)

Ages 8+ 288pp. (Series: Truly Tan) Mystery

Clearly set in the depths of winter, this story opens with Tan and her sisters quoting lines from Shakespeare’s ‘Blow, blow thou winter wind’. The  winter season plays a role in the story: there are preparations for the Royal Winter Lantern Festival and a competition to crown the Winter Queen. Meanwhile, Tan is kept busy with secret spy business—investigating the Windrustle sisters and their seemingly haunted house.

BOOKS FOR YOUNGER ADOLESCENT READERS (Ages 11+)

The three books listed below are out of print but, given the stature of their authors, copies are still available in public libraries and can also be obtained through second-hand booksellers.

The Winter Door / Isobelle Carmody  (2006)

Ages 11-14 315pp. (Series: The Gateway Trilogy) Fantasy

Rage Winnoway longs to return to the land of Valley but finds it ‘destroyed by a cruel, enchanted winter flowing through a gateway from another world’. (Quote from author’s website.)

When the Mountains Change Their Tune / Eleanor Stodart (1985)

Ages 12+ 140pp. Adventure

Four male youths set out from Canberra and head to Guthega for a cross-country skiing adventure. They become trapped by a blizzard on the top of Dicky Cooper Bogong. One of the party is injured in a fall; another develops hypothermia. Now lost, the boys build a snow cave to survive. Although two boys return to Guthega, a search party has already begun looking for the missing contingent. All return safely.

Although the language is slightly dated, Stodart’s story moves at a good pace and contains detailed information on skiing.

Winged Skis / Elyne Mitchell (text); Annette Macarthur-Onslow (illus.) (1964)

Ages 12+ 247pp. Adventure

Fourteen-year-old Barry Milton is living with his parents in Thredbo while continuing his education by correspondence. Barry teams up with 17-year-old Michael Hastings and the pair take skiing lessons together, go on cross-country runs and compete in the NSW ski championships.

Elyne Mitchell’s in-depth knowledge of Australia’s high country is evident in detailed accounts of the landscape around Geehi, Mount Twynam’s west spur, Jagungal and Mount Sentinel, and she includes precise descriptions of snow conditions and skiing manoeuvres.

Mitchell also weaves a range of literary references into her story, including quotes from David Campbell’s, ‘Winter Stock Route’.

Despite somewhat dated language, the book may well appeal to readers who are skiing enthusiasts.

POETRY

There are plenty of Australian poems featuring winter. A handy way to source these is via AustLit or the Australian Poetry Library using either keyword or subject searches. (Fees or subscriptions are required for complete access. Check details on the respective websites.)

Another avenue, for older poems, is the National Library of Australia’s Trove service. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, newspapers published poetry regularly. Poems found via Trove are generally out of copyright and can be freely used.

To round out this post, here are some brief extracts from Australian winter poems.

On winter afternoons
the city is a vast art gallery,
an exhibition of paintings and sketches:
views of streets, squares, buildings,
their perspectives muted in the dim light,
edges softened by a gentle rubbing of fog

From ‘Winter Afternoons’,  Poems in My Luggage / Colin Thiele (1989)

Our son splashes carefully home
from puddle to puddle,
Deep stepping stones.

We walk a shout behind
watching from our clothes
breathing clouds into the sky.

Around us the hard economy of winter,
frugal colour schemes, and underfoot
the worn currency of leaves.

From  ‘Winter Piece’, Readings from Ecclesiastes / Peter Goldsworthy (1982)

It is Morn—and the frost-bleaching hills are all white,
Like the bones of a summer world dead;
And the ice-crusted waters blink blind in the light,
Like the eyes in a sightless man’s head

From ‘A Winter Morning’ / Charles Harpur (1853)

NOTES

  • Age recommendations in this post are based on publisher and review websites, and on my own reading.
  • If you have other suggestions for this wintery list, please include them in a comment.

LINKS AND SOURCES

  • In Australia, publishers are legally required to deposit copies of their publications with the National Library of Australia. I was able to read all books cited in this blog post at the National Library—a cultural institution that has my ongoing affection and gratitude.
  • Reading Time, the journal of the Children’s Book Council of Australia, has reviewed some of the titles mentioned above as well as winter-themed books by non-Australian writers. You can find those reviews here.

Excerpt from Walking with the Seasons in Kakadu / Diane Lucas (text); Ken Searle (illus.)  (Allen & Unwin, 2005)