Reviewed by Wendy Lipke
Heart of the Sky is a story about the Australian outback and the stoic women, disadvantaged by the great distance from treatment and support but not immune to the ravages of disease.
Fiona McArthur, mother of five boys and a cricket fan, found inspiration for this book through Jane McGrath’s struggle with breast cancer and reading a book, Take my Hand, published in 2015 by Jo Wiles. The inspiring nursing stories from ten years of the McGrath Foundation as well as hearing about the many volunteers associated with breast cancer such as the ladies from the Knitted Knockers group prompted her to create her own story. Her own experiences as a rural midwife have given an authenticity to the information in Heart of the Sky. McArthur has credibility as a writer as she is an international best-selling author who has sold over two million books in twelve languages.
In Heart of the Sky the reader becomes aware of the hardship of life for women in the outback through Tess Daley who has taken on a twelve-month contract to be the inaugural breast care nurse in Mica Ridge, inland South Australia. This is a completely new experience for her. When she arrives she notices how “the morning sun burnished the saltbush and [made] the rocky ground the colour of copper” (5). It was so different from the green lushness of Coffs Harbour and she hoped it would help her overcome the grief from losing her husband.
She decides to stay at Blue Hills, a farm-stay homestead taking in boarders to help keep the bank at bay. It is here that Tess becomes absorbed into the lives of others sharing the same accommodation and work space.
Soretto, whose grandfather owns the property, works two days in town as receptionist for the Flying Doctor Service and the other five days carrying the weight of the station’s management while her grandfather, Lachlan, recovers from a serious farm accident. He has a courtly manner and far-reaching eyes and has acted as the father figure for his grand-daughter.
Eighty-year old Lorna is a purple-haired former district nurse who acts as hostess of the homestead when Soretto is busy outside. A widow, she likes to find out all she can about everyone she encounters and as one of the guests says can sometimes be “as subtle as a pick between the eyes” (42).
Dr Billie and her seventeen year old daughter Mia are the other females boarding here when Tess arrives.
Into this mix comes Charlie Fennes, a temporary pilot with film-star looks. Although others are unsure how a male boarder will fit in, Charlie proves himself with his willingness to help around the station and his ability to cook. But there is something about Charlie that unsettles both Soretto and Dr Billie.
Tess realizes that she has a lot to learn about the lives of people in this remote area as sixty year old cancer patient, Agnes Wilson, soon tells her. “I’m thinking that meeting a young city woman here to answer questions and help make things easier is a royal waste of time…doubt you’d know much about the things on the station that would make it easier for me” (23).
Almost like another character in the novel is the disease of breast cancer and as the story progresses the reader begins to learn more about the worries and procedures involved with this disease.
As Tess puts her heart and soul into this new job she discovers that she herself has experienced a process of healing and that she’d been incredibly lucky in finding this place. After the twelve months she decided to stay and Mica Ridge became her home and she became a valued part of the community. She had found “little towns, vast stations and a huge sense of belonging under a big sky” (272).
I love reading novels set in various parts of Australia as they allow me to travel and appreciate my place of birth without leaving home. We can all enjoy and learn something from reading this book, especially as the author writes in a style that is easy going but also compelling. I thoroughly enjoyed this book.
By Fiona McArthur