The Burnt Country by Joy Rhoades

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Reviewed by Rod McLary

The title of this new book may well be a nod to Dorothea Mackellar’s ‘I love a sunburnt country’.  There is certainly much that the book and the poem share – not the least of which is both authors’ love of the western country.  But in the novel, the country is burnt by a bushfire rather than – or more accurately not only – by the sun.  The threat of a bushfire and its later manifestation form the core of the story.

Joy Rhoades acknowledges that the book was inspired by the life of her grandmother who lived on a sheep station in New South Wales – inspired by but not based on – it is a story of fiction.  But for all that, there is an authenticity about the book which adds to its appeal.

Set in 1948 in New South Wales, The Burnt Country charts the experiences of Kate Dowd as the owner of Amiens – a sheep station – as she struggles with various challenges thrown before her.  Kate is twenty-five and, from her father, has inherited the property as well a half-sister Pearl born to Daisy who is an Aboriginal servant in the house.  Kate’s struggles as the new owner are exacerbated by the conflict with her patronising neighbour who sees himself as ‘landed gentry’, and the sexist attitudes of many Australian males in the immediate post-war period in Australia.

There are other secondary strands to the story which are interwoven with the key one of Kate’s struggles to keep the property.

One of the more confronting strands is the treatment of Daisy and Pearl.  Daisy is ‘an unmarried half-caste with a toddler born out of wedlock’ [14].  It was the policy of the Aborigines Welfare Board, at the time, to remove ‘half-caste’ children from their mothers and place them with white families to ensure they were raised correctly.  The spectre of the Board’s intervention hangs over Daisy and Pearl for much of the story until a rather novel solution is found.  Reflecting the place of the Aboriginal peoples in those less-enlightened times is the continual reference to Daisy by many of the characters as ‘the Abo’.  It is pointed out that, not only were Aboriginal people not included in population numbers but, when one died, no death certificate was issued.  No one cared enough. 

It seems the clear intention of the author to draw attention to the plight of the Aboriginal people and indirectly to remind her readers of the number of massacres of Aboriginal peoples which occurred in the 19th century [at least 240].  Particular reference is made to the 1838 Myall Creek massacre which occurred in the area in which this story is set. The implication in the author’s words appears to be that the history of the Aboriginal peoples during white settlement should take its rightful place alongside that of the settlers and explorers.

The story of Daisy and Pearl is one the more poignant strands in the novel.

There is also the story of Harry – a thirteen-year-old boy – who seems not to be related to anyone on Amiens but whose welfare and future living arrangements are frequently under scrutiny.  The author has captured quite accurately the dual nature of an early teenage boy caught between childhood and adulthood and moving from one to the other and back again.  At times, Harry seems to be the most sensible person on the property but, at others, can be easily distracted by the promise of a gift.

But it is the story of the bushfire and its aftermath which creates the real impetus to the novel – and its tension.  It is at this stage that The Burnt Country becomes more than a story of sheep-farming and the trials and tribulations of a young woman on her own.  The scenes which describe the preparations taken in anticipation of the bushfire and the impact when it comes are particularly striking.

The whole crown of the box gum at the edge of the dam paddock burst into flames, the fire swallowing its trunk-line V, like a giant worshipper opening fiery arms.  Its neighbour followed, then the next and the next, until the dead tree trunk near the dam edge caught with a shower of sparks, a massive ember storm spewing ahead of the front. [156]

However, while it seems that some characters are drawn with a broad brush to make a point – whether it is about the latent misogyny of Australian men or the racism of the Aborigines Welfare Board and the police officers – some of them slip almost into caricature.  Two examples of this will suffice – the coroner and his attitude to a female solicitor: ‘which are you?  I believe you are wasting my time, young lady’ [276]; or the grazier: ‘the safety of the plane is not for women and children to be playing about with’ [187].

Some elements of the story tend towards the melodramatic – for example, the illicit affair between Kate and Luca.  Luca was an Italian prisoner-of-war in Australia and placed on the property to work.  The trajectory of their affair and the displacement of Kate’s husband Jack provides not much more than a romantic ‘breather’ during the real story of the bushfire.

In contrast, the smaller details – the sheepdog Gunner, the day-to-day routine of the station, the descriptions of the country – add an authenticity to the story and reflect the personal knowledge of the author.

Overall, The Burnt Country is an enjoyable read.  There is drama, tension, a love affair offset by the bushfire and its aftermath, and the attitudes towards women and the Aboriginal peoples.

The Burnt Country

[2019]

by Joy Rhoades

Penguin Books

ISBN 978 0 14 379372 4

353pp; $32.99

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