An Alice Girl by Tanya Heaslip

Reviewed by Wendy Lipke

Bond Springs Station, north of Alice Springs, was first settled in the 1870s by a Mr Willoughby and Mr Youl, after a daunting twelve-month wagon trek through central Australia. Australia’s Cattle King, Sydney Kidman, became the property owner in 1910, from whom Grant Heaslip purchased it in 1964. The original houses, saddle rooms and blacksmith shop still stand today. Since 1989 it has received visits from day trippers and in the past few years the homestead has been opened up to guests wanting to experience a little of life in the outback and enjoy the beauty of this different part of Australia.

This is where Tanya Heaslip, author of An Alice Girl, grew up and it is through her eyes and memories that readers can also enjoy some of this experience.

Grant and Janice Heaslip had four children, two girls and two boys. Tanya, the oldest, provides detailed descriptions of the countryside and experiences she was part of as she grew up in this remote part of Australia, north of Alice Springs.

The book is full of history and not just of the station. It is a history of the early days of the flying doctor and the use of the wireless to link widely separated stations with health services. It is a history of the ‘School of the Air’ allowing outback children greater access to education. Previously this was done by a governess as the mother was fully employed with feeding the many workers required to run such a property.

It is also a history of society’s values and attitudes during the late 1960/70s and the treatment of Aboriginal people at that time. The book gives the reader an insight into what children’s literature and music was popular at that time.

With a wife and three, then four, young children to support, the bulk of the management of the property fell on the shoulders of Grant Heaslip, who encapsulated many of the values and attitudes of the men of that time in Australia.

He, like many cattlemen, was a man of few words and was the ‘boss’. When he did speak it was about important things and as head of the family he expected to be obeyed. He was determined to teach his children endurance and resourcefulness to survive in this often-dangerous environment. He was not a man to give praise and believed that challenges strengthened people. By today’s standards he may be regarded as very severe on his children but Tanya tells us that her childhood was a precious time filled with raw honesty, humour, love and kindness.

Her mother, Janice, provided the unconditional love and cuddles that were rarely shown by their father and she had an ever-present desire to help the children engage with the outside world and with kids their own age (259) as most children from these isolated properties were prone to shyness.

Tanya believed that her parents loved each other deeply and their passion for each other, for their children and for Bond Springs was like a shining, golden thread that held them all together (267).

The author tells the reader that during her early years she learned much about adult life from her parents. She believed that when things went wrong or made harder than they should have been, the blame could usually be laid at the feet of the bloody bureaucrats, communists and Socialists but mainly the bloody bureaucrats. Other more helpful attitudes passed on to her were that she should always be vigilant and ever ready for the next disaster; that if she was not in control of her life, someone else would be (166); that preparation was the way to stay in front of any problems (245) and that no matter how big you are, the minute you show weakness, you’re finished (197). The biggest thing all the children learned was that you should never give up, as their father explained in his unique way – you had to get the cattle back to the yards, you couldn’t give up half way through.

Grant Heaslip passed away in January 2019.

This memoir covers the late 1960s until 1974 just before Tanya went to boarding school. It was the time in Australia when women teachers had to resign their teaching positions when they married. It was a time when women’s achievements were down played. In this memoir a comparison is drawn between John Flynn, who most Australians have heard of as the flying doctor but few are aware of the work of Adelaide Miethke in creating the School of the Air.

Tanya was not as much a bush kid as her siblings and soon realised that the life of a bush wife was not for her (263). She loved learning about other places in the world and dreaming of one day visiting them. She tells the reader that writing and typing stories on the orange typewriter she had been given was a passion over which she had no control. This did not mean that she avoided any of the hard work as all but the youngest boy became the stable work force for the running of the property. When not in the school room they were out chasing cattle, fighting fires and looking after the horses and other jobs that help to keep such a property running. Her oldest brother, was a wild bush kid and many of his humorous and not so humorous escapades are faithfully recorded in this book.

I found the vignettes of history, the visiting artist Brian Nunan and many of the other varied visitors to the property interesting and an inspiration to do further research, unearthing their stories and reasons for ending up on Bond Springs Station. Each would have an influence on the children as much as the environment, during their early years.

Tanya Heaslip’s love of words is evident in her writing. She manages to vividly share with the reader the emotions she and her siblings experienced from some of the simplest of things, like going to the drive-in for the first time to see The Sound of Music. Her writing is full of emotions – shyness, nervousness, eager anticipation, excitement, pride and disappointment. She was a day dreamer and happiest in her own world of words and magic and maybe this is what makes her writing so alive.

This is a very interesting and informative memoir and clearly shows how the early experiences of living on Bond Springs Station was so influential in the personalities of each of the siblings. Fortunately for readers, it helped develop in Tanya Heaslip a love of learning and a vivid imagination which is easily seen in her writing.  This love resulted in her first book Alice to Prague (published in 2019) which chronicled her journey to and love of the Czech Republic.

An Alice Girl, by Tanya Heaslip, took me into a time when I was growing up, not in such an isolated place but with similar attitudes and beliefs. Many younger readers may find a world such as this hard to believe, but it is a true account of life back at that time in history. The book is divided into named chapters so that it does not necessarily have to be read from cover to cover like most books. Twenty-four pages of family photos support the words that Tanya shares with her readers.

A wonderful book that shares with its readers a love of the Australian Outback. I thoroughly enjoyed being introduced to this remarkable family.

An Alice Girl

May (2020)

By Tanya Heaslip

Allen & Unwin

ISBN: 978-1-76052-977-2

$32.99; 344pp


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