Reviewed by Ian Lipke
No doubt exists in my mind that Australia needs to wake to the fact that living within its shores is a major talent, a young woman whose Sisters of Freedom captures truly the spirit of the dawn of a federated nation. Society of the time led the way by drafting laws to give white women over the age of twenty-one the right to vote. Anything related to the suffragette movement usually leaves me cold. Mary-Anne O’Connor’s book is the exception.
O’Connor writes with warmth. Her characters are all different but the feeling of the author towards them eases through. She loves the three sisters – Frankie, the aspiring politician who denies love in her life but is assailed by it and capitulates with grace, finding her own way to deal with emotions she could not admit she had. Aggie, the housewife who cannot bear children who, with her husband Robert, becomes transfixed when offered a solution that might more than meet her maternal needs. Readers feel the agony and the ecstasy that follows. Then there is Ivy – I know of no character who exudes such love and strength as this beautiful, ethereal yet strikingly human, woman.
Often in books of this genre, the women characters are developed while their men are left alone. It is as though attempting to give men flesh is just too hard, that they are peripheral to the current tale anyway. O’Connor follows no such mantra. Riley, Patrick and Albert are not wooden characters but flesh and blood creatures who contribute to, and enhance the story. Riley has a warm and interactive personality who does more than his share to aid his river community. He lives an honourable life through positive choices by contrast with George and Donovan who die in ignominy.
O’Connor presents historical elements in her story. Unusually for this type of publication, they are accurate. The Hawkesbury River is located where Nature planned it to be. Historical events occurred in history where O’Connor records them as happening. She presents an informative chronology in an Author’s Note at the end of the book. Parent-less children were forced into Church-run orphanages. There are examples from history of ignorant priests like Brown, and children were taught by chanting just as the book describes.
The women’s movement to gain the right to vote is accurate but presented in a much more interesting way than can be found in any textbook. “This country needed womankind to have a voice, like one all-encompassing maternal figure. It needed that power so that they could change the way things were for people like Fiona and her daughters. For them all” (218). This is the key to suffragettism.
If a reader were to dissect Sisters of Freedom according to any recognised criteria the logicality of the work appears. The author begins with place names: Kuranda, the Merriweather family home; Sydney University where Patrick enters the story; the Sisters of Mercy orphanage – each inserting the events in a geographical location. There is an interlude before the place names are begun once more, this time in a location isolated from Kuranda. This is Hawkesbury River land. There is no difficulty knowing where readers are in the story.
I would hazard a guess that O’Connor believes in appropriate reward and punishment. The young couples, after some moments of dreadful suspense, are married. Aggie’s family woes are overcome. The villains, in a drunken brawl, exact vengeance on themselves. Only Donovan is left and in his fear of retribution staggers into a hell of his own making.
There is so much positive to say about the way the author presents this book. Highly recommended
By Mary-Anne O’Connor
$29.99; 384 pp