Book Review: An Alice Girl, by Tanya Heaslip • Glam Adelaide

Book Review: An Alice Girl, by Tanya Heaslip

MEMOIR: Tanya Heaslip’s extraordinary story of growing up in the late 1960s and early 70s on an outback property north of Alice Springs.

Tanya Heaslip can sure tell a yarn and in this memoir, written from the heart, we are swept along with her tale.

After reading Tanya Heaslip’s first novel, From Alice to Prague, I couldn’t wait to read her second book. An Alice Girl is another memoir, but this time based on her childhood growing up on a cattle station in Central Australia, just north of Alice Springs.

Tanya (3) moved to Bond Springs Station from Witchitie in the Flinders Ranges with her father Grant, mother Janice, sister M’lis (2) and brother Brett (1). Bond Springs is a small landholding in the MacDonnell Ranges. Her father knew nothing about cattle, but he was determined to make a go of this new life.

This is a story of true hardship, growing up on the land and trying to survive conditions we city folk will never truly understand: from the heat during the day to the freezing temperatures at night, where every drop of water is precious, droughts and snakes are a way of life and the threat of bushfires are always in the back of your mind.

Tanya and her siblings grow up fast. They are working on the land alongside the station hands as soon as they can sit on a horse. City children are still playing make-believe but kids in the 60s and 70s on the stations had a hard life. As well as their school learning with a teacher who is hundreds of kilometres away at the School of the Air in Alice Springs, they also have to put in hours and sometimes, days of work to muster cattle, feed animals, do household chores and the myriad other things necessary to keep a station going. Friends are people you may see once a year and you learn that even the smallest mistake can be fatal in this harsh land.

Heaslip tells a real and very raw story. Her father is strict. There is no time to cry or feel sorry for yourself. The children are taught the harsh lessons quickly and are expected to work as hard as the men. Everything her father did with the children was a lesson in survival. At times it seems like her father is too harsh but we see glimpses of real love for and from the parents who will do anything for their children.

Life in the 60s and 70s was very different for children in general. Corporal punishment was the norm and they were free to roam without fear. Being on a station just magnified the lives of city kids to a whole new level. Tanya is honest about her feelings and the story is heartfelt. There is joy at being able to play with siblings and being so close that you find it hard to breathe when you are separated, and meeting friends who you have only heard on the radio.

Even though Tanya loved her life on the station, with the endless horizons and the freedom to roam, she always felt drawn to books and her imagination, fuelled by the stories she read. She loved to write and escape to different places and new worlds.

There are lots of memories that this story evokes for those who grew up in that era. We all remember the Happy Venture reading books with Dick, Dora, Nip and Fluff, and we probably read the exploits of the children and the Faraway Tree. We can also remember the freedoms we had to go where we wanted without tight restrictions from our parents.

This story also touches on the plight of indigenous Australians and how they were an integral part of the early stations.

An Alice Girl is a good yarn which is brilliantly written, beautifully familiar, yet incredibly foreign to those who grew up in the city.

I was worried that this second book would not live up to my high expectations after enjoying her first novel so much, but I was not disappointed. The life of a young girl growing up on a cattle station makes for a darn good read.  

The overriding thing I take from this book is the harshness of life: the climate, the people, the land. But mixed in with that is the unbridled love for everyone and everything and the overwhelming desire to succeed.

Reviewed by Sue Mauger

Distributed by: Allen & Unwin
Released: May 2020
RRP: $32.99

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