This is a darn good yarn and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Joy Rhoades was born in Roma, Western Queensland, so she has the knowledge of the land to help her write a novel set in the Australian bush. She comes from a family of graziers who owned a sheep farm. Her first novel was The Woolgrowers Companion which was inspired by her grandmother’s life.
A Burnt Country, Rhoades’ second novel, is the story of Kate Dowd, a young woman who runs a large sheep station in New South Wales. Everyone expects her to fail, particularly the owner of the large property next to hers. He has been born of generations of graziers and is doing everything he can to make sure she doesn’t succeed. Kate’s father was a soldier/settler: someone who was given some land after the war. He built up his farm by acquiring other smaller parcels of land till it had become an impressive 30,000 acres with seven thousand head of sheep.
Kate has a half-sister, Pearl, who was born to her father and the young aboriginal girl, Daisy, who worked for them in their house. This story is set firmly in the time when Aboriginal people had no rights. Children were taken from their families by the Aboriginal Welfare Board and placed within the homes of “good white families.” Their deaths were not recorded and their families received no death certificate. It was also in a time when women should be “seen and not heard”, much less have an opinion on anything that was remotely “men’s business”. A hard time for a young woman determined to keep her farm afloat.
Kate also has to contend with her estranged husband who is trying to get her to sell and so take a portion of her money. The local community also feel a woman should not be running a farm, let alone acknowledging an Aboriginal half-sister. Kate is a lone woman who is not taken seriously and needs to manage a property with men feeling the need to “teach her a lesson” or try to run her off the property. With the small town politics, they all hope she fails and do everything they can to ensure this. Even the bank manager is not on her side. She can have no opinion.
A Burnt Country has many underlying themes and it left me with a great sense of sadness over how our indigenous people have been treated. We Australians need to make sure we never forget our history with the Aboriginal people and our treatment of them. It has thankfully improved, but we still have a long way to go.
We also learn out about the Prisoners of War who worked in rural Australia during the war years and those who decided to come back after 1945 because they had fallen in love with our country. These men also had a hard time finding their way as they were treated with suspicion.
A Burnt Country is easy to read with short chapters and I always find this makes me want to keep reading “just one more chapter”. At 353 pages it is difficult to put down. I became totally invested in the lives of Kate and those around her.
Rhoades’ beautiful descriptions of the land make it easy to imagine the dryness of the country and the heat haze everywhere you look during our long hot summers. We can imagine the sounds of the magpies, cockatoos and rosellas in the eucalypts. We become invested in the characters’ lives and can imagine the fear of the graziers at the end of winter as the grass becomes dry and brittle, just waiting for a misplaced spark to set everything on fire. They needed to be ever-watchful.
I found myself wanting to jump in and tell the men around her that woman are just as capable and they need to mind their own business. It reminded me of my respect for those strong women who came before us and helped to pave the way for a better future.
Kate Dowd is gutsy and determined to survive in a man’s world where all the rules have already been set. This is a darn good yarn and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Reviewed by Sue Mauger
Distributed by: Penguin Books Australia
Released: August 2019