Jun 12, 2015

Australia Week: Romancing Australia a Guest post by Kim Kelly

Australia is a place of contradictions, of droughts and floods, of sparkling blue oceans and red deserts, of warm generosity and cold, closed borders. Of beauty, and terror. It’s a big country, rich in every way, but a place where history is often only welcome when it casts the land and its people in a romantic light. Anzac soldiers, square-jawed horsemen, broad-shouldered shearers, bronzed surfers – we tend to give them all a bit of a rosy glow. 

Under the bright, unrelenting sun, or by the crackle of a campfire, Australians all love what we call a good yarn – a story that is more entertaining than necessarily truthful. With affection and questing curiosity, my own stories take the bold myths of our national yarns and comb through them for glimpses of the real stories inside the weave. And there, I find all sorts of forgotten wisps of the past that tell us something of who we are today: stories of immigrants from all over the globe, of those who struggled not only to make a home here, but to find peace, purpose and justice, too – those who carved out Australia’s famous egalitarianism in an often harsh environment.

The patch of country I call home is Central Western New South Wales, between the rugged foothills of the Blue Mountains and the ochre plains that stretch towards the desert, and my most recent novel, Paper Daisies, is set almost entirely here. In its history, it’s a region most associated with the British sheep graziers who were the first Europeans to settle on this land, and with the gold rushes of the 19th century which followed, bringing prospectors from all four corners of the earth to then dig it up. Chinese miners, German labourers and, of course, the Wiradjuri, the original custodians of the land, are a huge part of this region’s story, too, but we tend to forget them because so little remains in the landscape to show they were here. The Chinese mostly all returned home after the gold rushes, or were later forced to leave with the enshrining of the racist White Australia Policy into law in 1901; many of the German labourers, like those I am descended from, Anglicised their names and disappeared into the mainstream; while the Wiradjuri were moved off their land altogether and for the best part of a century denied free access to it. 

Paper Daisies takes up most brightly the Chinese thread in all this, and tells the story of two sisters, Berylda and Greta Jones, whose prospecting forbears came from both China and Wales. It is 1901, though, a time when it would not have been socially wise to admit to mixed race heritage. Australia had just become a nation under Federation, keen to shake of its colonial chains, but not keen at all to embrace the melting pot of cultures that made up its people. It was also a time when women in Australia, like those throughout the rest of the world, were generally denied independence and basic rights – they could not yet even vote. As a result of a family tragedy and the conventions of the times, Berylda and Greta are forced to live with their uncle, Alec Howell, the District Surgeon of Bathurst Hospital. He’s a cruel and sadistic man, but a powerful and attractive one. It will take all of Berylda’s wit and will to devise an escape from him. A brilliant student, she is determined to become a doctor herself so that she and Greta can leave.

Alec, of course, has his own scheme to thwart her, but as his trap around the girls tightens, in wander two strangers: a botanist, Ben Wilberry, who is searching for a particular native paper daisy in the area, and his friend the artist Cosmo Thompson. Wealthy and well-connected, the two men upset the balance of power in Alec Howell’s tight-run world, and by some clever manipulations Berylda manages to arrange for them to accompany her and her sister on an excursion to the nearby old mining town of Hill End, where Berylda plans to seek the counsel of a Chinese doctor there, to help her find a way out sooner rather than later.

Once a vibrant, bustling centre, by this time Hill End has been long-forgotten by the gold rushes, and is fast becoming a ghost town. Crumbling, tumbledown miners’ huts like the one above are disappearing back into the land, taking with them all trace of the tens of thousands who once lived here. It’s a place of decay and of secrets even more terrible than those Berylda must keep herself. 

You’ll have to read the novel to find out just what Berylda discovers when she gets there, but suffice to say here that justice is done, and not quite in the way many might expect. Ben, although he’s a big strapping lad and an excellent horseman in the tradition of outback heroes, doesn’t rescue the sisters. He doesn’t solve Berylda’s problem for her at all; rather, he clears the path so that she might solve it herself – just as women in Australia would win the right to vote the following year, in 1902, not by their fight alone, by with the support of decent men like Ben. And just like the contradictions of the Australia itself, out of bleak tragedy and struggle, the promise of a true romance blooms, like a paper daisy stretching up from the parched earth and turning towards the sun. 

Kim Kelly writes Australian historical fiction and, under the name Kim Swivel, is a well-known editor in the Australian book publishing industry. Her work has been described as having ‘a marvellous depth and authenticity based on some impressive research,’ (Daily Telegraph), ‘engaging, entertaining’ (Books+Publishing), and ‘Kim Kelly seems to understand the sounds and scents of the country’ (West Australian). She lives in the rolling hills of Central Western New South Wales on a small rural property just outside the heritage town of Millthorpe.


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