The prologue of Spirits of the Ghan is set in 1876, when James McQillan took his teenage daughter Emily out on horseback to inspect a property he had bought and named Eleanor Downs in honour of his wife. James was bitten by a brown snake and died while on the inspection tour, which left Emily unable to find her way back to the homestead. Emily became part of an Aboriginal family who lived in the area, and accidentally met a fate which was not uncommon in that time, where Aborigines were hunted and killed to remove them from the land.
Rose is a Western Arunta woman, who was born in 1950 at Hermansberg in Central Australia. She was part of the Stolen Generation, removed from her parents at the age of six, and given to wealthy landholders on Eleanor Downs. She was expected to work there for the remainder of her life, but she escaped the drudgery by leaving the station with a young man who caught her eye. She travelled with him to Sydney where she met her life partner, an Irish musician and sound engineer named Toby. Toby and Rose married and had a daughter named Jess, and settled down to life in the Sydney suburb of Balmain. Their daughter Jess is the heroine of the story. Jess takes advantage of the fact that she has learned her mother’s native Arunta language, and goes on to study Anthropology and Indigenous Languages at Sydney University.
In the year 2000, Australia embarked on the construction of the railway line between Adelaide and Darwin. The train line follows the Overland Telegraph Line, and is known as the Ghan, in honour of the Afghan camel herders who facilitated freight transport in the early days. There was a need for anthropologists with language skills to negotiate with the local people of each area that the train line was passing through. Jess was employed and took a position based in Alice Springs.
Her work brings her in contact with a surveyor, Matt Witherton, who is the senior member of a group tasked with surveying the rail corridor north of Alice Springs. When Matt has a strange experience out in the field, he chooses to share it with Jess, who immediately suspects that her ancestors are trying to make contact with Matt. Matt is initially dismissive, but spiritual experiences continued to haunt him and he becomes determined to understand their meaning. Matt goes looking for answers with Jess at his side, and due to a strange co-incidence, they discover a sacred site unknown to local Aboriginal families. The site is in the path of the Ghan, and the race is on to save the site from desecration.
Judy Nunn once again weaves her magic, taking an historical and quintessentially Australian background and interlacing it into a storyline that makes it come alive for her readers.
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