I once spent a season working out west on the Hay plains on a Merino Sheep station, much the same as the one depicted in The Woolgrower’s Companion by Joy Rhoades.
As I began to read all these wonderful memories came flooding back. The descriptive prose immediately placed me in those wide-open spaces, with a community gripped in drought and the witnessing of the day to day survival of those on the land.
This novel is set in 1945. World War 2 is coming to a close, yet the young men have not yet returned. Some never will. Hence the government has put into place a scheme utilizing the Italian prisoners of war as labourers on properties where assistance to keep the properties going has been requested.
Up to now, Kate Dowd has led a sheltered life on Amiens, her family’s sprawling sheep station in Northern New South Wales. Her Father is ravaged from the aftermath of WW1, and Kate is finding herself increasingly having to take on the burden of running the station, a position she has not been trained for. This, of course, was not socially accepted either as women are meant to stay in the home, tend to the meals and to the children.
The Italian prisoners of war alarm her and make her uneasy, but she realizes that the labour is vitally needed. One, in particular, unnerves her, Luca Canali, and as much as she warns herself to stay away from him, she is also drawn to him. Confusion reigns as she is a newly married woman. A war bride, with a husband she barely knows, away like so many others fighting the war.
In the Amiens’ household, there is also Daisy, a young half caste Aboriginal woman, taken from her family to the Mission and now a domestic worker. A young orphan boy called Harry, nephew of the leading hand, Grimes and of course Kate’s father, unpredictable with his moods and his anger. At the core of this story is the plight of so many farmers, keeping their property viable in a bone breaking drought. Kate’s father, fighting ill health has put Ameins in jeopardy and it falls to Kate to find a solution.
The story weaves around the principle characters in unexpected ways, as the day to day life at the station unfolds. The brutality of some, the compassion of others, manipulations, desperation and unrequited love. It is all here. Though some of the plot was predictable at times, there were enough twists in the tale to keep me turning the pages.
I enjoyed the descriptions of the land and surrounding bush. Joy Rhoades descriptions of the property burst alive with birdsong, dust and the unrelenting sun. I became enraged at the social injustices of the Aboriginal people which I found was explored with truth, compassion and dignity. Daisy is a key figure in the story and I was fully invested in her journey.
Life on the land is not an easy life, even today, but I desperately wanted a happy ending. Was there a happy ending? Well, that would be telling.