Reach For The Dream
Anne McCullagh Rennie
Penguin Books Aus
Copy courtesy of the publisher
Alice is only 8 when her life changes forever. A bushfire takes not only her family home but also part of her family and not long after Alice and her 5yo brother Ben are sent to live with their father’s sister, their Aunt Bea in the small farming town of Billabrin. Although lonely and missing her parents and her old life, Alice falls in love with rural life. She cares for her aunt and uncle’s goats and dreams of one day owning her own property and breeding the best wool sheep in the country.
As she grows up, Alice faces setback after setback, tragedy reappearing in her life until finally she leaves her dream behind and flees overseas to England for a new life. Betrayed by her resentful cousin and the man she loved, Alice seeks a new life working as an assistant in a laboratory, far away from her bush and the outback. But she never forgets her dream of owning her own property and acquiring the best sheep, building a wool dynasty.
When once again Alice finds herself knocked down she decides to return home to the bush and put her dream in place. It’s going to take a lot of hard work – the area is in a drought and although this has brought prices of land and stock down, it’s driven up the price of feed. Alice faces discrimination because she’s a woman and a single one at that and hardship as she seeks to build from the ground up. And of course she is returning to the area that houses her first love, the man she’s never been able to forget, even overseas in London. But it’s going to take something of a miracle for the two of them to finally be able to find the happiness together they have long desired.
Reach For The Dream is a sprawling rural story focusing on Alice who is 8 at the beginning of the book. Her bush smarts and paying attention to her mother’s drills saves her and her younger brother’s lives when a bushfire rips through their property and destroys almost everything in its path. Unable to cope in the aftermath, Alice’s father takes her and her brother to his sister and leaves them there, even though they already have four of their six children living with them in their small 2 bedroom house. There Alice finds solace and comfort in her Aunty Bea and comes to love the land and the animals on it however she is always dealing with the jealous underhandedness of her cousin Katie, who resents the arrival of Alice and the theft of her parent’s affections.
This is the sort of book where anything that can happen to the main character, will. Alice suffers with deaths, bullying, loss, grief and betrayal, makes a fresh new start only for the cycle to repeat several times throughout the book. However each time she manages to pick herself up and dust herself off and begin again with a kind of grim determination. No matter what is thrown her way, Alice is unwavering in her goals, be they her own property in Australia or a work/life balance in London. It’s just unfortunate that things keep happening to her although it must be said that some of them are of her own doing or more accurately, her inaction. Alice has a lot of determination to get things done but she has very little spine/backbone and is walked all over by Katie when they are children. This becomes a bit tedious as the story goes on because Katie is really the most horrible character with zero redeemable features but yet the reader is never satisfied in relation to her actions. It’s just her inherent selfishness and jealousy coming up again and again and she’s so overdone that I stopped feeling sorry for Alice and started wanting her to just defend herself.
The love between Robert and Alice is very swift and all-encompassing despite the fact that they only interact two or three times before they are torn apart. It also forms a huge part of their lives for the next ten plus years – both are unable to forget the other and their love for each other colours every other relationship they form and perhaps because of this, the choices they make are very poor ones. Robert is perhaps not entirely to blame for his but his stupidity got him into the situation that enabled someone else to force his hand anyway, because he was acting like a child. Alice however, should’ve heeded the warning bells a long way out but in typical Alice fashion, just buried her head in the sand and pretended it wasn’t happening and just went along with it.
The story picks up a lot when Alice returns to Australia. The most interesting thing for me was her acquiring her own property and buying her stock and putting her dream into action. For me that should’ve been a much larger part of the story than it was – the England section dragged a lot and could’ve been a lot shorter. Most of it wasn’t important to the core story. I’d have liked to read more about Alice and her uncle fixing up the house, more about the building up of stock rather than just a couple of brief sales scenes. The whole farm thing is a dream for me that I won’t actually ever make reality but I enjoy reading about others doing so. And given Alice had been so passionate about it for so long, it would’ve been nice to be a bit more involved as the reader in that part of the story.
Although I enjoyed some of the relationships in the book, such as the ones Alice forms with her aunt and her gruff uncle and I found the story of Alice’s dream in setting up her property when women weren’t really doing that sort of thing (the book starts in around 1951) really interesting, it didn’t get deep enough into that for me and I wasn’t overly invested in Alice as a character until the end of the book, when she returned to Australia. Prior to that her passivity frustrated me and although I know she grew up a certain way, being quiet and unobtrusive and not causing trouble in her new household, there comes a time when you just can’t be a victim anymore. For Alice that was when she decided to return to Australia and she had a bit of a new attitude – she confronted people when she thought they’d done her wrong. Her best scene was the one where she goes to demand an explanation from the real estate agent who allows someone else to gazump her on purchasing a property neighbouring hers. For me, this part of the story needed to be longer and the England section shorter.
Book #47 of 2014
Reach For The Dream is book #17 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014