The Sunnyvale Girls
Penguin Books AUS
Copy courtesy of the publisher
Flick is part of a three generation farming team, living and working on the land with her mother Toni and her grandmother Maggie. For Flick, the farm is everything – she’s never really wanted to leave and do anything else. However Toni wants her to take the money her grandfather left her and travel, have the opportunity to see the world, something Toni never was able to do. But Flick would rather stay on the farm and do up the old homestead. While she’s doing the floors she discovers a secret compartment and unearths a pile of letters from just after the Second World War.
When Maggie was a teenager during WWII, the family farm received some Italian prisoners of war to work. One of them, a handsome man named Rocco caught her eye and over the years Rocco lived and worked on the farm, he and Maggie fell in love. Their moments together were snatched and fleeting as Maggie’s mother would never have approved of them even speaking and socialising, let alone anything else. When Flick discovers the letters it opens up memories and secrets that Maggie has long kept hidden and it isn’t long before they all come spilling out, changing lives and causing rifts.
Toni and Flick journey to Italy on a quest to find some more answers, not just about the long-kept secret but also about themselves and what they really want.
The Sunnyvale Girls is rural queen Fiona Palmer’s latest offering and blends the contemporary with the historical, taking the reader back to the time of the Second World War and the Italian prisoners who were brought to Australia and held for the duration of the war. Some were in camps, others farmed out to properties as cheap labour, helping local farmers work the land. In the 1940s, Maggie is a teenager living on her family’s farm, fulfilling a traditional female role helping her mother cook and tend the gardens. Her mother seems dissatisfied with farming life and the house the family has to live in and she’s deeply disapproving of the two Italian POW’s delivered to the farm resenting their presence at her dinner table despite the fact that they are using their expertise learned before the war to build a new homestead on the farm, all their own idea. Maggie is much more like her father and her brother who are both welcoming and accepting of the two prisoners, getting to know them as best they can and coming to consider them almost a part of the family. Maggie always hoped that Rocco would come back for her after he was able to go home when the war ended but until Flick unearthed the hidden letters, she’d never heard a word from him.
Maggie, Toni and Flick are all strong characters in very different ways. Maggie has lived her life on the land, taking over her father’s farm rather than her brother, who had little interest in it and moved to the city. She’s seen her husband injured and endured his loss. Toni is a single mother, has always been a single mother and her life is the farm, sometimes to her private resentment. She regrets not travelling, leaving to see what else is out there. She passionately wants more for Flick, even though Flick says she doesn’t have any other ambitions other than to work the farm. Toni has closed herself off from love, even though there are options, including one that’s always been right in front of her eyes. The journey to Italy shows her what she’s been missing and what she could have if only she were brave enough to say the word and reach out for what she wants. For Flick, Italy shows her what is out there beyond the farm. Despite thinking that she never wanted to leave, the opportunity to solve the quest makes her realise that there’s much more out there and she can see and do things without having to give up the farm. It also presents opportunities in her personal life that just aren’t available at home.
The Sunnyvale Girls is a really enjoyable tale that showcases the wonderful settings of rural WA, both 70 years ago and today as well as the beauty and excitement of Italy. I’ve never been overseas so I really loved reading about Toni and Flick visiting Italy and the things that they got to see and do. My parents went a couple of years ago and I’ve seen their pictures so I was able to really visualise their adventures. Italy is one place that I’d really love to go, because it forms a big part of my boy’s heritage. I thought the mystery was very engaging and I absolutely loved the way it played out. It was something that I could actually see happening because sometimes, life just works like that. I could have read a whole book about Maggie, from her life starting when Rocco arrived on the farm onwards. I felt like there was so much more to that story that I could’ve learned and it would’ve made fascinating reading. I liked Toni and Flick as characters and I appreciated that Toni wanted more for her daughter, even if it seemed like she was being overly pushy at times. Flick came to realise that she wouldn’t know this stuff didn’t interest her unless she actually tried it out. Both Toni and Flick discover a lot of things about themselves and I think through learning Maggie’s story it encourages both of them to take those opportunities in front of them and not be left wondering what might have been.
Book #184 of 2014
The Sunnyvale Girls is book #67 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014