Harper Collins AUS
Read from my Nan’s stash
Elsie Jones wants to be famous – the only thing is she’s not entirely sure what for. She lives in the wheat-growing town of Culvert in New South Wales and feels the pressure to live up to her mother’s lofty standards. Elsie has to fight to be allowed to ride her pony to school, or to hang out with her friend Tara and the new kids in town, Zac and Amos Smith. Looming is the threat of a posh Sydney boarding school, where Elsie will go to finish her education, become a proper young lady and the future bride of some farmer.
At sixteen, Elsie and Tara escape Culvert in a clapped out ute with only a small amount of cash and an elderly dog for company. They make their way north, joining a team mustering cleanskin cattle in the outback. From there a devastating betrayal tears them apart and sets them on very different paths – Elsie to America and a country singing career and Tara stays in Australia to set up her own business, having discovered something that she’s very good at.
A decade down the track and their paths are about to meet again. Can get they get past everything that has happened and find their way home, back to each other and the boys they left behind?
This is the first Rachael Treasure book I’ve ever read and I’m really quite conflicted about it. To be honest, I almost gave up on it a dozen times in the first 100 pages, which deals with Elsie and Tara when they are quite young. If you don’t find poo jokes funny, then this is perhaps not the book for you. I don’t particularly find them funny and the constant mention and referencing of poo got on my nerves. But I persevered because I was curious and because this book had several good ratings on Goodreads and because people sing the praises of Rachael Treasure, who is often credited with the rise of the rural romance genre. I have to say that when Elsie and Tara leave Culvert, the book gets a lot better. For a while it’s really pretty good and I was almost enjoying it but then towards the end, I found that I lost my way again with it.
Cleanskin Cowgirls makes a lot of referencing to sustainable agriculture and searching for alternative methods of fuel. Elsie lives on a farm that is slowly turning to dust and she thinks that there are much kinder, gentler ways of farming the land that would reap better rewards, not that her arrogant and pompous father would ever listen to her, or put them into practice should she suggest it. Also, the Smith twins, the intelligent but perhaps slightly socially backward Amos and Zac have been researching an alternative in fuel with their father. I don’t know the ins and outs of the legitimacy of this particular method that they are researching and developing in a shed in their backyard (I’ll give you a hint – it has much to do with the abundance of jokes mentioned above) but I do know that I did find it well, a bit hard to buy in the way in which it was presented. And I did find the way in which it dominated the story a bit tedious. I didn’t really care about the ins and outs of the production and how it could basically be used to change the world from one tiny town in Australia, it all felt really easy and simple and if it is so easy, why hasn’t this been done decades ago?
I feel as though too much of the story is devoted to this particular plot and not enough is really given to flesh out core characters, especially Elsie once she and Tara separate after the incident of betrayal (which is resolved later in a way that feels lazy and convenient). Such a lot happens to Elsie in the years after that and the reader barely gets a glimpse into it, other than to have Elsie’s poor choices in men reiterated. At times Elsie was a very difficult character to read about, despite gaining her freedom in leaving Culvert she seemed to get less likable the further away from the property she went. Tara on the other hand, seemed to thrive but the jump forward in years means that you miss out on a large chunk of her life too and it might’ve been nice to experience her growth and journey.
I see glimpses in this book, of things that I could’ve really enjoyed. Unfortunately the first section is far too long and too bogged down in establishing a tenuous connection between Elsie, Tara, Amos and Zac that is far too reliant on making jokes about poo rather than just allowing the fact that they’re all outcasts for various reasons, to really shine. The second section shows promise but again, doesn’t dive in as deep as I’d like and the ending seems to focus with such zeal on the alternative farming that other important threads aren’t given the attention they need.
If you’re a passionate conservationist or really interested in alternative fuel sources then no doubt you’ll enjoy this book much more than I did and I’m sure it has a large audience out there that will receive it well. I expected more romance and more relationship and character development and the constant skipping in time, which allowed the author to gloss over important life stories, didn’t really work for me.
Book #199 of 2014
Cleanskin Cowgirls is book #75 for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014