All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Review: The Drover’s Wife by Leah Purcell

on July 27, 2020

The Drover’s Wife: The Legend Of Molly Johnson
Leah Purcell
Penguin Random House AUS
2019, 288p
Read via my local library/Borrow Box

Blurb {from the publisher/}:

Deep in the heart of Australia’s high country, along an ancient, hidden track, lives Molly Johnson and her four surviving children, another on the way. Husband Joe is away months at a time droving livestock up north, leaving his family in the bush to fend for itself. Molly’s children are her world, and life is hard and precarious with only their dog, Alligator, and a shotgun for protection – but it can be harder when Joe’s around.

At just twelve years of age Molly’s eldest son Danny is the true man of the house, determined to see his mother and siblings safe – from raging floodwaters, hunger and intruders, man and reptile. Danny is mature beyond his years, but there are some things no child should see. He knows more than most just what it takes to be a drover’s wife.

One night under the moon’s watch, Molly has a visitor of a different kind – a black ‘story keeper’, Yadaka. He’s on the run from authorities in the nearby town, and exchanges kindness for shelter. Both know that justice in this nation caught between two worlds can be as brutal as its landscape. But in their short time together, Yadaka shows Molly a secret truth, and the strength to imagine a different path.

This is a reimagining of a Henry Lawson short story – I’ve never read Henry Lawson so I wasn’t really familiar with it. But Leah Purcell has adapted it into a play, this novel and also a movie which was supposed to be released this year, although I’d imagine a lot of things will have been put on hold due to the recent events of the world.

Molly Johnson is a woman about 40, a “drover’s wife” – her husband Joe Johnson spends a large portion of the year away, moving livestock around. Molly doesn’t mind that – life is easier when Joe isn’t around. He returns bringing supplies and often leaves her pregnant. For Molly, her four children (and now one almost arrived) are everything. Her mother died giving birth to her so she grew up without that maternal love and now Molly lavishes her children with it, whilst also making sure that they grow up smart and savvy to the dangers around them. Danny is her eldest at 12, almost a man now (in the time). Given my child is 12 in about a month, this is hard to reconcile, that a child of this age would be considered old enough to go out droving or earn a living some other way. Danny is a smart and thoughtful boy, good with his younger siblings and helpful to Molly. She’s told him she’ll need him when the baby comes – she’s getting older and this one may not be so easy.

When I started this, I didn’t expect the story to skew off in several different directions. As well as Molly, we also get the story of Nate and Louisa, a married couple coming from England to Australia to live. Nate was injured in South Africa and was relegated to desk duty after that but in Australia he will be in charge of the town of Everton, which is the closest town to where Molly Johnson’s shack is located. There’s also some history of the establishment of the town, such as information on prominent families who settled the area (wealthy Brits) and some of their interactions with the local Indigenous people.

This book shows a harsh life, for most of the characters. Molly just barely gets by, there are times when she and the children go hungry, when the supplies have dwindled to nothing. She lives very isolated, although was brought up by her father to know how to take care of herself. Her life revolves around her children – her father made the match with Joe when he was dying even though Molly was just 16 and Joe in his 30s. He’s not kind – he drinks and gets violent when he’s had too much. But Molly endures all he dishes out and protects her children as best she can from his temper. She lives for the day he takes off north, droving again and leaves her alone with her children, at peace.

For Nate and Louisa, Australia is also harsher than they expected and it’s a trek from Melbourne, to the town of Everton where Nate will be overseeing everything as the new man in charge. Chance leads them to Molly Johnson’s door and they beg some kindness from her, although something about the area raises Nate’s suspicions. He’s thrown into the deep end at work too when a prominent family are murdered, a black man accused. There’s a manhunt and Nate is pulled in many different directions: his wife and child’s safety and wellbeing, the local men brawling at the sales, the murders, the manhunt, searching out Joe Johnson. There’s a lot going on.

This book took a lot of unexpected turns, particularly after the character of Yadaka shows up at Molly’s cottage. Yadaka challenges a lot of Molly’s beliefs – her beliefs about Indigenous people and then, even her beliefs about herself. He is well spoken and gentle even though he’s wanted for violent murders. On her own and about to give birth, Molly is forced to rely on him and she knows she cannot defend herself against him, should the need arrive. But Yadaka never gives her need of that, he is helpful and just wants a place to heal. In Molly, he gets answers to questions he’s always known and gives Molly information that  eventually, once she has processed it, helps her make sense of many things.

I found the ending quite moving……and not disappointing, but deflating I suppose, that it had to be that way. But Molly’s love for her children stood out above all else and there was nothing she wouldn’t do, to protect them and help them but her helplessness in all other aspects of her life, as a woman, was highlighted and cost her dearly. Even though she was a capable, strong, independent woman, at this time in history, that didn’t matter. Everything was stacked against her.

I’ll be interested in seeing the movie of this when it is released.


Book #135 of 2020

The Drover’s Wife is book #45 of The Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2020

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