A Waltz for Matilda
The Girl from Snowy River
The Road to Gundagai
To Love a Sunburnt Country
The Ghost by the Billabong
Angus & Robertson, 2010-2015
Over the years I have read hundreds, if not thousands of books –some borrowed, most bought. Of those thousands, there are three that I clearly remember getting – Cherry Ames Student Nurse, the first I ever bought for myself and which took weeks of saving precious pocket money till I had the necessary 2/6; Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone which came in a library collection and I wondered who on earth would read a book with that title; and A Waltz for Matilda which I saw and seized in a department store while buying books (which I subsequently forgot to buy) for a baby shower, The title, the topic and the author just gripped me and I don’t recall being as impatient for the next in the series since I lined up in the cold Canberra winter awaiting the release of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.
In 1894, Matilda is forced to flee the slums of Sydney and goes in search of the father she always knew she had and in her heart of hearts, knows he is alive somewhere. But he is not the man whom her mother described and she has hardly found him when tragedy strikes – the inspiration for the infamous poem of Banjo Paterson – and she is on her own, a city girl in the middle of a drought, the shearers’ strike, bushfire and floods, impending war and very little support from her neighbours but totally determined not to return to a life of virtual slavery, poverty and despair. With a love and respect for others who are different, a love and respect not shared by her neighbours, Matilda grows into an independent, self-sufficient young woman learning some hard and harsh lessons about trust and humanity as she does.
Whether at the core of the story or on the periphery, Matilda is at the heart of this series which follows the lives of key residents of the Gibbers Creek community as it moves inexorably into the 20th century, through Federation, World War 1, the Depression, World War 2 and in the latest addition, the late 60s where Australia is involved in the Vietnam War while holding its breath to see if man can successfully walk on the moon and come home. Her humanity permeates every story. Each episode is not only a gripping read but brings the lives and times alive as only Jackie French can. Populated with strong female characters, it gives the women and children a voice that they did not have and through her passion for history and meticulous research (and in the latest one, her personal experience and that of her friends), Jackie opens up these times for inspection and consideration. While these days its seems that ‘feminism’ is on a par with that other f-word, this series clearly demonstrates why there was a need for change and the factors and conditions that drove it. The polio and thalidomide epidemics, women working beyond marriage, and for equal pay, are things that have happened in my lifetime and that of the grandmothers of the students reading these stories. To fail to understand and acknowledge why females have the life they do today does those who came before paving the way at great cost a disservice.
This is not a series to give a reader who merely wants “something to read”, to skim over to meet an arbitrary reading requirement; this is a series to provoke thought, deliberation and reflection because like so many others that Jackie has written, it is the story of this nation. She crafts history – the good, the bad and the ugly – into story in a unique way that leaves the reader well satisfied that the time spent reading has been more than worthwhile. It is a series for older readers who are ready to learn more than the facts; to delve deeper into what happened and to cope with some of the more confrontational aspects such as the treatment of women in internment camps by the Japanese. Even though I bought the series for my primary library, it was in the Senior Fiction collection and while those who read it adored it, they still wanted to discuss and clarify what they had read. It inspired some fabulous conversations around a table at lunchtime as they wanted me to recall what it was like being a teen in the 60s, the conflict about the morality of the Vietnam War and the wonder as we held our breath on July 21, 1969.
Even though in A Ghost by the Billabong, Matilda is 87 and is enduring the lingering death of her beloved Tommy, the families and their stories are so intertwined that even though she must also pass, the saga will continue with “one or just possibly two” books, and I , for one can’t wait. For me, this series is like painting the Sydney Harbour Bridge – when you get to the end you just want to go back and start it again.