The Drover’s Wife by Australian author Leah Purcell is an interesting spin on the classic Australia short story of the same name by Henry Lawson. I believe Leah Purcell originally created this story as a play which was very well regarded.
Henry Lawson’s version tells the story of a resilient woman alone with her young children as she waits to kill a snake which has disappeared under their outback hut.
In Leah Purcell’s version the heroine is named Molly Johnson. Molly, her four children and their dog, Alligator, live in a remote bush hut near the Snowy Mountains in the 1890s. Molly’s husband Joe is a drover and at the time of the story has been away droving cattle for several months. When the story begins Molly is heavily pregnant with her sixth child, although only four are living.
Molly’s lot in life is hard. Her mother died when she was born and although she was brought up by a loving father, when he was dying he arranged for her to marry Joe Johnson, who turned out to be a drunken bully and a philanderer. Life was easier for Molly when Joe was away droving for months at a time, even though she still had to deal with floods, snakes, threatening swaggies and starvation while suffering extreme poverty. Despite this, Molly’s love for her children and theirs for her made her hardships bearable.
Things become complicated for Molly when the new Sergeant from the nearest town unexpectedly visited and took the children to town with him so they could get supplies. While Molly was alone an Aboriginal man who has escaped custody for an alleged murder arrived just as she went into labour. Despite his kindness in helping her to deliver her stillborn baby Molly was frightened and wary of Yadaka, however she used an axe to remove the iron collar from his neck and allowed him to stay on the property until the full moon.
When Molly’s eldest son, Danny returned from town without the younger children Yadaka taught him about what it meant to be a man. At the same time, the new Sergeant had become worried about Molly and the whereabouts of her husband Joe.
The story covers some big topics, including what it meant to be an Aboriginal person at this time with no rights, no voice and no respect. Other issues included the removal of Aboriginal children from their families, domestic violence, rape and extreme poverty.
My enjoyment of the story was regularly interrupted by what I felt was the wrong words and phrases being used. Early in the story Molly talked about her hormones, but I’m fairly sure that Australian bush women in 1913 would not have even heard the word hormone, although how Molly was feeling as a result of them is timeless. Another example of a word choice that felt wrong to me was a reference to country to describe Yadaka’s connection to his family and his own area which felt too contemporary for this story. The character’s conversations didn’t always ring true either, for the same reasons.
I also didn’t like the idea of Molly and Yadaka’s sexual attraction to each other as I felt the timing was wrong. I don’t believe that a woman who has just given birth for the sixth time, let alone to a still-born child would feel anything like lust for any man, no matter how wonderful he might seem to her at another time.
So, while I thought the actual story was good and would love to see The Drover’s Wife performed as a play or even as a movie, the book wasn’t as good as it should have been. The author’s note at the end of the book says that she failed English at school and while this makes her achievements all the more remarkable, a harder edit would have improved the book.
Leah Purcell is a Goa, Gunggari, Wakka Wakka Murri woman from Queensland.
My purchase of The Drover’s Wife by Leah Purcell goes towards fulfilling my New Year’s resolution to buy a book by an Australian author during each month of 2020 (July).