Book reviews

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).

Comments on: "The Drover’s Wife by Leah Purcell" (9)

  1. It sounds as if there’s plenty in there to make it worth reading despite those anachronistic words and phrases. As so often, I do wonder what editors do for their money when they miss things like that.

  2. This was a frustrating read knowing that it could have been improved.
    Books by indigenous authors are too important not to be treated better than this was.

  3. Interesting review Rose. I have heard about this one, and am intrigued, but it’s not high on my priority list – partly because I have a bunch of books by indigenous writers on my physical TBR, let alone buy more.

    Your anachronisms are interesting – and make sense to me. The country one may just be that it’s only become familiar to us non-indigenous people in recent times, but the hormone one is a bit easier. I’d be surprised if my grandmother, born in 1902, would have used that term.

  4. Yes, you may be right about the use of the word country. There were other examples of jarring words or terms being used, but neither of my grandmothers would ever used the word hormone either. Unfortunately this word was used early in the story which I think made me notice other examples that I would have otherwise ignored.
    There are better indigenous novels but I would still see the play of the Drover’s Wife if I had the chance.

  5. I think that would be my preference too Rose.

  6. You’ve given me three things in one here, Rose. This novel, the original story and the Ryan O’Neil version which wordpress kindly flagged for me. The premise sounds so strong. I should begin by reading the short story I think …

  7. I wonder what you will think of this, Sandra. The story tells of a long-ago Australia, if it ever existed at all. We like to think that the bush defines us as Australians but the reality is that there have always been more people in the towns. Despite this I always feel nostalgic whenever I read Henry Lawson although my childhood was on a farm in a far more fertile area than the settings he generally used. I’ve attached a link if you haven’t already found one.

  8. Thank you, Rose, I’ve made a note of the link 😊 I’m very keen to explore this, though I’m slightly scared to try! 😂

  9. I forgot to tell you that the story is very short which will help if you dislike it 😉

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