Title: A Waltz For Matilda (Matilda Saga #1)
Author: Jackie French
Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s Fiction
Publisher: HarperCollins AU
Published: December1 2010
Synopsis: ‘Once a jolly swagman camped by a Billabong Under the shade of a Coolibah tree And he sang as he watched and waited till his Billy boiled You’ll come a‐waltzing Matilda with me…’ In 1894, twelve-year-old Matilda flees the city slums to find her unknown father and his farm. But drought grips the land, and the shearers are on strike. Her father has turned swaggie and he’s wanted by the troopers. In front of his terrified daughter, he makes a stand against them, defiant to the last. ‘You’ll never catch me alive, said he…’ Set against a backdrop of bushfire, flood, war and jubilation, this is the story of one girl’s journey towards independence. It is also the story of others who had no vote and very little but their dreams. Drawing on the well-known poem by A.B. Paterson and from events rooted in actual history, this is the untold story behind Australia’s early years as an emerging nation.
Jackie French notes in her end notes about the history behind the story that during the fight for Federation, and at other times in history, the role of women can and has often been forgotten, and given way to that of men, and in the case of the history of Federation as written by those in power – mostly white men and land owners.
A Waltz for Matilda opens in 1894, seven years before Federation, with young Matilda O’Halloran sleeping in an alley to avoid what she calls the Push, so she can go to work at a jam factory, earning a pittance so she can provide food for her mother, and a roof over their heads. Set in a generic city slum that could be anywhere in Australia, Matilda is faced with a reality that others do not know, and that they will never know. She is young in years, but the work has aged her. And when her mother dies suddenly, she leaves in search of her father at a place called Drinkwater. Here, she encounters her father, and the union men fighting for a united Australia. Her father’s death inspires the song Waltzing Matilda, and this is the basis for Jackie French’s novel, a fictionalised imagining of the events that may have inspired the famous song by Banjo Paterson.
Jackie French states in her endnotes that her inspiration came from the invisibility of women in the stories – what was their role in forming the nation? Did all women just sit at home, sewing and cooking for the men? The exploration of these questions, against a backdrop of racism, classism, sexism and family secrets work together to tell this story in an effective and accessible way, using a what if the jolly swagman had had a daughter, what if she had seen him jump into that billabong to get away from the troopers and the land owner? Matilda’s answer is to take her father’s farm, Moura, and turn it into a home, with the help of Mr. Sampson and Auntie Love, two Indigenous Australians – referred to as natives in the historical context of the novel – with whom she becomes close to and they become her constant companions over the harsh years on the land during a time of constant drought. To many though, the men her father knew in the union, her friend Tommy, people in town, and the Drinkwaters next door, Matilda is not invisible, in contrast to Florence, James and Bertram Drinkwater’s cousin, who has a presence, though she takes on the expected and typical feminine roles that Matilda rejects, and through this acceptance, Florence is perhaps one of the invisible women working behind the scenes of history, rather than at the forefront like Matilda, and women like her, whose achievements should be given more focus – where they did more than just fight for suffrage and temperance – they started the fight for equality and visibility of everyone.
In addressing the issues of racism at the time, Jackie French’s use of natives sets up the attitudes of the time for the modern reader. Though these attitudes are somewhat softened, they are still there. As a reader, and an Australian, I find it important that they are present – to recognise all facets of history, all the faces, the powerful and the powerless, whether based on sex/gender, class and race. Literature that deals with these issues is confronting – and it is meant to be. Seeing an Australian Woman Writer who has lived through times where certain ways of thinking were accepted, and where she heard stories of the fight for suffrage of Australian women brings a feeling of authenticity to it: the author has heard these stories first hand, lived through some of these fights. The character of Matilda grows throughout the novel, physically, and once she learns of her heritage. She is not invisible by any means in the story, but history, as we know can tell a different story. Matilda’s fight for the visibility of those who weren’t rich and powerful had an influence on the surrounding characters – and hopefully, on readers.
Matilda is the kind of female character that can become a positive influence on girls: she steps out of what is expected of girls and women in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but at the same time, she is able to step into these traditional roles as needed, with a slight twist on how she interacts with people.
I re-read this book as part of the Australian Women Writer’s challenge, and have moved onto book two in the Matilda Saga, The Girl From Snowy River. This is a fascinating book for anyone interested in history, and how the nation of Australia came about. It is well researched, and Jackie French provides a summary of her research and the topics utilised in the book at the back. A Waltz For Matilda is enjoyable, and I hope the rest of the series is as well.