Title: The Burnt Country
Author: Joy Rhoades
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Penguin Random House/Bantam
Published: 6th August 2019
Synopsis: The stunning new novel from the author of The Woolgrower’s Companion, whom the Australian Women’s Weekly described as ‘a wonderful new voice in literary rural fiction’.
A scandalous secret. A deadly fire. An agonizing choice.
Australia 1948. As a young woman running Amiens, a sizeable sheep station in New South Wales, Kate Dowd knows she’s expected to fail. And her grazier neighbour is doing his best to ensure she does, attacking her method of burning off to repel a bushfire.
But fire risk is just one of her problems. Kate cannot lose Amiens or give in to her estranged husband Jack’s demands to sell: the farm is her livelihood and the only protection she can offer her half-sister Pearl, as the Aborigines Welfare Board threatens to take her away.
Ostracised by the local community for even acknowledging Pearl, Kate cannot risk another scandal. Which means turning her back on her wartime lover, Luca Canali …
Then Jack drops a bombshell. He wants a divorce. He’ll protect what’s left of Kate’s reputation, and keep Luca out of it – but for an extortionate price.
Soon Kate is putting out fires on all fronts to save her farm, keep her family together and protect the man she loves. Then a catastrophic real fire threatens everything . . .
Set on a farm in country NSW, The Burnt Country is unique amongst rural fiction I have read. It’s 1948, and World War Two has been over for three years. Kate Dowd has been running the sheep station Amiens alone since her father died and her husband, Jack, left her. Left to support herself, her half-sister, Pearl, Pearl’s mother Daisy, and another relative, Harry, Kate is faced with decisions about selling and rumours floating around town about her family.
Yet it is a time of drought as well, and whilst the fires of what people want from her and expect from her start to flicker around her, a very real fire threatens her home and community, and leads to investigations and events that could change Kate, her community, family and Amiens forever.
Her wartime lover, Luca, and ex, Jack return at about the same time. Yet this storyline does not take over, rather, the romance bubbles beneath the main storyline of family and home, and what it takes to protect what you hold close. Throughout the novel, the dark spectre of Jack looms as he comes in and out of Kate’s life with threats, demands and conditions to go along with a divorce he demands. He knows Kate cannot pay the price he demands, and Kate and her friends use their knowledge and skills to uncover what Jack is after – so there is a bit of a mystery in this book to go along with bubbling romances – two, it turns out, and one of which I felt was a lot more prominent between another couple, and it was one I quite enjoyed,
Determined to help her family, and stand up for herself, Kate does what she can to get them through a bushfire that sweeps across the region. I was swept up in this book, because it allowed Kate to be a woman of her time, but at the same time, she stood up for what she believed in, and what was right. She did not let what many people saw as normal and right dictate what she should do, and she showed compassion and strength in the face of accusations that at one point, she feels she cannot defend herself against.
Kate faces blatant sexism and disrespect as she does things her way, from her burning off method, to hiding Daisy and Pearl from the Aborigines Welfare Board – determined that they won’t be separated and determined to make the necessary sacrifices to save her family and her farm. It is a story about a woman who finds herself in circumstances she never foresaw, much more than a romance. It is a very human story, with circumstances and a setting very real to many Australians, as the threat of drought and bushfire linger all the time in rural communities. This aspect was my favourite, because I believe it really allowed Kate to shine and grow as she stood up to those who doubted her who blamed her for things beyond her control and knowledge. It showed that those who are loyal to you in times of trouble are important and true family will always find a way to come back together.
Populated with a diverse group of characters from several backgrounds and attitudes, like many books, The Burnt Country is a snapshot of a community, illustrating a variety of views that we see as abominable today, yet would have been accepted in the post-war years. Including these is undeniably uncomfortable, but at the same time, we shouldn’t shy away from a very real reality that many faced in the mid-twentieth century in those conditions. It is a great novel, because Kate does not allow what society expects dictate what she does, and she is a wonderful character, and her story is powerful. It is always good to see women in fiction front and centre beyond romance, perhaps with romance bubbling on the side or in the background. Seeing them in other positions and plots shows there are many more aspects to these characters than might be present in some places.