Title: An Alice Girl
Author: Tanya Heaslip
Publisher: Allen and Unwin
Published: 19th May 2020
Synopsis: From the bestselling author of Alice to Prague, for fans of Toni Tapp Coutts’ A Sunburnt Childhood and Mary Groves’ An Outback Life, comes Tanya Heaslip’s extraordinary story of growing up with her sister and brothers in the late 1960s and early 70s on an outback cattle property just north of Alice Springs.
An Alice Girl is Tanya Heaslip’s extraordinary story of growing up in the late 1960s and early 70s on a vast and isolated outback cattle property just north of Alice Springs.
Tanya’s parents, Janice and Grant ‘the Boss’, were pioneers. They developed the cattle station where water was scarce, where all power was dependent on generators and where a trip to town for supplies usually meant a full day’s journey. Grant was determined to teach his children how to survive in this severe and isolated environment and his lessons were often harsh.
Tanya and her siblings led a childhood unimaginable to many Australians. Whether working the mobs of cattle with the stockmen, playing cattle-duffing on horseback or singing and doing lessons at their School of the Air desks, the children were always aware of the demands of the land.
But while her sister and brothers loved riding and working stock, Tanya’s heart longed to be back at the homestead with her books and stories.
In a childhood that many would consider very tough, Tanya tells of this precious time with raw honesty, humour, love and kindness. This is the story of an Alice girl.
Tanya Heaslip grew up in the outback near Alice Springs with her brothers, sister and parents, working with cattle or playing games once their work had finished. For Tanya, this was a precious time but also a time of isolation – where her only connection with the outside world at first was with her School of the Air friends and Correspondence School teacher. Yet through School of the Air and her friend Jane, she discovered a world beyond her family’s home and beyond spending every day with her family and nobody else.
This biography tells the story of Tanya’s first eleven to twelve years, before she headed off to boarding school in Adelaide, as the rest of her family did in the following years. This is a story of isolation and a life that seemed tough – as Tanya tried to please her father but also, found solace in writing and books – in a world of words.
These stories precede Alice to Prague, and show readers where Tanya came from and how she found herself on the journey and in the career she has now. Reading both is a great experience – two periods in her life, both as fascinating and as intriguing as the other. From one extreme to another across both books – isolation in Alice and the Northern Territory to surveillance under a Communist regime in Prague. Both are fascinating stories.
In An Alice Girl, we get a glimpse of what life is like on a remote cattle station, how everything they did differs from what most of us know, and the way of life they led, what was most precious to them and how they managed – the tough exteriors Tanya and her siblings built up, and the way they learned to cope with what they had and accept it.
Tanya explores why this is, and how her parents, who were born on the cusp of World War Two, were impacted by living through war, and how it made them who they were. Vastly different from her family, Tanya was still very close to her siblings – for much of their lives, just about every day – they could only interact and play with each other – there were times when there were other children around, but this was often temporary and short lived.
The Northern Territory came to life in this book, and was as big a character as Tanya’s family, evoking a sense of place that feels familiar yet at the same time new and unfamiliar to many readers who live in cities or suburbs. For those who lived in regional or remote areas, some things might be relatable, others might have been experienced differently. It is part of Australia’s story – one person’s experience of the world around them and how they navigated it through childhood and learned things along the way and in adulthood that they hadn’t realised or noticed at the time.
It is honest, at times brutal, and also has many heart-warming moments. Combined, this makes it an engaging personal and family story of childhood, and what having an isolated childhood is like, up to the feeling of being ripped away from all you know to a boarding school in another city, another state. An Alice Girl is the story of a childhood where what she had was loved, yet Tanya also wanted more. It explores her love of words and books, of school – of friends she had never met until she was able to attend a country show where she watched her friend compete.
It was a different world to today. Tanya only knew her friend’s voice, whereas these days, we know how our friends who live far away from us write, what they look like but not always what they sound like. We’d recognise their faces, but maybe not their voices. For so long, this was the opposite for Tanya. But she shone through and her life is fascinating. Reading about it showed there was a whole world out there beyond what we know in the cities and suburbs along the coast.
I enjoyed reading this book about Tanya’s early years, seeing how she grew up and what initiated her taste for writing, and the outside world, which is further explored in Alice to Prague. For readers of that book and new readers, this is a fantastic read that everyone will get something out of.