Title: The Ghost by the Billabong
Author: Jackie French
Genre: Children’s Literature/Young Adult
Publisher: HarperCollins Australia
Published: 1st December 2015
Synopsis: Hippies wear beads, demonstrators march against the Vietnam War, and the world waits to see the first human steps on the moon’s surface.
But at Gibbers Creek, Jed Kelly sees ghosts, from the past and future, at the Drinkwater billabong where long ago the swaggie leaped to his defiant death.
But is seventeen-year-old Jed a con artist or a survivor? When she turns up at Drinkwater Station claiming to be the great-granddaughter of Matilda Thompson’s dying husband, Jed clearly has secrets. As does a veteran called Nicholas, who was badly wounded in the Vietnam War and now must try to create a life he truly wants to live, despite the ghosts that haunt him too.
Set during the turbulence of the late 1960s, this was a time when brilliant and little-known endeavours saw Australia play a vital role in Neil Armstrong’s ‘one giant leap for mankind’ on that first unforgettable moon walk.
The fifth title in the highly acclaimed Matilda Saga, The Ghost by the Billabong is a story of deep conflicts and enduring passions – for other people, for the land, and for the future of humanity.
In 1968, Jed Kelly arrives at Gibber’s Creek and Drinkwater, after running away from a family and a reform home where she was mistreated, and in search of her great-grandfather, Thomas “Tommy” Thompson, husband of Matilda Thompson, the owner of the Drinkwater property. Her presence is met with suspicion from Matilda, curiosity from Tommy, who has not seen or heard from his granddaughter, Rose, whom Jed claims is her mother, in many years, and acceptance from Nancy, Matron Moira Clancy and Nancy’s husband, Michael Thompson at Overflow and the kids and other occupants at River View, there for help with treatment therapies for a variety of disabilities. Here, Jed finds people she can talk to, though at first she is horrified when she is told about River View, her mind burdened and injured by the ghosts of her past from the reform home and the secrets she is hiding, and blaming herself for. In one inhabitant, Nicholas, she finds a shared love of books, science fiction, and with Tommy, she shares the delight he has in the Apollo missions to the moon. Escaping soon after Christmas 1968, and the ongoing investigation into who she is, Jed heads to Queanbeyean, where she witnesses the landing of Apollo 11 on the moon, before returning to Drinkwater and Overflow to face her ghosts and the secrets she has been running from.
Jackie French has set this fifth novel during the turbulent late sixties: hippies, the Vietnam War, the Apollo program, and a time when young girls like Jed felt lost and alone, when women’s rights and the argument that what happens behind closed doors should stay there is challenged – Matilda plays a prominent part in this novel, as do Nancy and Tommy as they help Jed in their own ways to find her place and family.
Jed is another voice that has been silenced – not only by expectations of society that are slowly at this time being challenged, but by her own family, the woman who was meant to protect her, and the authorities who took her step-mother’s word over Jed’s. Only in Gibber’s Creek does Jed find her voice at last, with the help of Nancy, and Matilda, eventually, who has not let her own voice be silenced since 1894 – for over seventy years. The series is heading into a modern world where most people can have their voices heard, yet there will always be those who will in some way, be silenced and seen as outsiders. In using these silenced people, or the outsiders, or even those less likely to be taken seriously, The Matilda Saga has given so many characters who would not normally be able to speak, sometimes even through fiction, a voice: women, orphans, the poor, Indigenous and the abused, the disabled and the lost – they all find a home with Matilda Thompson at Gibber’s Creek.
Moving into the latter half of the twentieth century, book six, If Blood Should Stain the Wattle picks up about three years after the end of The Ghost by the Billabong, and Nicholas’s departure to the mountains where his meetings with Flinty in book two, when he appears as a ghost from the future to her in 1919. Astute readers may connect this, or even those who have read the books in order.
Another great Australian story by one of the great Australian women writers of our time.