First Australian Reads: May Gibbs and The Gumnut Babies.

The first in what I hope will be a series and ongoing theme about Australian books and literature sincesnugglepot.png colonial times, as well as recent literature, and the bush poets that have shaped what it means to be Australian, this post on May Gibbs and the Gumnut Babies is my introduction to this project. I will still be reviewing books sent to me and by non-Australian authors, but I would like to promote Australian literature and the book industry here as well.

The literature of a nation can shape a country – whether it is oral or written, or oral and later recorded. Australian literature was shaped first through bush stories and bush poets, and some of the most popular authors and their writings have remained in print for decades. As a child, having access to a variety of literature from Australia and around the world – shaped my love of reading and has shaped a passion for Australian stories – wherever they come from and whoever may write them. To begin my series about this area of literature, here are some of my thoughts on May Gibbs.

Australian children have grown up for generations with iconic picture books and stories that have shaped their early years and cemented an Australian identity through the books that are read to them as young toddlers and that they then learn to read themselves. From there, they will explore Australian novels and poetry that have shaped and continue to shape our nation as more unique Australian voices are heard. However, one of the first books that young Australians will be introduced to and that, for nearly a century, has enchanted children and people of all ages, are the stories of the gumnut babies – Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, and their escape from The Big Bad Banksia Men.

aww2017-badgeMay Gibbs began her paintings of the gumnut baby characters in 1916, beginning with the first story, Gumnut Babies as well as illustrating cards to send to soldiers during the First World War. In 1918, Snugglepot and Cuddlepie was published, and will celebrate its 100th Birthday next year. It has never been out of print since, and can be found at the Nutcote gift shop, where May Gibbs lived and wrote, as well as other booksellers across Australia.

Snugglepot and Cuddlepie and the gumnut babies are Australia’s answer to the fairy tales of Europe that children are read. They allow Australian children to explore the Australian environment through a unique fairy tale that does not involve castles and ogres, but babies born from gumnuts and evil banksia men that threaten them when they get lost. A review and giveaway with the May Gibbs Foundation will be forthcoming in the next few months, so watch this space.

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The Girl from Snowy River by Jackie French (Matilda Saga #2)

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Title: The Girl From Snowy River (Matilda Saga #2)

Author: Jackie French

Genre: Historical Fiction

Publisher: HarperCollins

Published: 1 December 2012

Format: Paperback

Pages: 352

Price: $19.99

Synopsis: The year is 1919. Thirty years have passed since the man from Snowy River made his famous ride. But World War I still casts its shadow across a valley in the heart of Australia, particularly for orphaned sixteen-year-old Flinty McAlpine, who lost a brother when the Snowy River men marched away to war. Why has the man Flinty loves returned from the war so changed and distant? Why has her brother Andy ‘gone with cattle’, leaving Flinty in charge of their younger brother and sister and with the threat of eviction from the farm she loves so dearly? A brumby muster held under the watchful eye of the legendary Clancy of the Overflow offers hope. Now Flinty must ride to save her farm, her family and the valley she loves. Set among the landscapes of the great poems of Australia, this book is a love song to the Snowy Mountains and a tribute to Australia’s poets who immortalised so much of our land. the Girl from Snowy River combines passion, heartbreak, history and an enduring love and rich understanding of our land. It continues the grand saga that began with A Waltz for Matilda.

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The second book in the Matilda Saga, which currently stands at six books, Jackie French again tells the stories of the forgotten women of Australian history through fiction. Set against the backdrop of a post-war Australia, near Snowy River, Felicity “Flinty” McAlpine is at home, taking care of her younger brother and sister whilst their only remaining brother, Andy, is away droving, and without parents to help. The rock above their farm is Flinty’s safe haven, where she encounter a “ghost” living fifty years into the future, a ghost who gives her cryptic messages about what she is to experience.

When Flinty joins the brumby muster, the young colt chooses her – and she takes him home. Soon, tragedy strikes, and Flinty finds herself struggling with to come to terms with the possibility of never walking again, until nature threatens the valley and everything they hold dear. She rides to save her family, and those she cares for, at great risk to her life, at a time when women were expected to stay in the home, and raise the family.

Jackie French has again taken classic Australian bush poetry written by legendary Banjo Paterson – in this case, The Man from Snowy River and Clancy of the Overflow, and put her own twist on them: a twist that sees women, white and Indigenous, and Indigenous men, in positions that aren’t type cast or stereotypes. She utilises the attitudes towards a woman running a farm on her own, towards children and what is expected of women and men, and how Indigenous people are viewed to tell her story. Jackie French also sets the scene effectively, setting up the society and what is expected, so characters like Flinty, Clancy and Clancy’s wife, Mrs. Clancy, can flout the expectations and assumptions society assigns to them, yet still within the confines of what was possible in the early twentieth century.

Jackie French’s end notes mention that just as many women as men in the early settlers were farmers, and mentions the roles women were soon relegated to – assistants, teachers, and other jobs that men deemed suitable for them – until they became wives and eventually, mothers. The Matilda Saga does a good job of highlighting these attitudes, and creating characters willing to go that little bit further to prove society wrong, remain themselves yet at the same time, find their place within society so that they can take action to make the changes that came throughout history that many take for granted today. Of course, this would not have always been the case, but many of the bush poems are about men – if women and Indigenous people took part in musters and farming, they are not evoked in poetry, but more likely recorded in personal diaries that may not be widely available. Imaging a character like Flinty gives these women a voice, and allows the reader to reimagine these classic poems with women – still the same story, but a change in name, in gender, and a new story, a new legend can be formed alongside the male one.

I am looking forward to seeing if Flinty’s ghost from the future returns, and if the tables are flipped, and he encounters her in his time – 1969 – as she was in The Girl From Snowy River. These stories, though fiction, are based on history, a history that has tried to silence, or maybe just ignore, the voices of those without power, despite the letters and diaries and evidence to suggest women were anything but meek, silent stay at home and take care of the family types everywhere. With women like Flinty McAlpine and Matilda O’Halloran from A Waltz for Matilda, the voices of these women can be heard, even through fiction. Voices that should be heard in many ways, to give the history a new voice, a new way of understanding that may have previously been lost or ignored.