Wrap up post: The Matilda Saga by Jackie French

a-waltz-for-matildaSince 2010, the world of Matilda O’Halloran, spanning six books, and almost eighty years of characters, conflicts and politics, has charmed many readers, and will hopefully continue to do so.

Beginning in 1894 in the dark alleys of the city, and Grinder’s Alley, the main character of The Matilda Saga and A Waltz for Matilda, twelve-year-old Matilda O’Halloran leaves following the death of her mother, and her friend, Tommy’s tragic accident, to find her father in country New South Wales – a place called Gibber’s Creek, and a farm known as Drinkwater. When she arrives there, her father has moved onto his own farm, Moura, and is striking and bringing the shearer’s union movement together to negotiate fair wages and reasonable hours for the workers. The first book spans the end of the nineteenth century, and into Federation in 1901, women’s suffrage in 1902, the Boer War in South Africa 1899-1902, and World War One, Matilda’s life goes from poor urchin to owning the largest farm in the district. Matilda’s work sows the seeds that begin to give a voice to the silenced.

the-girl-from-snowy-riverMoving into 1919 – The Girl from Snowy River – and the post-war years after World War One – at this stage still referred to as The Great War, we meet Flinty McAlpine, orphaned, and taking care of her younger brother and sister, whilst one brother is off with the cattle far away, and the other older brother killed in the war. Flinty meets a ghost from the future – Nicholas, and later, an accident confines her to a wheelchair and bed. Her encounters with Nicholas give hints to her future, and what she will eventually do to save the valley. Her chance ride gives her confidence, and the seeds planted by Matilda in A Waltz for Matilda begin to grow.

The Road to Gundagai brings Gibber’s Creek into 1932, and The Great Depression, at a time when Matilda is still working towards equality for all, and sustainable and fair working rights for those who work. She is also providing jobs and living quarters for the unemployed across the many properties that make up Drinkwater land, sold because the road-to-gundagaiowners were desperate. The book’s central character, Blue, has escaped her aunts, where she lies injured and ill most days from a fire, convinced they’re trying to kill her. She runs away to a circus, where she hides for a year or two before they arrive in Gibber’s Creek, and are given permission to set up in the paddocks of Drinkwater, now run by Matilda and her husband Tommy, ever since Matilda inherited it from her great-grandfather. Here, in the region, Blue finally finds a home, and the truth will come out – about her past, and the past of those of the Magnifico Family Circus.

to-love-a-sunburnt-countryComing into To Love A Sunburnt Country, Matilda’s family has grown – her sons and an extended family – the Clancys, whose daughter, Nancy, is sixteen in 1941 and has been sent to Malaya (known as Malaysia these days) to escort her sister-in-law and nephew to safety in Australia. Moira’s reluctance to leave what she knows, and take her son Gavin so far from his father, when the impenetrability of Singapore is at the back of her mind, leads to a delayed evacuation, days of travel and a final destination that is nowhere near what they expected. Trapped for the remainder of the war in a prisoner of war camp on an island off Malaya, the tragedy and horror of war affects the women and those waiting for them at home in ways they could never have imagined. This is the first book in the series that has several point of view characters, and it is effective, and works because a letter and a name at the beginning of the chapter indicate each change. It is war, so not everyone returns, and those that do, do not return whole in many ways. It has a bittersweet ending, as many of the books have had up until this point, but the concluding events of Nancy’s story are perhaps the most powerful and moving. Like the other books, the characters often ignored, or left out of history – the ones whose stories may not have been told by official records, or had an impact like others – but are still important stories and lessons about the horror of war.

The Ghost by the Billabong introduces the reader to Jed Kelly and the hippie movement, the the-ghost-by-the-billabongVietnam War and the accompanying protests, and the tragic results of conscription, Jed arrives, escaping from abuse and abandonment, hiding her own secrets, not knowing who to trust with them. She sees ghosts of the past and the future, and arrives at Drinkwater, claiming to be Tommy’s great-granddaughter – and while her claims are investigated by Matilda, now an aged woman, but still an intimidating dragon, who cares deeply about those close to her and the land – becomes close to the only family she knows, and slowly, learns to trust those around her with her darkest secrets – secrets that she feels nobody can understand. Moira returns in this book – twenty-three years after leaving Nancy for England, she is back, and helping at River View, the respite home for those with disabilities, where they can receive treatment. The children and patients here – including Nicholas, who we first met in The Girl from Snowy River – help Jed to heal and trust. This comes from young Scarlett, confined to a wheelchair, reliant on everyone to do things for her but determined to lift her spoon herself, and Nancy, who has her own horrors that still plague her. By this time, most of the people that Matilda has been fighting to help have their rights – however, there are still inequalities: children like Jed can be attacked, and be blamed for ruining adult lives and shipped off somewhere they shouldn’t be, where they are hurt more, racism is still around, and the disabled at River View are there because people don’t want to deal with them. This all will come into play in the next book as well.

if-blood-should-stain-the-wattleIf Blood Should Stain the Wattle begins in 1972, three years after Jed has found her place, and just as Gough Whitlam is set to enter government and revolutionise education affordability, healthcare and radical moves to introduce anti-discrimination legislation amongst many other things that would bring Matilda’s father’s dream full circle as much as possible, where people don’t starve to try and keep a roof over their heads and where families can get the healthcare they need, when they need it. An Australia where it will be illegal to deny someone a job based on race, gender or disability – and only employ people based on whether or not they can do the job. It is this Australia that Jed, Matilda and the families of Rock Farm, Moura, Overflow, Dribble (Jed and Scarlett’s home), and Drinkwater have spent decades working for – ever since 1894, and all the way until November 1975. It is a time for change, of change, when everyone, it is argued, should no longer be denied access to education, to health care, to a fair go. The hippie commune sits somewhere in between – wanting to be self-sufficient but also arguing for equality. It is a story that tries to unite the silenced and ignored voices of the past, the ghosts that fought and the ideals that will live on in those who remain.

The Matilda Saga is a series that utilises the voices of those who at one point in history, whether through legislation or the attitudes of those around them, and sometimes a aww2017-badgecombination of both, to give colour and depth to the history of Australia. This is what makes it so powerful – using the voices that might not always be recorded in the history books, but whose authenticity and clarity is as moving and as important as the official records and facts. Dates never change but the varied accounts, though fictional, of historical events, ensure that in this series, nobody is ignored. Nobody is silenced. Everyone has a cause and though someone may be questioned about their attitudes, they are given a chance to learn, to explain and share. I hope there will be at least one more book in this series to wrap up what happens to Nancy, and Jed and Scarlett.

I found it hard to decide on a favourite character – but I think my top three are Matilda, Flinty and Nancy. These three women unite everyone in a way that ensures family is not just blood. It is whoever you choose to include in your life and share it with.

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If Blood Should Stain the Wattle by Jackie French (Matilda Saga #6)

If Blood should Stain the Wattle.pngTitle: If Blood Should Stain the Wattle

Author: Jackie French

Genre: Historical Fiction

Publisher: HarperCollins

Published: 1st December 2016

Format: Paperback

Pages: 544

Price: $29.99

Synopsis: It’s 1972 in Gibber’s Creek, and across the nation, the catchcry is, ‘It’s time’.

In 1972, and the catchcry is ‘It’s time’.

As political ideals drift from disaster to the dismissal, it’s also time for Jed Kelly to choose between past love, Nicholas, the local Labor member, and Sam from the Halfway to Eternity commune. It’s time too for Matilda Thompson to face her ghosts and the life that took a young girl from the slums of Grinder’s Alley to being the formidable matriarch of Gibber’s Creek.

During this period of extraordinary social change and idealism, modern Australia would be born. And although the nation would dream of a better world, it would continue to struggle with opposing ideas of exactly what that better world might be.

Jackie French, author of the bestselling To Love a Sunburnt Country, has woven her own experience of that time into an unforgettable story of a small rural community and a nation swept into the social and political tumult of the early 1970s. A time that would bear witness to some of the most controversial events in Australian history; and for Matilda, a time that would see her vision made real, without blood spilled upon the wattle.

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aww2017-badgeBook six in The Matilda Saga picks up three years after the end of The Ghost by the Billabong. Jed Kelly has been accepted into the Thompson and McAlpine families, has been at university, and is living in Dribble at Gibber’s Creek with Scarlett, the young girl who chose Jed as her sister when they met. Matilda is still going – at age ninety-three, she is still as formidable as in the previous books, still caring, and still determined to see her father’s dream of fair work, fair wages and the dream of equality for all, regardless of skin colour, gender and ability become a reality under a Whitlam government, promising fair work hours, and an act that ends discrimination on the basis of race, gender, or ability – it is a dream that began in 1894 in a Grinder’s Alley jam factory, a dream that took a young girl from the slums of the city to owning one of the largest farms in the Gibber’s Creek district. By this time, Matilda’s voice – and the voices of her family – are heard loud and clear. This time, it is Scarlett who is finding her independence, and the mute girl, Leafsong, from the hippie commune Halfway to Eternity, who is invisible to begin with, but through Scarlett’s friendship, is shown how to become part of society – noticed, but accepted by those who matter the most – her friends and Jed, and Matilda.

Politics has always played a role in the Matilda saga – union rights, suffragettes, war, Depression, Indigenous rights, and many more. Where each previous book has dealt with a separate issue affecting society at the time, and the voices at the time, this one ties them all together and unites almost a century of working towards equal rights.

Jackie French’s story has incorporated many silenced voices throughout the six books, all of whom have proven to be interesting and strong characters in their own right. She has told the history of a young nation from 1894 to 1975, incorporating the history of the unions, suffrage, Federation, racism, Depression and issues of class, gender, disability and race – and constantly questions the status quo through her characters and why things were the way they were, why a character link Old Mr Drinkwater in A Waltz for Matilda was the way he was with Matilda and her father, or what it mean to have Indigenous heritage, what it meant for may during times of war, during the Great Depression.

Most of the history is easily read about in history books – what Jackie French does is give the women of Gibber’s Creek a voice – sometimes arguing with the male characters, sometimes standing with them united in a common cause – but ultimately, it is characters like Matilda, Flinty, Blue, Nancy and Jed who drive the story lines and the outcomes, at least for their families.

Like the rest of this series, If Blood Should Stain the Wattle tugs at the heartstrings. It has a bittersweet ending that many of Jackie’s books have, and whilst it is aimed at teenagers, adults can read it too. I would recommend reading the first five books first, as by the time I came to this book, the characters were formed and all their relationships made sense. A wonderful book to read, it wraps up most of what has happened in the previous books nicely.

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The Ghost by the Billabong by Jackie French (Matilda Saga #5)

Title: The Ghost by the Billabong

Author: Jackie French

Genre: Children’s Literature/Young Adultthe ghost by the billabong.png

Publisher: HarperCollins Australia

Published: 1st December 2015

Format: Paperback

Pages: 544

Price: $19.99

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.

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aww2017-badgeIn 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.

To Love A Sunburnt Country by Jackie French (Matilda Saga #4)

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Title: To Love A Sunburnt Country (Matilda Saga #4)

Author: Jackie French

Genre: Historical Fiction

Publisher: HarperCollins

Published: 1st December 2014

Format: Paperback

Pages: 466

Price: $29.99

Synopsis: In war-torn Malaya, Nancy dreams of Australia – and a young man called Michael.

The year is 1942 and the world is at war. Nancy Clancy left school at fourteen to spend a year droving, just like her grandfather Clancy of the Overflow. Now sixteen, Nancys family has sent her to Malaya to bring home her sister-in-law Moira and baby nephew Gavin. Yet despite the threat of Japanese invasion, Moira resists, wanting to stay near her husband Ben.

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But not even Nancy of the Overflow can stop the fall of Singapore and the capture of so many Australian troops. When their ship is bombed, Nancy, Moira and Gavin are reported missing.

Back home at Gibbers Creek, Michael refuses to believe the girl he loves has died. As Darwin, Broome and even Sydney are bombed, Australians must fight to save their country. But as Michael and the families of Gibbers Creek discover, there are many ways to love your country, and many ways to fight for it.

From one of Australias most-admired storytellers comes a gripping and unforgettable novel based on true events and little-known people.

This is a story about ultimate survival and the deepest kinds of love.

A book about a love of country that is heartwarming and heartbreaking, and hard to put down.

~*~

To Love A Sunburnt Country returns to the world of Matilda Thompson and Drinkwater, against the backdrop of World War Two and the impending Japanese threat as the Imperial Japanese Army takes over Thailand, Malaya and the impenetrable Singapore in their attempts to gain a foothold in the Asia Pacific region. Nancy Clancy, Jackie French’s imagined granddaughter of Clancy of the Overflow, is sent to Malaya to escort her sister-in-law, Moira, home before it is too late. Told through the voices of most of the women of Gibbers Creek – Nancy, Matilda, Flinty from The Girl from Snowy River, Blue and Mah from The Road to Gundagai, and a few men – Thomas and Michael Thompson, and Ben, Nancy’s brother, this is the first book in the saga that uses different perspectives for chapters, alongside the usual letters and excerpts from the Gibbers Creek Gazette that inform the history behind the fictional characters and location.

Again, Jackie French has employed strong female and male characters – the voices of war, and the home front. The soldiers, trapped by the enemy in savage prisoner of war camps, whose letters are interspersed and dangle a hook and bait of hope that they’ll all make it out alive, and the civilian prisoners of war in Papua, including Nancy, her sister-in-law Moira, and her nephew Gavin, trapped for years in a camp, starved, and suffering illnesses. It is a world that young Gavin grows up knowing – and a world that Nancy wishes she could have spared him from.

It is Nancy’s prisoner of war experience that is the focus – the silent struggles she goes through that only those around her can understand, and her ability to show some kind of respect to those who keep them prisoner, and earn privileges she uses to gather food, and start to plan an escape in the later years of war. The use of a voice of war, a female civilian prisoner of war, is what gives this novel its strength. Through history, we know much of the soldier prisoner of war experiences, and the experiences of soldiers, and of the home front, the Land Girls, but perhaps not always those left behind to wonder, to hope and to grieve. A silenced voice can be powerful in communicating a message. Jackie French has achieved this in a wonderful way throughout the Matilda Saga.

As a reader, I lived Nancy’s frustration at the stubbornness of Moira not wanting to leave Malaya until the last possible moment, her strength as she got them to the ship, and finally, her pain – physical, mental and emotional – that threatened to destroy her strength and the will to live. The camp Nancy endures is confronting yet I felt this was necessary to encapsulate just how many people were affected by Japanese invasions and not hearing about loved ones, the isolation and fear. It communicated a war story through an often-silenced voice, one not often written about – to give insight into how war can affect everyone.

I’ve said this before – Jackie French’s silenced characters give history depth and an understanding that may have previously been lost or ignored. It breaks down the barrier that what is recorded in the history books is not always the full story – and a little bit more digging can reveal untold stories and interesting facts we may not have known before.

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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.