Facing the Flame by Jackie French (Matilda Saga #7)

Facing the Flame.jpgTitle: Facing the Flame (Matilda Saga #7)

Author: Jackie French

Genre: Historical Fiction

Publisher: HarperCollins

Published: 20th November 2017

Format: Paperback

Pages: 292

Price: $29.99

Synopsis: There have been fires before, but not like this. Heartbreaking and powerful, FACING THE FLAME is a story of the triumph of courage and community, and a love for the land so deep that not even bushfire can erode it.

‘The perfect read for anyone who loves immersing themselves in Australian fiction. Gripping, emotional and moving, Facing the Flame is a great book to curl up with on a warm spring night.’ – New Idea

There have been fires before, but not like this.

In 1978, as the hot wind howls and the grass dries, all who live at Gibber’s Creek know their land can burn. But when you love your land, you fight for it.

For Jed Kelly, an even more menacing danger looms: a man from her past determined to destroy her. Finding herself alone, trapped and desperate to save her unborn child, Jed’s only choice is to flee – into the flames.

Heartbreaking and powerful, Facing the Flame celebrates the triumph of courage and community, and a love for the land so deep that not even bushfire can erode it.

~*~

Seven books in, and the Matilda Saga is getting better with each book. From the late nineteenth century to 1979. From the slums of Grinder’s Alley to Gibber’s Creek, Moura and Drinkwater, the journey of young Matilda O’Halloren to find her father after her mother’s death is what kicked off this series, and the ongoing relationships between the families of Drinkwater, Overflow and Rocky Valley, the Thompsons, the Clancys, the McAlpines and the Macks have all watched seasons come and go, watched generations grow up, and new life enter the world. Picking up two years after If Blood Should Stain the Wattle, Facing the Flame opens with a wedding, and an announcement that will change Jed’s life forever.  As her pregnancy progresses in its final days, Gibber’s Creek and the neighbouring areas become threatened by a devastating bushfire, and someone from Jed’s past determined to eke revenge and destroy her. With the life of her unborn baby at stake, and encouraging her sister Scarlett Kelly-O’Hara to head off into town to help those sheltering there after evacuation, Jed must flee into the flames, back towards her house as she tries to save two lives. As the fire eats away at the paddocks and earth, the community of Gibber’s Creek will not allow itself to be beaten. Regardless of age, gender and ability, these courageous women will fight to save their land.

aww2017-badgeFire and the land are as much characters as the humans, and in many chapters, we end with the perspective of the fire as it ravages the land. It effectively sets the scene and you can feel the threat of the flames as they progress to their final fate towards the end of the book, where there are a few secrets left unsolved, and where there is hope for the future of Jed and her family.

Moura, Drinkwater, Dribble, Rocky Valley and Overflow are the key homes that have helped to link the series together, and link the families of these places together. A few books ago, we were introduced to River View, a rehabilitation place for disabled and ill children whose parents needed help, or where children like Scarlett would live, receiving specific care for disabilities that impacted their lives, but that the children, and Scarlett in particular, did not use to define themselves. Scarlett has come a long way since we first encountered her in Ghost by the Billabong, becoming independent and able to care for herself and live in the city to attend university. Now, River View is home to a few kids seeking specific help. Lu Borgino is blind, and feels at a loss for what she has been told or made to feel her life will become. But with the help of the Gibber’s Creek clan, she realises she can still achieve her dreams. It is characters like these girls that the Matilda Saga has given a voice to – the forgotten, the ones left out of history books.

Throughout the seven books, Jackie French’s main characters have been primarily women, who in each of their respective time periods, have faced different challenges and obstacles because of gender, or race – Aboriginal – Nancy Thompson, Chinese – Mah McAlpine, or disabled – Scarlett, and Lu. Each woman has had to fight against prejudices of gender and race, and sometimes poverty, to have their voices heard. These interlocking and diverse families provide an insight into the history that we are not taught in school, the history of those that are not often heard from, but might be heard about more – a carefully hidden history that would make any historical account richer and more interesting than what might be on offer. Jackie French has uncovered some of Australia’s secrets through fiction, raw and bare, and created a strength of character and story that anyone can relate to, even if they explore stories that can hurt and harm, we need to remember them.

As an author with a disability herself – dyslexia – Jackie’s passion in these characters having their voices heard and the lengths she goes to for accuracy and research is admirable. These lengths make the story all the more engaging and full of life. Flinty and Lu, who acquired their disabilities, have fought through – Flinty recovering (The Girl from Snowy River), and Lu learning what she is capable of, and learning new ways of seeing, show the power of the human spirit, as have characters climbing out of poverty – Matilda, and escaping abusive homes – Blue, Mah and Jed, not letting racism define her – Clancy and Mah, and, the irrepressible Scarlett, who refuses to let her disability rule her life, and pushes on towards doing what she dreams of doing. Even though Old Matilda is gone, her spirit remains, and is there to give her family a good kick into gear when they need it from the beyond.

Each of the first six books were based on a poem written by some of Australia’s best-known poets:

A Waltz for Matilda – Waltzing Matilda by Banjo Paterson

The Girl from Snowy River The Man from Snowy River by Banjo Paterson

The Road to Gundagai – by Banjo Paterson

To Love a Sunburnt Country – My Country by Dorothea MacKellar

The Ghost by the Billabong – Waltzing Matilda by Banjo Paterson (links in with A Waltz for Matilda)

If Blood Should Stain the Wattle – Freedom on the Wallaby by Henry Lawson

The final book, Facing the Flame, includes a poem written by Jackie herself, titled A Land of Love and Flame, and can be found at the beginning of the book. In doing so, Jackie has tied each book to a tradition of Australian poetry, and taken the hidden stories of these poems and given them life. The latest book in the Matilda Saga ends on a note of mystery, that will hopefully be answered in the next one.

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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.

~*~

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.

~*~

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.