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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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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