Since 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.
Moving 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 owners 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.
Coming 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 Vietnam 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 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 combination 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.