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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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 Safest Place in London by Maggie Joel

I received a copy from the publisher for review

 

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Title: The Safest Place in London

Author: Maggie Joel

Genre: Fiction/Historical Fiction

Publisher: Allen & Unwin

Published: 24th August 2016/September 2016 release

Format: Paperback, also available in eBook

Pages: 352

Price: $29.99

Synopsis: Two frightened children, two very different mothers, and one night of terrifying Blitz bombing during World War Two. And when the bombs stop falling, which families’ lives will be changed forever?

On a frozen January evening in 1944, Nancy Levin, and her three-year-old daughter, Emily, flee their impoverished East London home as an air raid siren sounds. Not far away, 39- year-old Diana Meadows and her own child, three-year-old Abigail, are lost in the black-out as the air raid begins. Finding their way in the jostling crowd to the mouth of the shelter they hurry to the safety of the underground tube station. Mrs Meadows, who has so far sat out the war in the safety of London’s outer suburbs, is terrified – as much by the prospect of sheltering in an East End tube station as of experiencing a bombing raid first hand.

Far away Diana’s husband, Gerald Meadows finds himself in a tank regiment in North Africa while Nancy’s husband, Joe Levin has narrowly survived a torpedo in the Atlantic and is about to re-join his ship. Both men have their own wars to fight but take comfort in the knowledge that their wives and children, at least, remain safe.

But in wartime, ordinary people can find themselves taking extreme action – risking everything to secure their own and their family’s survival, even at the expense of others.

~*~

The Safest Place in London is beautifully written, evocative and yet another wonderful look at the home front of World War Two, and what ordinary people did just to survive. Part one of the book is title “Underground”, and explores the night two mothers and their children from vastly separate parts of London, seek refuge in an air raid shelter in the East End. As the night wears on, the chapters flick seamlessly back and forth between each mother and how they are experiencing the night. For Nancy, this has happened before and has been a part of her life for much of her daughter’s life. For Diana, lost with her child and away from the safety of Buckinghamshire, this is the first time they have been in this situation. As the night unfolds, each woman flashes back to the days, weeks and months that have led them to this situation, and they reflect on what they have had to do to ensure the survival of their respective children whilst their husbands are away fighting the war. As the night wears on, fear grows and unexpected guests appear, resulting in an unforeseen disaster the changes the course of the novel.

In the second part, titled “Overground”, the journeys of the Levin and Meadows husbands – Joe and Gerald – are related, and take the reader up to the tragic ending to part one, and the ensuing consequences of the choices made by one mother in light of what had happened that night in London.

Maggie Joel’s novel shows that sometimes home is not the safe haven it usually is in times of war, and that the home front of a nation at war can sometimes be just as dangerous, deadly and fraught with trouble as the battlefields in far off countries that have been pulled into the ravages of war. The title made me both hopeful and wary – it made me hope for the safety of the innocent people hiding from the bombs, but filled me with trepidation and the possibility that something awful could happen at any moment. A remarkable novel that deals with the human condition in time of war, it allows the reader to experience this and had me reading late into the night to find out the motivations of each character, and if this would ever come out.

The Safest Place in London evokes a wide range of emotions, showing the flaws of the characters and what they feel they must do to survive the war. Exploring this side of the home front, where the bulk of the novel takes place on one night, Maggie Joel’s novel shows the reality of war from both sides – the home front and the battlefields, soldiers and mothers and children caught up in an air raid. It is a novel that evokes a wide range of emotions for the flawed characters who must make decisions to help their families and make a decision in the heat of the moment – a moment that can allow someone to act in a way they may never have acted before this night that was supposed to take place in the safest place in London.