The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson by Leah Purcell

‘And there is no one here who cares for her opinion. She’s just a woman.’

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, in the heart of Australia’s alpine region, Molly Johnson lives with her four surviving children. Her husband Joe is a drover and is away for months at a time. Molly’s eldest son Danny, just turned twelve, is effectively the man of the house. Molly has another child due soon and is trying to make the necessary preparations. Life is tough: the Johnsons are isolated, but Molly often finds it easier when Joe is not around. Her children are important to her, and she looks after them as well as she can.

‘Joe Junior would ask, ‘Tell us those trials and triboolations, ‘ is how he would say it, ‘Ma, please?’ He’s heard them stories many times – they all have. But that’s what life stories are for: to be told and retold.  To remember. The memories livin’ on long after you’re gone. Family history.’

And in Britain, Louisa and Nate Clintoff are preparing to travel to Victoria to establish a new life with their son Samuel. Nate is to provide the police presence in the town of Everton in the same alpine region where the Johnsons live. Louisa is keenly interested in the rights of women.

Two quite different families whose lives will intersect, first when by chance and then through tragedy.

In preparation for childbirth, Molly sends the younger children away to Everton to be cared for. Danny will return to help her. But before he returns, Molly has a visitor. His name is Yadaka, an Aboriginal man. He is wounded and on the run from authorities. He helps Molly, and she provides him with shelter.

All these threads will be drawn together.  A prosperous white family has been murdered, and Yadaka is seen as a suspect. Prejudice seems more important than evidence. Molly learns some history from Yadaka but struggles to accept it. And then Nate Clintoff arrives, looking for Joe Johnson.

And so, we have a story with the unsettling ingredients of violence and poverty, the subservient roles of women and Aboriginal people, and secrets. Henry Lawson’s ‘The Drover’s Wife’ provides a starting point for Ms Purcell’s novel (and her earlier play of the same title) but her story evolves far beyond Lawson’s short story.  There are uncomfortable twists, reminders of prejudice and inequality, and of what people are driven to, sometimes, to survive.

Louise Clintoff seemed a little too modern at times, with her talk of global economic depression (page 23) and could Molly really have known about hormones in 1893 (page 18)? And we had no senators before federation in 1901. But while anachronistic, these are relatively minor points which (while they should have been picked up in editing) did not interfere with my appreciation of the story.

‘A life’s story untold is a life not lived, missus.’

I recommend this novel to anyone who would like to revisit some of the legends we Australians tell ourselves about the past.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith