Undefendable: The Story of a Town Under Fire by Sulari Gentill (Editor), Sarah Kynaston (Editor)

 ‘We were told our town was undefendable!’

On 2 January 2020, the township of Batlow (population 1313) was declared ‘undefendable’, and its citizens were advised to flee while they could. This was during the devastating Black Summer Bushfires of 2019-2020. I remember it well.  Much of south-eastern Australia was on fire or under threat. My personal focus was on Adaminaby (161 kms from Batlow via the Snowy Mountains Highway) and on the fires south-west of Sydney near Tahmoor, and then on fires creeping close to Canberra. There were many fires burning across New South Wales, Victoria, and South Australia.

Here are some of the statistics:

34 lives lost.

18.6 million hectares of land and forests destroyed.

3 billion mammals, birds, and reptiles lost.

Horrific fires, horrific damage.

So, how did Batlow manage to survive the fires? While many evacuated, others stayed to fight for their community. This book is a collection of stories, poems and photographs from the people of Batlow. Volunteers saved the town: fighting fires, manning communications, preparing, and distributing food and water, looking out for each other and (where possible) for pets and livestock.

These are some of the stories from those who were there. The editors, Sulari Gentill and Sarah Kynaston, tell us a little about each of the people who have contributed and their connections to the community. Not every property could be saved but given the intensity of the megablaze threatening Batlow, it is astonishing that so much was saved.

And who were the volunteers? From farmers to tradesmen and teachers, from retirees to those who had just finished school. Everyday people fighting for their community and their livelihoods. Each one of them a hero.

This book is important. This is not a media presentation or a political interpretation of events. This book is a collection of memories by those directly affected, by those who fought to save Batlow, those who evacuated and includes a focus on the future.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Book 2 in my 2023 Nonfiction Reader Challenge. I’ve entered as a ‘Nonfiction Grazer’ and this book should be included under the heading of ‘Memoir’.

Adaminaby, NSW, October 2021

For the past three months, because of COVID-19 related lockdowns in either (or both) the ACT and NSW, we have been unable to travel to our holiday home in Adaminaby. Last Friday, we were able to travel there and mow the (overgrown) grass and attend to some home maintenance issues.

Each morning on Saturday, Sunday and Monday I set out on my favourite 11km (return) walk along the Yaouk Road. The photographs below were taken at the beginning of two of the walks, when the sun was just peeping over the hills.

I was pleased to be back: I have missed the town and these walks.

A Room Made of Leaves by Kate Grenville

‘Dearest, he said, and I was immediately wary. ‘

In this novel, Ms Grenville reimagines aspects of the life of Elizabeth Macarthur, the wife of John Macarthur.  In her reimagination, Ms Grenville discovers a secret memoir written by Elizabeth Macarthur, one which brings her out of the shadows.

First, a few facts.  Elizabeth Macarthur (1766-1850) was born on 14 August 1766 in Devon, England, daughter of Richard Veale, farmer, and his wife Grace.  She married John Macarthur in October 1788.  In June 1789 he joined the New South Wales Corps and Elizabeth and their son Edward (born in March 1789) accompanied him when he sailed to take up his position in the colony.  Mrs Macarthur’s letters to her family written during the journey to New South Wales are one of the outstanding records of early voyages on convict transports.  John Macarthur (c1767-1834), soldier, entrepreneur and pastoralist was a prominent figure in colonial Australia.

Around these facts (and others) Ms Grenville portrays Elizabeth Macarthur as a passionate woman who learns how to manage marriage to an opinionated and ruthless bully.

‘As I copied out his words I noticed that the word we never appeared.  In Mr Macarthur’s lonely cosmology, there was no such pronoun.  Only me, myself, I.’

While I read this novel and enjoyed the imagined Elizabeth Macarthur’s view of and opinions about the role of women and colonial settlement, aspects made me uneasy.  How many people will read this novel and believe it is fact instead of fiction, despite Ms Grenville’s disclaimer?  Despite my unease, I enjoyed the opportunity to view colonial settlement through a different perspective.

‘Down beside the river I had a spot of my own, where now and then I could slip out of the skin of Mrs John Macarthur.  It was screened by bushes that framed a view up and down the stream: another airy room made of leaves.’

I suspect that the real Mrs John Macarthur will always remain elusive.  We know of her from her letters, written within the strictures of the society of the time.  But the person behind the letters?  Ms Grenville presents us with some interesting possibilities.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith



The Cartographer’s Secret by Téa Cooper

‘The time has come to collate my notes and make them available to the world.’

Set in the Hunter Valley of New South Wales, this novel involves two timelines, two women, some intriguing family mysteries, and a map.

In 1880, Evie Ludgrove went missing from her home at the Yellow Rock estate without a trace.  Her father had been obsessed with Dr Ludwig Leichhardt, and when The Bulletin magazine offered a £1,000 reward for proof of where he met his fate, Evie was determined to work it out.  She had her father’s papers to draw on, as well as information in the archives of the Royal Geographical Society.  Evie set off on her secret mission but was never seen again.

In 1911, Letitia Rawlings arrives at the Yellow Rock estate to advise her Great Aunt Olivia of a family bereavement.  Letitia, driving her Model T Ford may appear to be independent, but she has some problems of her own.  Her brother has died suddenly, and she is not happy with her mother’s plans.  But Letitia finds that things at Yellow Rock are not exactly as her mother has portrayed them.  And when she finds a map in her grandfather’s study, she wonders if she can solve the mystery of Evie’s disappearance.

I really enjoyed this novel, with its interesting female characters (especially Great Aunt Olivia) and its mysteries.  There is a touch of romance as well.

If you enjoy Australian historical fiction with strong female characters, with family mysteries to puzzle and with a hint of romance, I can recommend ‘The Cartographer’s Secret’.

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and Harlequin Australia for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes. 

Jennifer Cameron-Smith