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.

Snowy Mountains Daughter by Alissa Callen

‘Clancy Parker didn’t need to leave the rugged embrace of the high country to know who she was and where she belonged.’

The fictional town of Bundilla in Australia’s high country provides the setting for Ms Callen’s latest novel. Bundilla is a close-knit community, a place where peony farmer Clancy Parker feels at home even if she must remain alone. The man she loved is long gone.

Heath MacBride, a talented artist once called Bundilla home. He left to pursue his art, something his father would never accept. But family is always complicated, and with his father in poor health, Heath returns for a short period to support his mother. He has accepted a commission to paint a mural on Bundilla’s water tower. Clancy’s brother Rowan, Heath’s best friend, arranges for Heath to stay on the Parker family property, Ashcroft.

Meet Bundy, an independent free-spirited kelpie, who belongs to no-one but helps many. Bundy shadows Heath, helps out at the school, and is a wonderful mascot for Bundilla.  It is almost inevitable that Bundy will be part of the mural on the water tower.

And, while Clancy, Heath and Bundy are central to this story, Ms Callen has introduced a wonderful caste of supporting characters. These include Clancy’s best friend, Brenna, Mabel the local journalist, and the formidable elderly twins Millicent and Beatrice Amos. Each character has a part to play.

While Clancy can tell that Heath is troubled, she seems unable to breach the defences he has built. Why can’t Heath confide in her? Heath’s father is failing, and his mother is struggling.  Why is Heath’s father so hostile towards him?

I really enjoyed this novel, with its mixture of romance and secrets. I could imagine the Misses Amos reigning over meetings of the book club and felt great sympathy for Heath’s mother as she tries to keep her husband safe from the ravages of his dementia.

What does the future hold for Heath and Clancy and for Bundilla? Please do not make us wait too long to find out, Ms Callen.

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