Dramatic reimagining of Henry Lawson’s short story
Content warning: sexual assault, graphic violence, child removal, racism, family violence
I have been doing quite a lot of running recently, so I am getting through audiobooks a little faster than usual. This has definitely been on my list. We all know the iconic Henry Lawson story about the drover’s wife up against a snake, but I was very interested to try out this gritty retelling.
“The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson” written by and narrated by Leah Purcell is a historical fiction novel that retells Lawson’s famous short story about a drover’s wife left alone with her four children for months at a time in the outback. Molly is pregnant and almost due to give birth, and all she has to protect her and the children is her gun and her dog Alligator. Vulnerable to intruders, natural disasters and poverty, when Aboriginal man Yadaka arrives at her property on the run from the law, she is reluctant to trust him. However, they gradually form a careful bond and Yadaka spends time telling stories to her eldest son Danny who craves a father figure. Meanwhile, Louisa Clintoff has moved from London to the alpine town of Everton with her husband Nate who is to be the new lawman. While they settle in to a completely different lifestyle, Nate’s big task is to solve some local murders. However, what he uncovers is even more shocking than he could ever have expected.
This is a tense, gritty novel that pulls absolutely no punches while re-examining 1800s colonial Australia. While there are plenty of nods to its inspiration, this novel is absolutely its own story and Molly has a voice and a history that shines through more loudly and clearly than ever did in Lawson’s book. Yadaka was a fascinating character as well, with a colourful, complex and painful backstory, he travelled the world while still maintaining a very strong connection with family, country and culture. Purcell’s world is a dangerous one, and in this story snakes are the least of Molly’s problems. The fear and the heartache Molly has for her children’s safety is visceral, and the horrors she encounters as an isolated woman in the bush are all too realistic.
Purcell clearly lives and breathes her story, and she was the perfect choice to narrate it. A seasoned actor herself, she does an excellent job of giving each character a voice and I particularly loved how she portrayed young Danny. While listening to this book, I found myself thinking that it felt like it could have been written for a film. Little did I know that Purcell originally wrote the story for stage and that it has in fact been adapted into a film slated for release next year. This book tackles head-on the treatment of Aboriginal people, and instead of being dismissed as convenient assistants to the white colonial project as Lawson did in his story, Purcell closely examines the many attempts to sever Aboriginal identity and connection to land by settlers. At the end of the audiobook, Purcell shares a bit about the creation of her story and her creative practice as an artist including the consultation with local Aboriginal communities from alpine country in New South Wales as well as her own heritage as a Goa-Gunggari-Wakka Wakka Murri woman.
One thing I did find a bit challenging was the number of narrative perspectives that were in this book. The prose shifts from first person to third person, and there are several characters who take turns in the spotlight. I did find that listening to the audiobook occasionally made it a bit difficult to keep track of who was whom. It is an action-packed book and full of some truly horrifying scenes, a couple of which I missed (with some relief) while out running.
An excellently research story laden with insight, emotion and commentary, I cannot wait to see the film adaptation with Purcell herself in the leading role.