Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar
Australia, 1855. Fifteen-year-old Hester Finch’s father is enlightened for the times, believing his daughters have as much right as his sons to an education and that the indigenous population are human beings. Also serious about his role as breadwinner, he believes he’s garnered the ingredients for a harmonious family life. And perhaps that would have been the case if he’d been luckier, or more astute, in managing his business affairs, or if he hadn’t been so blind to his own character flaws. Like other men of his generation and beyond, he knows the male mind is superior to the female, the white more civilised than the black. When things go wrong, his confidence, pride and rejection of his own vulnerability spell disaster both for himself and those he loves.
After another business failure, he uproots his family from their comfortable life in Adelaide to a ramshackle house in Salt Creek, a remote outcrop in the Coorong, where he tries his hand at dairy and, later, sheep farming. He takes this decision despite his wife’s unwillingness and that of her own parents – who have moved all the way from England to be nearer the family – to bail him out financially. Instead, he takes out loans that get him ever deeper into debt.
Despite his apparent charitable attitude towards the natives, including taking in a boy, Tully, to educate, Mr Finch is also unaware how his farming practices are damaging the ecosystem on which they depend. While putting his own trust in the Bible, he dismisses their warnings about harming the environment as superstition.
The novel is narrated by his eldest daughter, Hester, who is also ruled by responsibility, although the only one she hurts is herself. When her weary mother, enervated initially by grief at their relocation to the middle of nowhere, and later by yet another pregnancy, proves unable to manage, Hester takes over the running of the household and education of the younger children. As the years go by, and calamity follows calamity, she comes to realise the extent of her father’s failings and her mother’s lack of power. Determined to avoid the restrictions of marriage and motherhood, she promises herself she’ll escape once her siblings are old enough, but her resolve is sorely tested when she meets Charles.
Lucy Treloar’s beautifully written debut novel is a cautionary tale of hubris, and the politics of race and gender. Although it does provide a final twist – or two – I could have done without the framing of Hester’s more comfortable life in England twenty years later, which I think delayed my engagement with the story. Yet despite its historical setting, the poignant and psychologically astute portrayal of the patriarch feels highly topical. Too many lives are ruined by men (and occasionally women) in leadership positions who, when times get tough, tighten the reins until they snap. Thanks to Gallic books for my review copy.
The False Men by Mhairead McLeod
When Jess witnesses her neighbours being served with eviction notices, and their humble homes destroyed in the most brutal way, she becomes political. How can her friends be so brutally sacrificed, left homeless with transportation to Australia their only chance of survival? How can the victims be imprisoned and charged with riot? How can the three most significant men in her life condone this violence?
As Jess tests the limits of her own power to intervene on behalf of the powerless, she also comes under personal pressure to marry. If, as her parents expect, she accepts Patrick Cooper’s proposal, she’ll be materially comfortable but morally compromised as, not only does she not love Patrick, but he’s played a major role in the Clearances. Her heart is drawn to the less wealthy farmer, Lachlan Macdonald, whom she’s known since childhood, although he too appears to have blood on his hands. Estranged from her friends and sisters, as she confronts her father’s callousness and her mother’s unhappiness, Jess must choose her future, within the limits imposed by gender and social class.
As with Salt Creek, it took me a little while to get into this novel, but the interplay of tensions in Jess’s limited choice had me gripped. The False Men is an engaging tale of powerlessness, love and disillusionment in the context of the type of injustice that, sadly, continues to this day. Thanks to ThunderPoint Publishing for my proof copy.
I’d just completed my review of Salt Creek when, checking my emails, I found the latest flash fiction prompt to compose a 99-word story featuring a speller. It soon took me back to Tully, sitting at the dining table with the Finch children learning his lessons. His lighter skin testament to his mother’s rape and kidnap, Mr Finch told him that God created all men equal, but God’s opinion carried little weight when the white man found his power under threat. With apologies to Lucy Treloar for failing to stay close to her characters, here’s my contribution:
“You know this, Tully,” said Hester.
“If in doubt,” said Fred, “spell it out.”
The chalked letters danced across his slate, white upon black. Always white upon black. “The black man is …” The right word would make the sentence wrong.
“Your hesitation proves the point,” said Hugh. The younger ones giggled.
“Never mind,” said Hester. “An education will raise you above the rest.”
Addie stroked his arm. “Don’t cry, Tully. It’s just a joke.”
He wouldn’t cry, but he’d take their learning. Soak it up and spit it back at them. When the time was right.