20 November 2021

Review: THE DROVER'S WIFE, Leah Purcell

  • This edition made available by my local library as an e-book through Libby
  • Published: 3 December 2019
  • ISBN: 9780143791478
  • Imprint: Hamish Hamilton
  • Format: Trade Paperback
  • Pages: 288

Synopsis (publisher)

The Drover's Wife is utterly authentic, brilliantly plotted, thoroughly harrowing and entirely of our times exploring race, gender, violence and inheritance.

Deep in the heart of Australia’s high country, along an ancient, hidden track, lives Molly Johnson and her four surviving children, another on the way. Husband Joe is away months at a time droving livestock up north, leaving his family in the bush to fend for itself. Molly’s children are her world, and life is hard and precarious with only their dog, Alligator, and a shotgun for protection – but it can be harder when Joe’s around.

At just twelve years of age Molly’s eldest son Danny is the true man of the house, determined to see his mother and siblings safe – from raging floodwaters, hunger and intruders, man and reptile. Danny is mature beyond his years, but there are some things no child should see. He knows more than most just what it takes to be a drover’s wife.

One night under the moon’s watch, Molly has a visitor of a different kind – a black ‘story keeper’, Yadaka. He’s on the run from authorities in the nearby town, and exchanges kindness for shelter. Both know that justice in this nation caught between two worlds can be as brutal as its landscape. But in their short time together, Yadaka shows Molly a secret truth, and the strength to imagine a different path.

Full of fury and power, Leah Purcell’s The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson is a brave reimagining of the Henry Lawson short story that has become an Australian classic. Brilliantly plotted, it is a compelling thriller of our pioneering past that confronts head-on issues of today: race, gender, violence and inheritance. 

My Take

This novel began life as a play, and has apparently been made into a film.

The publisher's blurb does not mention that as well as being the story of Molly Johnson, the drover's wife, it is also the story of Nate and Louisa Clintoff, recently arrived, with their baby son, from London, in the colony of New South Wales, where Nate is to be the policeman in the new town of Everton in the Snowy Mountains.

After a glimpse in to the future, just before World War One, the story proper begins in 1893. Molly Johnson, the drover's wife, heavily pregnant, already has 4 children. Danny is her eldest at 12 years, already taking on the role of the man of the house; his father Joe is away droving, but is expected home soon.

It's a hard life, but Molly prefers it when Joe is away, which he is for nine months of the year.

Nate Clintoff has experienced life in the colonies, having fought in the British Army in the Transvaal in South Africa. He has an idea of what life in the Snowy Mountains will be like for him and his family, but only just a bit more realistic than his wife Louisa is expecting.

Leah Purcell has taken the bones of the Henry Lawson short story The Drover's Wife and given it flesh and background. We eventually learn where Molly came from, and how she came to marry Joe Johnson who is 20 years her senior.

Very good reading.

My rating: 4.6

About the author

Leah Purcell is a multi-award-winning and self-made author, playwright, actor, director, filmmaker, producer, screenwriter and showrunner. At the heart of her work are female and First Nation themes, characters and issues. The Drover’s Wife was first a play written by and starring Purcell, which premiered at Belvoir St Theatre in late 2016 and swept the board during the 2017 awards season, winning the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Award for Playwriting and Book of the Year; the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Drama and the Victorian Prize for Literature; the Australian Writers’ Guild Award for Best Stage Work, Major Work and the David Williamson Prize for Excellence in Writing for Australian Theatre; the Helpmann Award for Best Play and Best New Australian Work; and the Sydney–UNESCO City of Film Award. The feature film adaptation of The Drover’s Wife, written, directed and starring Leah Purcell, is slated for a 2020 release. Leah Purcell is a proud Goa, Gunggari, Wakka Wakka Murri woman from Queensland.

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