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In her more recent novels Judy Nunn has written some important "factional" novels about key times and places in Australia's past. This time Judy combines a look at Queensland sugar farming and processing in the late 19th century, with the divisive influence of the Vietnam War and the transformation of Australian society in the 1960's and 1970's into a more tolerant and cosmopolitan society.
"Big Jim" Durham is a "blackbirder" who employs low wage South Sea Islanders ("Kanakas") as indentured workers on his cane plantations near Bundaberg. In 1881 Big Jim goes to New Caledonia and returns to his Queensland sugar mill and plantations near Bundaberg with his beautiful young French wife Elianne Desmarais. To show his "love" for his wife he names the business "Elianne" and builds a substantial house for his expected large family. While Big Jim is a dominating patriarch who rules his business and family with a rod of iron, his marriage to Ellie is seen to be one of apparent unquestioned love and support for Jim over the years of success and great tragedy.
Moving on to the 1960's there have been big changes in the sugar industry with mechanised cane cutting and post-war migrants from Italy holding down key jobs. Despite this Big Jim's grandson, "Stan the Man" models himself on his grandfather, reveres his grandmother Ellie and runs the business in the Big Jim's way. Stan's children, Kate, Neil and Alan, deal with their dominating father and his mercurial temper in different ways as they make their way in a rapidly changing world. Kate defies Stan and goes to University in Sydney instead of Brisbane, and gets involved with Aboriginal rights issues and the Referendum. At a time when Australia is "All the way with LBJ" Neil gets caught by the conscription ballot and goes to Vietnam. Alan prepares to defy his father in a way that could block him from the family forever.
Everything changes for Kate when she finds Ellie's diaries (written in French for secrecy) days before Stan demolishes the original Elianne homestead because this is cheaper than maintaining the old building. What she discovers could rock the foundations of her family, and especially Stan who might be the most vulnerable of all of them.
I really enjoy Judy Nunn's well researched historical novels. As a relatively new Queenslander I didn't know much about the blackbirder era (which I first read about in Peter Watts' great Frontier series). Despite living through the Vietnam War era I was not aware that at the same time the Holt government was responsible for the first big step in removing the White Australia policy.
Despite a fairly slow start and a couple of over-the-top dominating characters, Judy Nunn didn't disappoint me and has written another important book about the good and bad of Australia's past.
My thanks to The Reading Room for providing an Advanced Reading Copy of this book.