When you read a Jackie French novel, you can be transported to another time and place, a different Australia to the one that we know today. Open up her 2010 novel A Waltz for Matilda, and you enter an unknown Australia to many.
1894. Australia, still a collection of states and colonies standing alone, is in the grip of drought, felt most harshly in the country, and is a world without a compulsory vote, of movements such as the Suffrage and the Temperance League, the latter an attempt to stop what is referred to throughout the novel as "spirituous drinking", and a shearer's strike, all of which combine together to become instrumental in the union movement and attempts to unite Australia under one flag and one government.
Meet Matilda O'Halloren. In 1894, she is twelve, living with her ill mother, destitute and working in a factory for little money, long hours and no rights or compensation for injury. Upon the death of her mother, she leaves the city she has been living in, and makes her way towards Gibbers Creek and Drinkwater, in search of her father. After losing her mother and aunt, he is the only family she has left. Her friend, Tommy, lies injured in hospital after a workplace accident. Meeting her father, Matilda forms a bond with him and they begin their life until a tragedy rips him from her so soon after meeting him. Following this tragedy, Matilda refuses to let the fate of being a woman suffocate her and take over her life. She stays on her father's farm and over the next twenty-one years, she grows it.
She forms relationships with the Drinkwaters and an Aborigine named Auntie Love, and it is these people who soon become her family in many more ways than one. In a world where being a women means dresses, babies and marriage or being a housemaid, Matilda defies the odds and everyone's expectations, and with the help of her father's union friends and those around her at Drinkwater and some old friends from the city. her farm grows and grows. She falls in love, and then loses him to war. But Matilda remains stubborn and strong, refusing to give in even when everyone she has ever loved has gone.
Side by side, Matilda matures into a young woman, and Australia matures into a new nation, united under one flag, one government and one song. The national song, Waltzing Matilda, can be heard throughout the book, echoing through the world that Matilda lives in. A stunning book by one of Australia's best authors, this is a must read for young adults, but also adults with an interest in history. I was drawn to this book through my love for history and my thirteen year love affair with Jackie French books, especially her historical fiction. I laughed, cried and cheered with Matilda, sharing in her pain and triumphs. I fell in love with her, and lived with her over the book and I hope you can find the hero in her too.