A freelance writer and traveller who likes to explore the spiritual, literary and hidden gems of Adelaide and beyond.
Published January 14th 2016
Harsh Times in the Coorong
Salt Creek is historical fiction at its finest. It is a tale of the first settlers to the remote Coorong region in South Australia. The times of this narrative tell of an area that has just been opened up to graziers and the Finch family arrives to claim this land. The prevailing belief and sentiment of the first settlers was to hold dominion over the land and all that was on it. It is in this harsh place that fortunes could be won, instead broken dreams come to litter the landscape. The indigenous peoples' plight is one that festers throughout this story.
The Finch family was once wealthy political activists with a stately home in Adelaide and a dairy farm in Willunga. Money was lost in failed ventures and finances are tough. The relocation to the Coorong is more or less a last resort. Land is offered and possibilities raised of a new beginning, but from the start Mrs Finch is enduringly depressed and withdrawn. The elder children are left to pick up the duties of the household and child raising.
Responsibilities came early to pioneer children. The author deftly weaves the lives of these children as more poverty and strife is to come. Their rustic home of found objects is totally isolated. Here is the sense that there is no one in the world but them. A picture of utter loneliness.
The first settlers faced a landscape vastly different from the one they knew. In the little cottage in Salt Creek, the inhabitants had occasional contact with the outside world. There were a few travellers that passed along the nearby stock route. Troopers and farmers and the reclusive Ngarrindjeri peoples and a young artist named Charles. Charles brings news of the writings of Darwin, the Brontes and current events but the dominant book of the times is the Bible. Life on Salt Creek included a Sunday worship time and day of rest. Into the clan of children Mary, Albert, Hugh, Stanton, Fred, Addie and Hester comes a young indigenous boy named Tully. Tully becomes a surrogate son, straddling the two worlds of his Ngarrindjeri people and this new family.
The reader sees this story of extreme hardship and isolation in vivid imagery. The shimmering and grueling heat of the summer. The dangers of the outback life. Murderers and rogues, infrequent visitors and overwhelming homesickness. The book could be subtitled Homesickness in the New Land. Pictures that stay in the mind are of Hester and Charles lying on a bed of shells together. Just beginning to find each other.
Lucy Treloar writes evocatively of the family gatherings and foods prepared, childhood bonds and dreams of distant places. The reader is the unseen visitor in this desolate house, with the mother, who is largely absent, is profoundly grieving for her old life in England. Further tragic events leave little hope for the large brood of the Finch family. The family's fortunes echo the hardships of the new colony. The new country giving the impression of a life to be endured and an incarceration rather than a life of the free. The overwhelming feeling here is of being trapped. Trapped in this new land. Trapped in a life of servitude and hardship. Trapped in roles that were not of their choosing.
The main character, the eldest daughter Hester, is terrified of being trapped in a marriage where she has no choices. Having seen the devastating effect in her own mother's life of being shackled to her husband and children in a land and place she cared nothing for. Hester's voice is narrated in the harsh confines of Salt Creek and later in life from her home in England.
Hester laments her time in the Coorong 'It was as if we had been shipwrecked on the Coorong that winter'. At all times the reader is made to see the desolate and desperate times in Salt Creek. The heat and small mercies of a cool change. 'We waited for moments when a cold wind would drive in from the South or West and the world would turn upside down, the heat coming from the baked ground and the cool from above'.
The book raises many questions about colonisation and the first settlers, indigenous wisdom and knowledge, women's rights, self-determination and religious teachings, environmental care of the land and learning from the past. That the indigenous peoples had been surviving on this land for thousands of years was deemed of scant interest to the first settlers. The wisdom of this survival and their subtle culture only being grudgingly acknowledged over the ensuing two hundred years.
There are stories of the buying and selling of children and women to pay debts. The destruction of habitat without limit. The resulting destruction of the Ngarrindjeri people's land and culture. This was a journey into life with a family of first settlers. There are echoes of a similar first settler tale of The Secret River by Kate Grenville. The question arises in both books of how much the historical view becomes coloured by our modern framework, views and perspective. This is an engaging historical saga that I did not want to end, which is a mark of a very special book.