‘The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson’ by Leah Purcell

2019, 278p.


Any Australian child who grew up during the 1960s would know the story of The Drover’s Wife. It was in the Fifth Grade School Reader, and we all had the vision of the unnamed woman, dressing up on Sundays and walking through the lonely bush pushing the perambulator with her children beside her; and sitting up all night waiting for the snake to come out from the woodpile into the house, with Alligator the dog stretched out, his hackles rising as the snake finally slithers into the log hut.

I hadn’t realized that the version we read at school was an abridgment of the longer story (which can be found at http://www.eastoftheweb.com/short-stories/UBooks/DrovWife.shtml) and it was only when I read the longer version that I realized the racism threaded through it. The “stray blackfellow…the last of his tribe and a King” had built the woodpile hollow, and was thus indirectly to blame for the presence of the snake in the house; then there is the caricature figure of King Jimmy, who sent his wife Black Mary “the “whitest” gin in all the land” to assist with her third childbirth. Thankfully, these do not appear in the School Reader version.

But it’s easy to see how the story of The Drover’s Wife acts as a springboard into Purcell’s 20th/21st century reimagining of the story with an aboriginal protagonist, domestic violence and rape wrought by white men, and morally superior indigenous characters. Far from the heroic white settler ideal, the white men here are murderous brutes and ‘justice’ is warped. She fleshes out and gives a name to The Drover’s Wife – Molly Johnson- and she gives “Black Mary” a backstory that reflects the violence of Australia’s colonial history. There are no white saviours here: the good man is Yadaka, and it is Yadaka who reveals Molly’s own story to her.

There are nods to the original Lawson story – a fleeting reference to the Sunday walks through the bush- enough for someone who knows the story to recognize it. But younger readers, I suspect, would not know the Lawson story and would perhaps not recognize the subversion of the original that Leah has executed. Perhaps in 30 years, the subtitle will be sufficient ‘The Legend of Molly Johnson’.

This was such a clever, insightful playing with white settler fantasies that I feel curmudgeonly in pointing out the flaws in the story which are, unfortunately, many. The book is an expansion of the stage play and it still bears the strong use of dialogue that would have marked a performance. But with the tasks of expanding into a novel, Purcell has permitted herself to explore her characters’ “inner thoughts” and this is one of the things that brings the book undone. She skips from character to character, switching between first and third person which gives a disjointed feel to the narrative. She has introduced two white characters into the book – Nate and his wife Louisa Clinton- who, in a twist that doesn’t quite come off, ends up being a nod to Henry Lawson’s mother Louisa Lawson. There are plot steps that just don’t make sense: for an isolated bush-hut there seem to be many people going past, and it is never explained why Molly stops, endangering her children whom she has protected fiercely throughout, on their way to Yadaka’s cave. The ending was heavy-handed and cliched.

There were a number of disconcerting anachronisms in the book. Women had ‘baby bellies’; there were ‘hobby farms’; people did ‘business degrees’ (universities offered no such courses); people were affected by hormones (not discovered until 1935). This is not the American West: executions required a Supreme Court trial, not the local magistrate, and they took place in capital cities. Even the scenario of children ordered by a judge to be ‘taken’ without reason is anachronistic, the legislation being introduced in the early 20th century. This book cried out for good editing and fact checking.

There is much to admire in its subversion and defiance. But this book has shown me that playwrights are not necessarily novelists, and that even the most creative and politically sharp critiques can be brought undone by infelicities.

My rating: 6/10

Sourced from: own copy. Read for the Ivanhoe Reading Circle.

4 responses to “‘The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson’ by Leah Purcell

  1. *chuckle* I felt as if I were nit-picking when I addressed the flaws and (not being an historian) I didn’t notice as many as you!
    One other anachronism was s reference to a Senator George Turner on page 44. There were no senators in the Victorian colony then, and the Australian Senate did not exist until Federation in 1901. I think the person she means might be Sir George Turner who was in the House of Reps after Federation, but was not a senator?

  2. Without thinking, I kind of knew writing and poetry of that time was racist, and why not? People were racist and written works of the time reflected that. Nevertheless, I don’t think the attitudes in such works detract from the stories told. As for flaws of fact, I still don’t think they detract from the writing. I just wish youngsters would read them now, and with modern education cynicism, they should quickly work out fact from fiction and judge by when things were written.

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