Joy Rhoades, author of The Woolgrower’s Companion, revisits the hot, atmospheric Australia of her childhood and her grandmother’s stories, exploring the memories that inspired her to write her novel
The story that would become The Woolgrower’s Companion started not where it is set, on a remote Australian sheep property, but on the other side of the world in New York City. I was living in New York, and loving its noisy energy: taxi horns and buskers, garbage trucks and shouting. But when I sat down to write, what came into my head and what came out on the page, was the bush, the Australian bush of my childhood.
I grew up in a small country town in Australia, and did everything that a bush childhood brought with it: climbing trees and swimming in dams; roaming paddocks and playing in dry creek beds.
Growing up, I often heard wonderful family stories from my grandmother. She was a fifth generation grazier and had lived almost all of her life on her family’s sheep place in northern New South Wales, including through World War II. She was a wonderful story teller and she loved the land. She’d speak of people, of droughts and the occasional flood, of bushfires and snakes, of her love of birds and wallabies.
And in New York as I began to write, I found a story emerging, a story inspired by my grandmother. Set in the Australian bush, it would be about a young woman struggling to save her family’s sheep farm during the drought that lasted throughout WWII.
I wanted the story to be one that could well have happened. And while I had grown up in the bush, in a small town in western Queensland, I knew much less about sheep, grazing, and the history of the war. I sought guidance from graziers and other sheep experts, along with veterinarian and medical advice, and input from family and from friends. And I started to read the history. I contacted historians, seeking out academics who were expert in their particular field, whether on soldier settlers, the military history of WWII, Italian POWs, the Stolen Generations and domestic servitude, or the wartime Red Cross, to talk through the relevant piece of my story. I’d ask: does this hold up? I stand in awe of these wonderful historians, of their careful research and analysis, and their generous willingness to help make the story sound.
The area where I learned the most is the history of Aboriginal people. The more I read, the more I was ashamed at how little I knew. So I read and read, all sorts of wonderful books, like Donna Meehan’s It Is No Secret: The Story of a Stolen Child, Victoria Haskins’ One Bright Spot, Quentin Beresford’s The Rob Riley Story, and Rodney Harrison’s Shared Landscapes. I spent time on the Stolen Generations website, listening to testimony after testimony. It was heart-rending. Slowly a vision, sometimes terrible, of this part of history began to come into focus for me.
It was essential that I speak with and listen to the people of the land that I was writing about. I worked to be ready – prepared – before I did so, to show my respect. I am so grateful and I salute the people who spoke to me or guided me. First among them are Catherine Faulkner, a woman of the Anaiwan Nation, who provided expert guidance on birthing practices, and help in ensuring respect for traditional knowledge and cultural practices; and activist and poet Aunty Kerry Reed-Gilbert, a woman of the Wiradjuri Nation. Her keen eye on my manuscript and her gentle suggestions have taught me more than I could ever imagine.
I am grateful for what I learned during the writing of The Woolgrower’s Companion, about so many different things, and it has changed the way I see things. I very much hope that that learning is a quiet presence in the book, an artery that carries a story of resilience and hope.
More about the author
Kate Dowd’s mother raised her to be a lady but she must put away her white gloves and pearls to help save her family’s sheep farm in New South Wales.
It is 1945, the war drags bitterly on and it feels like the rains will never come again. All the local, able-bodied young men, including Jack, the husband Kate barely knows, have enlisted and Kate’s father is struggling with his debts and his wounds from the Great War. He borrows recklessly from the bank and enlists two Italian prisoners of war to live and work on the farm.
With their own scars and their defiance, the POWs Luca and Vittorio offer an apparent threat to Kate and Daisy, the family’s young Aboriginal maid. But danger comes from surprising corners and Kate finds herself more drawn to Luca than afraid of him.
A scorned bank managers, snobbish neighbours and a distant husband expect Kate to fail and give up her home but over the course of a dry, desperate year she finds within herself reserves of strength and rebellion that she could never have expected.
The Woolgrower’s Companion is the gripping story of one woman’s fight to save her home and a passionate tribute to Australia’s landscape and its people.
‘A heartbreaking tale, beautifully told. Magical.’ Kathryn Stockett, author of The Help