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Five Books Inspired by Australia's Early History

Julia Champtaloup By Julia Champtaloup Published on August 29, 2016

Early convict and immigrant settlers in Australia faced many hardships but also discovered a wonderfully wild land. The early exploration and colonisation of Australia often brought friendly exchanges with the Aboriginal inhabitants but turned mostly hostile when Aborigines started to resist English colonisers from about 1800 onwards.

Many writers have documented the conflicted history and also the harsh but often beautiful landscape with incredible prose and wonderment.

Several contemporary writers have ventured back to tell some of the early stories through autobiography, historic novels and non-fiction. Notable female writers such as Jil Ker Conway and Kate Grenville are among them.

Jill Ker Conway: The Road From Coorain

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Jill Ker Conway’s poetic portrayal of the Australian outback has inspired many. Her autobiography, publishing in 1989, The Road From Coorain, follows her childhood in the Australian outback on a sheep station. Despite living in the remote bush, her mother ensured her children were educated an taught Conway to read at an early age.

The story is one of women enduring hardship, as her father died and left her mother to manage on her own. Suffering through years of droughts, her mother was finally forced to move back to Sydney which enable Conway to further her education. Conway eventually left Australia and studied Australian history at Radcliffe College and later become the first female President of Smith College in Massachusetts.

In writing The Road From Coorain, Conway ventured back to the wide open and harsh landscape that shaped much of her childhood and her mother’s life.

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Kate Grenville: The Secret River

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The Secret River describes some of the conflict between the earliest settlers of Australia and the Aboriginals as they clashed over settlements, resources and the ownership of the land. Grenville touches on issues that her early ancestor, William Thornhill, faced when he was sent to Australia as punishment for theft.

Grenville became intrigued with Thornhill’s experience as an early settler, when freed from his conviction term, who became one of the first settlers to explore the nearby wilderness outside of Sydney. Thornhill joined other settlers in farming north of the city and fell in love with the land he discovered along a seemingly quiet river. The book follows their struggles and contact with the Aboriginal peoples, who responded to the occupation of their land with continued threats, creating difficult survival decisions for Thornhill, his family and neighbors.

The story highlights the experience of many early settlers in Australia, who, despite hardship and difficult decisions when faced with clearing Aboriginals from claimed land, succeeded in becoming landed gentry, even respected back in London.

Grenville’s descriptive writing of the secret river came from her direct experience of connecting with the area and sleeping out along the river. She claims to have felt the presence of spirits of the original Aboriginal inhabitants.

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Bruce Chatwin: The Songlines

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Part adventure and part anthropology, The Songlines was one of the first contemporary insights into Australian Aboriginal culture. Bruce Chatwin become well known as one of the first of contemporary English travel writers to explore Australian Aboriginal culture. Chatwin recounts his extended visit to Australia where he discovered the tales of creation myths of different Aboriginal clans.

Chatwin was fascinated with Aboriginal culture as a child and as an adventurous travel writer become even more fascinated with their similarity to other nomadic peoples. He was also interested in the origin of life and the experience of those peoples who lived life by walking through and living on the land.

His travels through the Australian outback takes him through very different Aboriginal settlements to sacred places and and deep into spiritual conversations. All the while, evoking the wild, open and mysterious landscape along the way. The Songlines became one of the most extensive documents and intimate perspectives on Aboriginal culture.

Always seeking the answer to the origin of life and man’s purpose on earth, Chatwin concluded that humans are born to be peaceful wanderers. He was critical of modern civilisation and sedentary lifestyles that disconnect us from the earth, its rhythms and the songs of our souls.

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Mary Durack: Kings in Grass Castles

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Mary Durack reconstructed her family history in Kings in Grass Castles. When her grandfather, Patrick Durack, arrived in Australia in 1853, he found a foreboding, barren landscape that was to become home to his pioneering dynasty and cattle empire. The book traces the Durack family’s move across great stretches of Australia in search of a settlement. Once again, the women in the family endured great hardships and faced many dangers and challenges including snakes and droughts. A classic Australian tale, Kings in Grass Castles is known as the quintessential early settler’s saga, one of adventure and bravery. It still stands out as a one of the most remarkable accounts of pioneering spirit in Australia in the 19th century.

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Peter Carey: True History of the Kelly Gang

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The tale of the legendary criminal and murderer, Ned Kelly, appears repeatedly in Australian literature, art, and film. Kelly, though semi-literate, managed to document his adventurous attempt to escape the law with a descriptive narrative recorded while in hiding. His story became the much-revered tale of an ordinary Australian turned bushranger, outlaw and then hero.

Written in the fictitious voice of Ned Kelly, the True History of the Kelly Gang tells a story of injustice and corruption in colonial Australia and the discrimination against the poor and the Irish (of which Kelly was both). Ned Kelly became a Robin Hood character in real life, motivated by justice and creating a place for himself in society.

Peter Carey re-imagined Kelly’s story, creating an award-winning novel that is both a commentary on the politics as well as the struggles of poor convict and immigrant families of 19th century Australia. The True History of the Kelly Gang quickly became classic tale of an outlaw searching for freedom in his time. It won the Man Booker Prize in 2001.

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Julia is a Sydney based writer covering sustainable living, innovation, books and art.


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