A Waltz for Matilda by Jackie French
The Matilda Saga #1
Angus & Robertson 2010
YA Historical Fiction
1894. Matilda is just twelve, pretending to be fourteen so she can work in the nearby jam factory while her mother is ill and bedridden. She continues to write to the father she’s never met, who is building a home for them in the country and getting established before they move – or so her mother has always told her, and she’s never doubted it.
When her mother dies, leaving her alone in the world, Matilda is left with few choices. Their landlady, Mrs Dawkins, is willing to let her stay if she works for her board, but Matilda has no intention of becoming a maid. Instead, she takes her few meagre possessions, learns which train to catch from her friend Tommy, a young boy with a knack for machinery and inventing, and heads off to find her father.
All she really knows is the name of her father’s farm – Moura – and the nearest town, Gibber’s Creek. When the train stops for Gibber’s Creek, she finds no station or town, but the faint demarcation of a road which she might not have spotted if a wagon wasn’t stopped at it. Three men are there to pick up a union speaker who rode the train with her; also waiting to be picked up are a well-dressed woman and her daughter, who’s about Matilda’s age. Matilda throws in her lot with the working men, who give her a lift into town where her father will be – it’s a big night for the union, and her dad is the man who began it in Gibber’s Creek.
When she does finally meet her father, it’s a happy reunion. Her dad is full of plans, and Matilda learns a new version of the truth as to why she’d never met him before. But all too soon, a shocking and tragic event unfolds and Matilda must once again turn to her own abilities to survive in this harsh, drought-afflicted land. With the assistance of a local Aboriginal woman called Auntie Love and Auntie’s nephew, Mr Sampson, and her dog, Hey You, Matilda turns her energy and willingness to learn to making her dad’s dream for Moura come true. But it’s not only the land she has to struggle against: her neighbour, the wealthy and powerful squatter Mr Drinkwater, presents a challenge of his own.
Jackie French is a prolific writer and the Australian Children’s Laureate; she was also, this year (2015), declared the “Senior Australian of the Year”. Both are well deserved, and I hope she receives even more recognition. I was first introduced to French through her priceless picture book, Diary of a Wombat. But I had to wait till I’d moved back to Australia, in late 2013, before I could start reading her novels. The Road to Gundagai, the third book in the Matilda Saga, was one of my favourite novels of 2013 – it reads as a standalone, but I knew I had to go back to the beginning with this volume, A Waltz for Matilda.
A Waltz for Matilda deserves to be better known and more widely read than it currently is. It’s a Young Adult historical fiction novel that is accessible to children and just as satisfying and wonderful a read for adults – it’s not many authors who have such breadth in their style. French effortlessly captures the tone and feel of the era, both through period details and characterisation as well as through the way she writes. It’s not that it’s written in a faux “olde worlde” style – that would be naff to the highest degree – but that the articulate, intelligent, smoothly-flowing prose instantly grounds the reader in another era. French manages to incorporate the information her readers need to picture scenes and understand events, without the usual clunky exposition or conversations that sound manufactured and contrived. For instance, Matilda – a polite, considerate, well-mannered girl who knows how to write a letter and say ‘thank you’ – begins a correspondence with the lady she met at the Gibber’s Creek ‘station’, Mrs Ellsmore, after Mrs Ellsmore discovers a shared tie with Matilda through her now-deceased Aunt Ann. Aunt Ann, a spinster of small income (especially compared to Mrs Ellsmore, who’s upper class), is a member of the Women’s Temperance League. Through these letters we get a sense of what’s happening in Australia over the course of the next few decades, as Australia heads to Federation and then women get the vote.
This is a novel in which a lot is happening within a very simple, straight-forward narrative structure. It’s a coming-of-age novel for Matilda, who grows into adulthood over the course of the book, from 1894 to 1915. It’s also a treasure trove of insight into the history of the period, the dynamics of small rural towns, conflicts between class, gender and race, the rise of unions in Australia, the conditions of Aborigines, and of course the land. The land is one of French’s main themes, throughout all her work – I recognised many details, beautifully rendered and incorporated into this story from 2010, from her 2013 nonfiction work, Let the Land Speak. This novel is educational while at the same time entertaining and engrossing.
A key scene towards the beginning of the novel is used as the fictional inspiration of the famous song, “Waltzing Matilda” (in real life, this was written by Banjo Patterson in 1895. There is a note at the beginning of the book that outlines the origins – both known and dodgy – of the song, but I did love the way it was woven into the story. It fitted perfectly. Needless to say, this is a book that made me cry as much as it made me smile. It connected with me from the opening lines, effortlessly, like that moment at the birth of your child when you hold in your arms a being that is a part of you, yet separate. (You know you’re struggling to articulate a sense when you have to resort to such an intense, mind-blowing yet traumatic and over-represented event!) Perhaps it is better to say, simply, that whenever you find an author whose writing just fits perfectly with you, that you’re so comfortable with and that ticks all your boxes (personally, I want stories that engage, entertain, challenge and confront me and make me feel), you know you’ll never be disappointed.
One of the things I really loved about this story (and there were many) was the juxtaposition of Matilda actively listening and learning from Auntie Love, who taught her women’s business, including how to find food where white people see dirt and dust, with that of Mr Drinkwater, whose character, early on at least, represents your typical white squatter. An authoritarian figure, like a local lord, who owns great swathes of land and controls pretty much everything, he too loves the land, but he also is too stubborn to learn a non-white way of farming it. The character arc for Mr Drinkwater was wonderful, and really enriches the story. Matilda is, of course, a real heroine. I can’t imagine any twelve year old today doing what she did, none of it – this is another aspect of the story that makes you feel grounded in the 1890s, when children worked and often died on factory floors.
The Australian landscape is brought vividly to life, and whether you’re Australian or not, it is both familiar and new. Familiar because it is the dry, drought-afflicted land so often talked about and photographed, and new because there’s more to it than that. I loved that moment, early on, when Matilda puts aside her pre-conceived idea of beautiful, based on pictures in books – the pretty, neat English green fields and fluffy white sheep – for the glorious gold of her new land. It is, almost literally, a transfiguring moment, when she steps away from the English ideal into the Australian reality, and learns to appreciate it and see it. This helps to enable her to learn how to care for it, rather than mould it to fit an inappropriate ideal (something people still try and do today – if you’re interested in learning more about that, I recommend you read Let the Land Speak).
I could go, but I’d rather let you read it for yourself and discover the joy within its pages. As for me, I’ve got books 2 and 4 ready to go, and I can’t wait to visit the next generations of The Matilda Saga.
The Matilda Saga:
“Jackie French’s novels […] embrace the history, they revel in the history, the roll around in the mud like pigs in love with history…but she does it so well. And it’s not just HIStory – Jackie rights the imbalances of most historical records by making this book HERstory. […] This is a wonderful ramble through Federation Australia. Easy to read & enjoyable from start to finish.” Brona’s Books
“There are also some very serious issues that get touched on in this book such as immigration, racism, sexism, class differences, and technological advancement. I found it very interesting that the very thing that immigrants get accused of now in this modern day and age, such as stealing jobs; was the exact same stuff that was being said in the late 1800’s. It made me wonder just a little if we really had progressed as a society as much as we like to think.” The Narrative Causality
“A Waltz for Matilda is a rollicking good read, with an enthralling storyline that takes in many aspects of Australian history, both positive and negative, as well as larger themes such as the treatment of women and the native peoples, the difficulties and joys of attempting to tame the Australian landscape, the treatment of Australian soldiers by the British in the Boer War, and more personal stories of love and friendship and forgiveness.” Bookie Monster
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