The novel starts in 1934 in the Victorian Mallee, a thin-skinned dry land not so far from where I grew up. Robert, a man with scientific ideals and a knack of knowing a soil’s origin from the taste of it, and Jean, a woman with determination and skill with a sewing needle, meet aboard the Better Farming Train (a moving display, of sorts, that chugs through the Victorian farming country bringing new science to remote families). There’s a Japanese chicken-sexer on board, several men of various skill, a carriage of swaying wheat growing healthy and strong through the addition of super phosphate to the soil, and three women who coach the fairer sex on matters of domestic duty. I never knew such a thing existed, but now I do, thanks to Carrie Tiffany.
Robert and Jean’s first meeting is passionate, but near silent. Somehow, with few words, they recognise a shared dream – a future where he will grow wheat and she will bake test loaves from the flour to demonstrate his theories. Robert buys a property in the Mallee, near Wycheproof, and they start growing wheat in accordance with Robert’s rules for scientific living.
It’s a period in between wars, when the addition of chemicals to the soil is new, drought is rampant and babies die from nutritional deficiencies. These are hard times, the extent of suffering and stoicism is foreign to me and I am granted a new appreciation for these tough men and women who shaped this country – even if we can now recognise how wrong the farming practices were:
“… You can’t farm properly with paddocks full of dead wood. Your first duty as farmers is to completely clear the land. Once you’ve got nothing between yourself and the soil – that’s the time for agriculture.”
We now know better… or we think we do.
Jean and Robert do it tough in a land that betrays their dreams. Robert is a quiet, honorable man with high ideals and emotion that runs deep, but he lacks in the romantic area and fails to connect in meaningful ways. Jean loves him regardless and is dedicated to making their partnership work even if he offers her little support.
This is not a romance, nor is it a story that ends happily. It's not what I'd consider a tragedy, rather, it is a reflection of real life, of farming life in a time of minimal prosperity. There are many references to towns that I know, and I appreciate the research that had to have gone into crafting this novel. Even the dust storm that swept through the mallee reminds me of images from old newspapers, and brings the taste of dust to my lips from dust storms that swept through my home town in years past.
On the downside, I would have preferred to spend more time with these people -- more time in experiencing their lives, the events that shaped them, that drew them to the eventual conclusion. The logic, progression, characterisation is strong, but at times I hoped for a little more introspection. Overall, it's an enjoyable, enlightening read with unique, well formed characters.
Rating: *** (out of *****)...Continua