To Love a Sunburnt Country
In war-torn Malaya, Nancy dreams of Australia – and a young man called Michael.
The year is 1942 and the world is at war. Nancy Clancy left school at fourteen to spend a year droving, just like her grandfather Clancy of the Overflow. Now sixteen, Nancy's family has sent her to Malaya to bring home her sister-in-law, Moira, and baby nephew, Gavin. Yet, despite the threat of Japanese invasion, Moira resists, wanting to stay near her husband Ben.
But not even Nancy of the Overflow can stop the fall of Singapore and the capture of so many Australian troops. When their ship is bombed, Nancy, Moira and Gavin are reported missing.
Back home at Gibbers Creek, Michael refuses to believe the girl he loves has died. As Darwin, Broome and even Sydney are bombed, Australians must fight to save their country. But as Michael and the families of Gibbers Creek discover, there are many ways to love your country, and many ways to fight for it.
Inspiration for To Love A Sunburnt Country
Sometimes, just sometimes, a book comes to you with almost no conscious thought. And yet for years I’ve denied this happens.
Kids’ favourite question is, ‘Where do you get your inspiration?’. I tell them there is no such animal. Each book is made up of millions of ideas, observations and themes, all drawn together and built up over years. A book never spears down from the ether into your brain. Instead there are years of work and thought and planning and rewriting.
And mostly that is true. It’s wrong to encourage a child – or any writer – to expect to wait for a book to come to you, ready-made, whispering, ‘Here I am: your inspiration.’
Except in 2014 it happened.
The book is To Love a Sunburnt Country, about 200,000 words written in three weeks, and then revised a little after the editor had seen it, released in December that year. But mostly, that book just came to me. And reading it – crying for both the beauty and the tragedy of the human race and the many, many wastes of love – I can’t believe I wrote it.
Yet, in another way I have been writing this book since I was three years old.
When I was three years old I glimpsed my best friend’s father down a darkened corridor. I thought he was a human spider. I screamed, and kept on screaming till my mother fetched me away. She explained to me, carefully, slowly: he had been crucified in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp, each joint dislocated, scars slashed across his face.
I knew, even then, that I would write this book, not to apologise or lessen the anguish I had caused that man – that was and is impossible – but to bear witness.
To Love a Sunburnt Country is about the years when Australians had to defend their land from enemy invasion. It is many threads drawn together, trying to show an entire nation’s experience not just of war, but love of country.
It is a work of fiction, but every part of it is true, drawn from the whispered horrors of my childhood, from oral histories, and even the history of the Anglican Church in Papua New Guinea, where each missionary chose to stay with their congregations as the Japanese Army surged south. Many missionaries used radios to pass on information on troop movements, and died, one by one.
‘The extraordinary feat of ‘Fred Smith’ taking down machine gun posts singlehanded and then – desperately wounded – simply vanishing before his criminal past could catch up with him, is based on the true story of Private Thornton George Maidment, who may, or may not, have survived the wounds suffered at Eora Creek on 27 August, 1942. My father’s military service is in this book, too.
As for the heroine, Nancy of the Overflow, the indomitable girl who believes she can do anything, but finds she can do nothing except, perhaps, survive, and help others do so too, I have dreamt of her since I was twelve years old and fell in love with Clancy of the Overflow. In To Love A Sunburnt Country Nancy is Clancy’s granddaughter – a quarter indigenous as Clancy has ‘gone to Queensland droving and we don’t know where he are’ because he has married an indigenous woman, and is an outcast from his family.
Why did Patterson and Lawson give us the helpless female protagonists like the sweethearts who would wait by the slip rails for your return, and not the a Nancy of the Overflow? For they were there, indomitable women who drove cattle for thousands of kilometres, who managed vast properties, who educated their children in bush shacks. The Nancys have been hidden in our history. It is time they were put back.
Mostly, this book is about love of country. It is about people who do their best, even if that best – like that of the Commandant of the prison camp – falls far below what we expect of humanity. It is the hardest book I have ever had to write. I think – I hope – it is also far beyond any work I have done before.
There was one moment, writing about the death of a child, when I thought – I cannot bear to write this. And then: Why should people read this? Should we relive the prisoner of the camps, the anguish and terror of war? And then I bent to the page again. Because the answer to those questions is yes. For even though the reader is shielded from the reality by the fact that they ARE just words on a page, then perhaps with as reader absorbed the horrors becomes slightly less likely that we will repeat then. We bear witness, so it will not be repeated. Perhaps, in reading about heroes, we may find the place where courage hide within ourselves, too. But, nonetheless, I find it impossible to read that chapter again.
There are many ways to love a country and its people. Humans are as much ‘Australia’ as wombats or kangaroos. There many ways, and many reasons, to defend your country, too, whether it is from enemy attack or from the unthinking destruction of bettongs and bandicoots that may decrease the risk of catastrophic fire by burying what could become tinder-dry bark and leaves. Or even defending it from companies who see their profits as more important than the land they devastate.
I am the daughter of many generations who have in their different ways and against varied threats fought for their country. I will keep fighting for my country too.