A Waltz For Matilda
Once a jolly swagman camped by a Billabong
Under the shade of a Coolibah tree
And he sang as he watched and waited till his Billy boiled
You'll come a‐waltzing Matilda with me...
In 1894, twelve-year-old Matilda flees the city slums to find her unknown father and his farm.
But drought grips the land, and the shearers are on strike. Her father has turned swaggie and he's wanted by the troopers. In front of his terrified daughter, he makes a stand against them, defiant to the last. 'You'll never catch me alive, said he...'
Set against a backdrop of bushfire, flood, war and jubilation, this is the story of one girl's journey towards independence. It is also the story of others who had no vote and very little but their dreams. Drawing on the well-known poem by A.B. Paterson and from events rooted in actual history, this is the untold story behind Australia's early years as an emerging nation.
Inspiration for A Waltz For Matilda
This is, perhaps, the best book I have written. It wasn’t quite the book I thought I was going to write, either. Other voices kept intruding, more whispers from the past. Finally the book was twice as long as I had expected, more saga than story.
I’ve loved 'Waltzing Matilda' since I was a child. When I took a closer look as an adult, though, and began to really think about the words, suddenly parts of the song didn’t make sense
What really happened at that billabong, more than 100 years ago?
Down came a jumbuck to drink at the billabong,
up jumped the swagman and grabbed him with glee.
And he sang as he stuffed that jumbuck in his tucker-bag …
A jumbuck is a fully grown sheep - you can’t stuff one into a tucker-bag. I was once dragged 100 metres along a road by a stroppy ram. There is no way a swaggie could capture a jumbuck without a dog or fences… unless that jumbuck was a ‘poddy’ – an orphaned sheep brought up by humans, who’d seek out people, hoping for a scratch and a handout. Banjo Patterson knew this – he’d grown up on a sheep farm. And back then he’d have known his listeners would have known it too.
Down came the squatter, mounted on his thoroughbred,
up rode the troopers, one, two, three…
In the 1890s, troopers were pretty thin on the ground in a vast country. How could three of them just happen to be on the scene when the swaggie caught the jumbuck? The only way they could catch the swaggie in the act was if the whole thing was a set up. The poddy sheep was taken to the billabong; the squatter and the troopers waited among the trees till it was butting the swaggie for a share of tucker.
And then they pounced.
Banjo Patterson’s song is almost certainly based on a true event: in 1895 a swagman-shearer, ‘Frenchy’ Hoffmeister, was suspected of burning down a shearing shed in a shearer's strike. But there was no proof, so he was set up for another crime, and ‘died trying to escape’. In the depression of the 1880s–1890s ‘Waltzing Matilda’ was just one of many songs protesting the injustices of the world.
I began to write A Waltz for Matilda as a story of the swagman. But, as I wrote, the book changed. It became a love song, to a land and to a nation. The stories I had listened to from seven generations of women escaped onto the pages, from my great great Aunt Nin and her doomed Boer war soldier to an elderly indigenous woman, desperate to pass on the things that had meaning before she died; or my grandmother, Presbyterian to her core, fighting for the vote for Indigenous Australians – and spotless kitchens.
Even the more extraordinary incidents in this book – Auntie Love showing Matilda how to become invisible among the trees, or defying a bushfire to round up the sheep; the burning sheep droppings falling from the sky; the wall of water sweeping across a baked, hard land; the Chinese market gardener with no English, but infinite compassion – are based on people I’ve known and events I’ve known about.
It’s a story of the early days of Australia told from the point of view of those who had no vote and little power: Matilda, the swaggie’s daughter, who saw it all; Auntie Love and Mr Sampson, indigenous Australians whose names were taken, as well as their land; the Chinese market gardener who became the town’s most wealthy man; the Afghan trader with his draper’s wagon.
Without the 1885–1903 drought we might still be a collection of states. It was the drought that led to the shearers’ wages being docked, which led to the shearer’s strike, which was a catalyst for the formation of the Labor party. And it was the drought that made men like Parkes so passionately convinced of the need for economic survival as a single country, with unified immigration, and no tariffs between the states.
It wasn’t a romantic basis for a new nation, and many of the ideals of the fathers of our constitution probably aren’t ones we’d agree with today. The drive to limit immigration to white settlers, and the narrow definition of religious freedom as intended for Roman Catholics only, seems far removed from the diversity of religious and political thoughts citizens have today.
A Waltz for Matilda was meant to be a short book, but it became a saga, an adventure, a tale of rags to riches. A story of indomitable women and extraordinary men, set against a sweeping background that ranges from factories where children sweated for almost no wages and rarely saw the sun, to the farms of the western plains; the Boer War; Federation; and ending as the first letters trickle home from Gallipoli. It is a love story, but not just about a girl and boy, and an old man and a woman. It is a love song to Australia. It is the story of how – and why – we became a nation. And – more than any other book – it’s a story from my heart.