Stepping into the breach

Rosalea Ryan | Bendigo Weekly | 14-Sep-2017

The Woolgrower’s Companion Joy Rhoades Penguin, $32.99

Longhope in January 1945 is a district largely devoid of men. Anyone fit enough to fight is doing so, called away to defend their king and country against the Axis powers.

Five years of war have stripped the remote northern New South Wales farming community of its traditional workforce.

Kate Dowd’s husband Jack – a serviceman she met and married quickly when he was sent to Longhope to rest a wounded hand – is among them, based at an army training centre in Sydney as he prepares new waves of young recruits for dispatch overseas.

In place of the patriotic local soldiers the government has offered the services of a group of prisoners of war: Italians captured in North Africa and locked away in rural Australia. 

Kate’s father Ralph – a mentally broken World War I veteran who named his property Amiens after the famous battleground in France – is assigned two such workers: cheeky, hot-headed Vittorio and the considerably more serious but disdainful Luca. 

Language, customs and politics separate Kate and her father from these strangers, yet if  Amiens is to survive, together they must somehow find a way to fend off the looming double threat of bankruptcy and drought.

As Ralph’s mind drifts ever further from the present day, Kate must assume responsibility for running the entire operation, guided in her decision-making by two long-serving farmhands and The Woolgrower’s Companion, a how-to book for novice pastoralists.

Bucking social convention, the lonely young wife has little choice but to educate herself almost overnight in bookkeeping, animal husbandry and workplace management.

Drawing on her own upbringing in western Queensland and the recollections of her grandmother – a fifth-generation grazier – Rhoades presents a snapshot of the views, beliefs and prejudices that coloured mid-20th-century society and shaped the attitudes of middle-class Anglo-Australians towards Aboriginal people, European immigrants, domestic and sexual violence, and gender 

rights. – Rosalea Ryan


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