Author: Victoria Purman
Publisher: HQ Fiction
Copy: Courtesy of the Publisher
The Last of the Bonegilla Girls is another new direction for Purman and it’s one she navigated with finesse and style, it is a work of fiction inspired by her own family heritage and knowing that going in kept me thinking throughout.
I want to call this an historical fiction but I don’t think it is quite long ago enough to fit that category. It is certainly an insightful and interesting look at a different era in Australian history, and one that is fascinating.
I have read and loved Purman’s work since her debut and I think I have read everything she’s released (except one of the novellas which I am still getting to, I think I did buy it in the end but I just haven’t got there yet). The Last of the Bonegilla Girls is no exception though it did strike me that the setting was very different to the rest of her print novels in that it isn’t set on the South Australian coastline, instead it is set in the Bonegilla migrant camp in rural Victoria.
I think The Last of the Bonegilla Girls is quite a timely release because there are many people coming to Australia for a fresh start and they aren’t always being welcomed. The Last of the Bonegilla Girls reminds us that this isn’t the first time Australia has welcomed other cultures to build a new life here, and that a large percentage of Australians have migrant histories. It is also a study in taking the correct channels to start a new life here.
The Last of the Bonegilla Girls brings together four girls from very different backgrounds into a friendship that will last a lifetime. It spans decades, generations and a wealth of emotions. Purman has created complex and courageous characters that you can’t help but empathise with. The story focuses on the teenaged daughters embarking on new lives but it also explores their parents and siblings.
How much strength would you need to pack up your life into a couple of suitcases and leave your entire extended family and everything you know behind to start a new life in a foreign country where you don’t even know the language. This story begins in the mid50s when a lot of the migrants were still trying to find a place to belong after war ravaged their homelands.
Hungarian Elizabeta Schmidt arrived at Bonegilla with her parents and younger sister as a sixteen year old in 1954. She hadn’t wanted to leave her village but on the voyage over came to the realisation that her parents had sacrificed to give her a better future and she would make the most of it. She soon made friends with Greek Vasiliki, Italian Iliana and Australian Frances, daughter of the camp’s director, who endeavoured to teach them English. There was a school at the camp but the girls were too old to attend so they stayed home to help their mothers while their fathers worked on finding employment. In the afternoons when Frances returned from school she spent time teaching Elizabeta, Vasiliki and Iliana English.
Bonegilla was the entry point to the country but that didn’t necessarily mean they would remain in Victoria. The girls ended up spread across the country but it didn’t stop them keeping in touch and nurturing their friendships through a lifetime.
Elizabeta is more of a focal point but we do follow all four girls through first love, heartbreak, family obligations and their growth into women. I thought it was special to watch the world change over the years through their eyes. Young women who were never given the opportunity to fall in love and choose a mate, who didn’t have the opportunity to chase their dreams or build careers because their cultures dictated that they would marry a man of their culture, often of their parents’ choosing, and be a career housewife. Purman manages to explore very different marriages for her characters and the way they evolve through the years.
The Australia they moved to in 1954 is very different to the one they have daughters in, and worlds away from the one they become grandmothers in. There is a lot going on in this story that will make you think, that will paint your own grandmothers in a different light and certainly has me feeling thankful to have been born into the time I was and not before.
The story begins at Bonegilla but it then moves across the country with it’s characters; to Bega, Cooma, Melbourne and of course there is quite a lot of action in Adelaide. Elizabeta moved to Adelaide with her parents and we see a lot of the city as it grows, when they first came to Adelaide they lived in a migrant camp in Woodside until they found a rental. That certainly piqued my interest because I wasn’t aware of a migrant camp in Woodside so had to do some superficial digging to discover that yes, that camp also existed and has served different purposes through the decades.
The Last of the Bonegilla Girls gives us a glorious glimpse into an area of Australian history that I never learned much about and though I know this is a work of fiction I trust that Purman has done thorough research to make this as authentic a piece of work as she could. It certainly feels authentic to me and it is a story that I am glad to have read, a glimpse into the hardships and the sacrifices faced by those who determined to make a fresh start.
The actual stories of the Bonegilla girls you will have to get your hands on a copy to discover because the tale is so rich with emotion, detail and customs that are almost unheard of these days, and thankfully so, that the best way to get to know these characters is to read their story for yourself.
I will be going out to get a copy or two of this for Mother’s Day gifts because I can think of a couple of people that I think would really enjoy it. Hopefully before then I can catch up with Victoria Purman at an Adelaide author talk and hear about the real life inspiration for her story.
The Last of the Bonegilla Girls is book #15 for the Australian Women Writer’s Challenge 2018.
Available April 24th from HQ Fiction, Angus & Robertson Bookworld, Booktopia and where all good books are sold.
Victoria loves to hear from her readers and you can find her at her Website as well as on Facebook and Twitter.