BOOK CLUB: The Last of the Bonegilla Girls

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Author: Victoria Purman
ISBN: 9781489246752
RRP: $29.99
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.

Thanks to HQ Fiction 20 of our lucky Beauty and Lace Club members will be reading The Last of the Bonegilla Girls so please be aware there may be spoilers in the comments below.

22 thoughts on “BOOK CLUB: The Last of the Bonegilla Girls

  1. Was a beautiful read!! Just couldn’t put it down. A story that really needed telling . Was fascinating to take a walk down to our near past as Australians. And a timely reminder that the migrant experience is something that is a part of almost every Australians past, present and entwined into the future we leave for our kids. Loved the story told through the friendship between the girls. Was so fascinated by the story I went online to the Bonegilla website and will certainly visit it one day! The day to day life of the camp and first experiences were told so well and are still so similar today for new Australians now!

    Each of the girls lives were so different yet their dreams were the same to be safe, be happy and succeed and belong. Loved the way the story brought old Melbourne to life! Vasiliki was my favourite of the girls! Loved how she held on to her culture and traditions yet worked hard to fit in. Each of their individual stories is like a mini novel all rolled into one fascinating read. Highly recommend this book!

  2. Such a beautiful story. I couldn’t put it down. I found it interesting to learn about the camp and the girls different stories and nationalities. Loved it!!

  3. Thankyou Beautyandlace and Harlequin for the opportunity to review ‘The Last of the Bonegilla Girls’ by Victoria Purman.
    This book is as much a story of history as of things which could be just as relevant today with issues perhaps of some countries finding a new culture overwhelmingly different.
    It begins in 1954 where migrants were brought to Australia to start new lives after the trauma and displacement after the war.
    The girls in the story, Elizabeth (Hungarian), Vasiliki (Greek), and Iliana (Italian) are with their parents in Bonegilla Migrant Camp in rural Victoria. They are finding it difficult to fit into the Australian way of life but are befriened by Frances Burley the daughter of the camp administrator.
    The migrant girls have a very limited grasp of english and their parents have much less. Frances helps them with english lessons.
    The food in the camp to them is strange not what they’re accustomed to and all are longing to make a fresh start in their new country.
    After a few months (the fathers seeking employment, and gaining it) they leave Bonegilla for different areas of Australia vowing to all keep in touch as they are now all firm friends.
    The book is full of secrets, romances and sadness. The girls eventually marry usually strictly adhereing to the customs of their nationality.
    It takes us through their family life, then their employment, marriages and the births of their children.
    It was an enjoyable read and really made you appreciate how difficult it must have been to leave behind the familiar for a new country, climate and culture.

  4. What an awesome read! Not normally the type of book that I would read but I am so glad I did.

    What attracted me to this book the most was partly because this camp wasnt that far away from where I grew up. I had heard a lot about it but always second, third, forth hand and so never really knew what it was all about.

    Reading this book pulls a lot of what I had heard together in a beautifully weaved story about these girls and their families, their trials and tribulations, their hopes and dreams. It is a wonderful story of overcoming the unknown and how strong the human spirit actually is.

    Well balanced stories which were a delight to read.

  5. Wow wow wow!

    Victoria Purman always knows how to hook her audience.

    I couldn’t put this novel down. Perfect Sunday novel infront of the fire with a cosy rug.

    Fantastic novel.

    Thanks Beauty and lace for giving me the opportunity to read this delightful book

  6. I must say that I really enjoyed The Last of the Bonegilla girls. I had no idea that such a place existed especially in Australia.

    Victoria Purman has created a wonderful story around the four girls and their lives over 4 decades lightly including some serious issues that occurred over that time. While they were not light issues, she has included them to make us aware of them without delving too deeply as the main focus is the girls and their interaction with each other, a new country for three of them and reactions by other Australians. I am so glad we live in a different time and wonder what my reaction would have been at
    that time in looking at this from either side. I know what it would be now.

    The cover was perfect for this story, it was nostalgic, girly ( without being over the top) and with a hint of what the future would hold.

    The only real surprise for me was the direction of Frances life, I didn’t expect that, Vicki accepted her lot and became a strong women for it, Elizabeta dealt with what life threw at her but Iliana I couldn’t quite get a grasp on. But for me the characters were real enough and made it easy to read.

    Very enjoyable read over a few days

  7. The Last of the Bonegilla Girls. By Victoria Purman

    In the 1950’s Australia needed to increase its workforce, so many migrants came here looking for work and a new life away from war torn Europe. This story is set in a migrant camp, Bonegilla, on the banks of the Murray River in Victoria. The camp houses thousands of people in ex army huts on a 330 acre site. The migrants know that they will only be here for a few months until the men find work. Jobs are available on the railways in South Australia, in the cane fields in Queensland, at the Snowy Mountain Scheme at Cooma, and in factories in Melbourne. There are labouring jobs on farms, and work picking fruit.

    Four young girls from different countries meet at Bonegilla when they are sixteen, and this story follows their lives from then. We learn how each girl must meet the expectations of her family and her culture, and this differs for each one of them. After a few months together, they are parted as the families move to different states for work. The girls keep in contact by letters, with the occasional meeting at weddings and sometimes at the births of their children.

    I enjoyed the description of life as it was then, with foods, clothes, products, outings and radio (and later) TV shows slotted into the story line. Also the girls learning some Australian slang, and needing to learn what it meant was entertaining.

    The story follows 50 plus years with the girls, and although each leads a different life, it shows that they basically all want the same outcome: to be safe, to make a family life, and for things to be easier for their children than it was for them.

    A great read. Thanks to Beauty & Lace Book Club, and to Harlequin books for the chance to enjoy this good book.

  8. Thank you Beauty & Lace for selecting me to read The Last of the Bonegilla Girls written by Victoria Purman
    Where to start 1st off what a beautifully written book
    I did know about the migrant camps as my father in law came out from Italy and went to work on the snowy mountain scheme
    The young girls in the camp become life time friends even though they and their families move to different parts of Australia to start their new lives
    The story is beautifully written giving readers an insight into each of the girls families and traditions
    I throughly enjoyed reading this book

  9. I thoroughly enjoyed reading ‘The last of the Bonegilla Girls’. It was great to learn a bit more about the experiences of families migrating to Australia in the 1950’s. While my in laws lived at Bonegilla for a period in the late 1960’s/early 70’s I enjoyed learning more about the environment, food and relationships formed in the camp. It was wonderful to read about the wonderful bond created between my these four very different young ladies which lasted a lifetime. This book made me think about the secrets we all keep, even from those closes to us, and the lifelong impact that can have on us and those around us. I’d highly recommend this book as an enjoyable book to read which will also teach a little about an important aspect of Australian history. It also has plenty of lessons to teach about the migrant experience and how we can assist with the transition.

  10. Another gem from Victoria Purman. At first I found the characterisation of the girls a little shallow and everyone seemed to have the same personality, but it warmed up later on. Spanning generations, it’s both a heartbreaking and heartwarming tale of friendship, family, culture and love. Victoria based it on the experience of her grandparents immigration to Australia after the war which is interesting.

  11. Turn back time and take a trip through history. Follow the story of three European girls (Elizabeta, Vasiliki & Illiana) who travel from their homes with their families, following the war, to search for a better life. The arrive in Bonegilla refugee camp and it is here that they start their new life. Frances is the daughter of the camp director and she takes it upon herself to help these girls integrate into the new lives they are heading for, teaching them English. The bond between these girls spanned time and distance as they stayed in touch through their lives.
    Their intertwining lives and dependence on each other makes for a compelling and emotional story. I loved reading this book and getting a bit of an insight to the past and the trials and challenges presented to those who constructed and making Australia what it is.

  12. Follow the lives of three girls (Elizabeta, Vasiliki and Illiana) who travelled across the world from Europe, with their families, following the war in an attempt to find a better life. They arrived into Australia and were placed in temporary housing at the Bonegilla refugee camp. Here the many families making the same journey for a new life in Australia started this life.
    Frances, the daughter of the camp director, wanted to be a part of these people’s lives in some ways, learning all about their homes and foreign countries. She befriends the trio and takes it upon herself to help them integrate into life in Australia, in particular, teaching them English.
    The friendship that develops between these four girls spanned their lives, staying in touch no matter the distance and time. Follow their touching story, see how the lives of different people started in Australia and get some insight into how this country became what it is.

    This was a touching story and a great read.

  13. What a beautiful book!

    I loved reading The Last of the Bonegilla Girls, the story of the 4 girls spanning across the years was engrossing. I loved seeing their characters develop and change as they moved through their lives. The friendship between the girls was beautiful. The history of Bonegilla and migrants was fascinating to delve into, and showed me another aspect of Australia’s history that was new to me.

    I highly recommend this novel.

  14. The Last of the Bonegilla Girls by Victoria Purman was, a great read and I could relate to it as I have heard stories about the Migrant Camp as my dad came to Australia and his first stop was Bonegilla. I have also visited the site four years ago.

    The story starts in 1954 at the Migrant camp of Bonegilla on the banks of the Murray River in Victoria. The camp houses 1000’s of migrants while they wait to try and find work on the railways in South Australia, cane fields, in factories in Melbourne or any labouring job that they can obtain.

    The girls in the story, Hungarian Elizabeta, Greek Vasiliki, Italian Iliana, arrive at Bonegilla with their parents all hoping for a better life.. They are all struggling fitting into the Australian way of life. They are befriended by Frances Burley the daughter of the camp’s director. Frances helps the girls grasp the English language with English lessons. From here the girls grow a great bond between them which follows their lives whole life. After a few months of the friendships together the girls part and go in their own ways with their families, following family traditions and cultures. The girls keep in touch with letters, and as the years go by the occasional get togethers, weddings and other significant events in their lives.

    The story has some very happy moments as well as some very sad, even the odd secret or two but the girls no matter what keep in touch and keep their friendship even though they may not see each other for years.

    I would highly recommend this book that opens your eyes to what migrants went through when they first arrived in Australia.

  15. Rarely does a book actually get better and better as you read it, but The Last of the Bonegilla Girls did just that. I love it when a book – although fiction – actually has a history about it. I for one was unaware of the immigrant camp that existed on the border of Vic/NSW. The story of the four friends – Francis, who was the daughter of the director of the camp, Elizabeta who came from Germany, Vasiliki who was from Greece and Iliana who was from an Italian family. Such different backgrounds and cultures yet they all had something in common, wanting to find a friend. As the story continues situations occur for all 4 girls which affects them all in different ways. There is love, yearning, arranged marriages, happiness, sadness and of course future generations. A great saga which spanned over 60 years of their friendships. Thank you so much to Beauty & Lace and of course Harlequin for the book in exchange for an honest review. Victoria Purman is definitely an auto-buy author for me.

  16. The Last of the Bonegilla Girls is a brand new novel from established South Australian author Victoria Purman. In her latest, Purman situates her story on Bonegilla, a migrant camp situated in rural Victoria. She highlights an important segment of our modern history in Australia, the arrival of migrants from across the world who helped to create the very fabric of our nation today. It is also a story told directly from the heart, as Purman’s own family laid down their roots in Australia by passing through the gates of Bonegilla in order to forge a new life in the land of opportunity.

    Last year, Victoria Purman wowed me with her historical fiction novel, The Three Miss Allens. Purman ventures again into historical fiction territory, but her latest novel, The Last of the Bonegilla Girls, takes more of a modern history angle of our country. It is humbling to see Purman branch further afield and set her latest novel primarily around the rural location of Bonegilla, a migrant camp in Victoria. This is a novel with a clear personal history angle and I enjoyed my experience of The Last of the Bonegilla Girls.

    Purman utilises alternating character points of view in the chapters of her novel to express her story. As this book is based on the friendship circle of four very different women, the shifting character voices approach used by Purman allows the reader to develop an understanding of each individual character, their family, hopes, dreams and customs. As a result, the characterisation in this novel comes across as colourful and varied. It also allows the reader to share their empathy for each character. I didn’t have to play favourites!

    The aspects of the novel that I appreciated the most were the echoes to the past. With the book set in 1954 and following on through the decades to the present day, there is plenty of ground to cover. Purman sets her scene well, outlining the moral codes, social changes and world events of the time. I loved the rich sense of nostalgia I got from the book. I also appreciated the language references in the novel, which was authentic but sometimes quite saddening how racist we were to new Australians. Perhaps this aspect of the novel has a bit to say about our treatment of new migrants today, as much as in the past.

    The scenes based in Bonegilla itself were fascinating and obviously thoroughly researched by Purman. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if there were more curious readers out there such as myself, who will be inspired to do some more digging and find out more about Bonegilla and the thousands that passed through this migrant centre. I hope to one day make the trek over from the west to the east to experience this historically interesting locale firsthand.

    Readers will find this is novel has a light and accessible touch. There are moments of joy and happiness, through romance, love, marriages and births, but there are also moments of despair. Scenes of great sadness, heartbreak, loss, missed opportunities, things left unsaid and sacrifices made for the purpose of family duty define many parts of The Last of the Bonegilla Girls. It will be sure to draw a mixed bag of emotions from any reader that selects this novel to read.

    The best stories are those drawn from personal experience as they hold meaning, with the writer at the heart of the tale injecting something very special into their novel. I got this feeling from The Last of the Bonegilla Girls. I also connected to this novel on a personal level as my own family’s background is linked to the migrant experience in Perth, some ten years later than the Bonegilla Girls experience, but it still gives this particular novel brevity and personal connection.

    The Last of the Bonegilla Girls is a wonderful ode to the bonds of female friendship and the composition of our country. Overall, it is one novel that ticks all my boxes, a great read!

    *I wish to thanks Beauty & Lace/HQ Fiction for providing me with a copy of this book for review purposes.

  17. The Last of the Bonegilla Girls is the latest offering from Aussie author Victoria Purman. Beginning in 1954 in a rural Victorian migrant camp called Bonegilla, Victoria does an outstanding job of integrating her research to portray the life that Australian migrants left behind and the many unexpected difficulties that they encountered. It helped me gain a new respect for the people who came here from such diverse countries. The story finishes in the 90s, after following the lives of four teenage girls; Hungarian Elizabeta, Greek Vasiliki, Italian Iliana and lastly, the daughter of the camp director, Frances. Each girl is unique as she enters the camp with her own family background and her own story to share in a new country so I thoroughly enjoyed switching between their lives. All four have come together in difficult circumstances as they try to forge a life for themselves and their families after the horror of World War II. Just like real life, their friendships must endure the test of time with its highs and lows. Happy ever afters are far and few between but I grew to admire all four women as they made the best of what life has given them. Many times, I wished the choices they made could have been different but constraints of the time didn’t allow for the heart to rule. Family always came first and with it tough choices that I doubt many could or would make today. With themes of friendship, family and racism featuring strongly this is a fascinating read for those who are interested in the life of war migrants.

  18. The Last Of The Bonegilla Girls by Victoria Purman is a fantastic read. The beautiful cover and the title are what drew me to this book. My mother was a Bonegilla girl when she first came out to Australia in the fifties. As a young child and teenager I learnt about her experiences and time spent in the migrant camp in Victoria.
    This novel did not disappoint , Victoria Purman captured the essence of life in the camp during that time.
    The Last Of The Bonegilla Girls tells the story of the friendship between four young girls all from different backgrounds who meet at the camp. Elizabeta, Vasiliki and Lillian who together with their families have come to Australia for a better life. This new life begins at Bonegilla. Frances, the daughter of the camp director, befriends the girls and helps the girls assimilate into their new life and home and also teaches then English. Their friendship is one that stands the test of time.
    I thoroughly enjoyed this book.
    Thank you to Beauty and Lace and HQ Fiction for giving me the opportunity to read and review this amazing book.

  19. The Last of the Bonegilla Girls is a tale of friendship: a friendship that lasts a lifetime, transcending different backgrounds. It starts in the 2950s in Bonegilla a refugee settlement camp. Here 4 teenage girls meet: Elizabeta, Vasiliki, Iliana and Frances.
    It is not an easy life in the camp. A melting pot of cultures, most leaving tragic circumstances The girls become firm friends despite their differences
    The story travels through their lives as they each find love,, face their pasts and do what they need to survive.
    This is a warm book. It does touch on some dark topics, but it is does with humanity. You feel as if you could know the girls as they grow up.
    Highly recommended especially as it tells of our recent past and the unique challenges immigrants faced. A celebration of friendship that endures

  20. I really enjoyed this book. The only criticism if any was that I wish it was longer as it skipped ahead a little through the years.

    Victoria Purman is a fantastic author and I have read a number of her titles before.

    As with a lot of historical fiction, I was fascinated by how different Australia was just over 60 years ago. And as is my usual style the prejudice, sexism and racism made me want to yell and punch characters.

    My family came over to Australia in the 1960s so after I finished reading I rang my dad to find out about his experiences.

    I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the immigrant history of Australia or any lovers of historical fiction in general!

    1. Thank you to HQ Fiction and Beauty and Lace for the opportunity to read and review this awesome book!

  21. I felt very connected to ‘The Last of the Bonegilla Girls’ by Victoria Purman, as my grandparents both migrated from Italy and were placed in a similar type of migrant camp on entry into Australia in the late 50’s. Hence I loved reading about the experience of the young women in the camp. The 3 main women all came from very different backgrounds and their stories weave and come together nicely. There are elements of family expectations and guilt, friendship, as well as insight into exactly what it was like to be a migrant in Australia and especially a focus on the racism that existed at the time. I really enjoyed this book and feel that I now understand my own families history a bit better too. It really shows the resilience that people have and the strength it takes to start a new life.
    Thank you to Beauty and Lace for the opportunity to review ‘The Last of the Bonegilla Girls’.

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