Author: Tricia Stringer
I have been thinking about this review and Stringer’s venture into a new genre ever since I finished the book, except I’m not sure I can say that. Heart of the Country is a story of families in rural south Australia and their struggles, their strength and their resilience – a lot like Stringer’s other titles. The difference is that Heart of the Country spans a much longer time frame, and is set in the 1800’s with early settlers.
An authentic touching tale with all the things I have grown to love about Stringer’s work, but in an historical setting which made it stay with me even more. I live in the Adelaide Hills, which is not near where this is set but it is far enough from Adelaide to be able to imagine how the countryside may have been in the early days. It has certainly had me thinking about land ownership in a way I have never considered in established townships before.
The sign of a good book is characters that stay with you, and these characters were camped out in my head from the moment I started reading. Beginning in 1846 we have a cast of characters from very different backgrounds in a country that bears little resemblance to the one of today. Parts of the book were set in well known areas and it really did place the story to read of characters riding down Hindley St when it was still little more than a rutted dirt track.
Thomas Baker has just landed in South Australia, he left England with his father for a fresh start but the crossing wasn’t kind and Thomas has arrived on his own. He is enthusiastic, determined and just a little naive. He is looking for a job at the moment but his long term plan is to own a property of his own. At his first auction to buy a horse to take him to his new position he crosses paths with an ex-convict who may have earned his pardon but is far from rehabilitated. Thomas is loyal, hard working and determined. Luckily for him his prospective employer sees something in him and takes a chance by employing him as overseer on his property.
The ex-convict goes by a couple of different names and this is only the first time the two are to cross paths. Septimus plays a large part in the narrative so we also follow his exploits. This is a character that made my skin crawl, I can think of no redeeming characteristics at all. He was conniving, self centred and opportunistic but more than that he was just a horrible person, completely conscienceless. He ended up with a travelling companion who became his wife, though that was never made official.
The Smiths are on a neighbouring property to the one Tomas oversees and for the most part they become friends. George and Anne Smith have 4 sons and a daughter, all still at home and working the property together.
Native Australians also play a large role in the story and I think what endeared Thomas to me was his treatment of them. In a lot of ways the characters treatment of the natives shaped my feeling about them and I have to say that it wasn’t in a good way in most cases. There wasn’t a lot of violence which was good but there was even less acceptance. I admired Thomas for his acceptance and his bringing Gulda into his business.
Heart of the Country follows three families in their struggle to build a new life for themselves, exploring the way the lives of these families intersect and the harsh realities of living off the land in a time where the land was new and the new inhabitants knowledge of it so limited.
Tricia Stringer has brought to life the time she has focused on and has me looking with new eyes at the countryside around me. Admiring the long dried waterways and wondering about the creeks that used to flow, the roads that once were tracks and the natives that moved further and further inland trying to retain their lifestyle with the early settlers spreading further and further into the country.
One question that I am left with is where Gulda learnt his English before he met Thomas….
For a first venture into historicals Tricia has done a fantastic job and I would definitely pick up more of hers in the same genre. She has drawn the country side beautifully as well as bringing to life a period in the history of our country that I knew little about. I did my schooling, and my history lessons, in another state so though I learned about the early days of settlement it was more about the landing of the First Fleet and the settlement of NSW, the settlement of South Australia is interesting and new to me. Heart of the Country is fiction but it was widely researched to give it an air of authenticity, and I think Stringer has done exactly that because it certainly seems realistic to me.
Heart of the Country is book #25 for the Australian Women Writer’s Challenge.
Heart of the Country is available now where all good books are sold and at Harlequin.