Set in the Northern Territory we have five excellent women who come together initially for a bookclub, but stay together for friendship and in order to cope through the hard demands of living remotely, and life in general. In 1978 Darwin would have recently had Cyclone Tracy (which destroyed over 80% of houses, and the majority of the township were airlifted out by Ansett (which is how my father came to live here, incidentally) to live throughout the rest of Australia until Darwin was rebuilt in the early 80s). So when this book is set, Darwin would have barely had 30,000 people, and the majority of these would be highly transient – posted here for 2-5 years in order to rebuild or fill some type of service. Even today a high percentage of the population here is from the defence forces or mining industry… so you can only imagine how isolated and bare it must have been out of Darwin.
Katherine is a township that’s now a three hour drive from Darwin, however in those days without the roads we do now, it would have been much longer. Especially with the setbacks thanks to the cyclone. One character lives there, burdened with a husband who loves a drink. – sadly common in that time. The stations that hold three of the characters are nearby, and the fifth character is a nurse with the Royal Flying Doctor Service, though she is based in Alice Springs – a township located in the very middle of Australia (that had about 1,000 people living there at the time).
I don’t think there’s anything I could say that would really get home just how remote it would have been back then. The telephone lines were few, the roads were harsh, and the weather could be wild – in the wet, even today we have many communities that are inaccessible by car for months when the floods come in. A significant number in the NT get their food from the shops via satellite order and by barging it in.
Anyway, I think what I’m trying to say is that this is what spoke most to me, reading this book. I’m from the Territory. I’ve worked for the same area for 12+ years, and it’s always been about getting people and schools out in the most remote parts of the Territory their most basic things. The friendship is literally what keeps these people sane – each other is all they would have in these harsh conditions, and having someone to natter on with would be a life saver.
What makes this book even better is the books they read as a club – a list of very worthy Australian literature. Readers get to know about the Royal Flying Doctor Service, the Country Women’s Assoc., and how the Territory has always been made up of travellers – one character is from England, and another from America. (It would have been excellent to have someone there from, say, China, left over from the gold rush… as one of the best things of the Territory is about not just being from other countries but the cultures they bring with them… but it was still pretty good.)
The book is beautifully written, and did our Territory well.