“Mr Harold Kenneth John McGintey was a much smaller man than his name had suggested. Kate had some difficulty seeing much of him at all behind the big desk. He reminded her of an elderly wombat, low to the ground and slow-moving”
By early 1945, graziers in the Northern Tablelands of NSW were in the grip of an unrelenting drought. Coupled with the scarcity of able-bodied men, who were either fighting in the war, or casualties of it, the situation was dire enough that many property owners welcomed the Rural Employment Scheme. Although Italy had joined the Allies, Italian POWs remained prisoners and were forced to work on farms, despite the community’s enormous sense of resentment and distrust.
Great War veteran, Ralph Stimson had worked hard to build up his Soldier Settler Block into a substantial property, Amiens. He is grateful for the arrival of Luca Canali and Vittorio Bottinella, even if his manager, Keith Grimes is wary. Young Harry Grimes, the manager’s now-orphaned great-nephew has arrived on the same train, destined to live in Keith’s cottage.
With her husband, Jack at war, her mother, Janice, who had always discouraged Kate’s involvement in the paddocks, now two years dead, and her father, who handles all the finances, now acting strangely, Kate is concerned. When Alwyn Addison, the officious (and rather oily) bank manager informs Kate that she will need to make plans to vacate the property unless the overdraft payment is made within eight weeks, she discovers just how perilous their financial situation really is.
Added to her worries is the recent skittiness of fourteen-year-old Daisy, their Aboriginal domestic, and the looks and gentle manner of the POW assigned to help her with the garden are distracting, especially to a woman wedded in haste and separated from Jack after a mere six months of marriage. Of course, for the POWs, fraternisation is an offence attracting jail time. And when Kate thinks nothing more can go wrong, the situation worsens. What a wonderful debut novel! Rhoades captures the mood and feel of the mid-forties farming community with consummate ease. Her descriptive prose is often breathtaking, and Kate’s strong love for Amiens (and her determination to save it from the bank) is well-conveyed. Each chapter is prefaced with a quote from The Woolgrower’s Companion, whose text is often quite apt for the events of that chapter. Her extensive research is apparent in every chapter and her characters are multi-faceted, not necessarily behaving quite as expected. Seven traditional recipes are included at the end, along with Book Club Questions.
Other novels have been written around the theme of Italian POWs working on the land, notably Susan Temby’s The Bread with Seven Crusts, Goldie Goldbloom’s The Paperbark Shoe and Fiona Palmer’s The Sunnyvale Girls, and there are probably hundreds more stories to be told, but none is a carbon copy, and The Woolgrower’s Companion has its own originality. Apart from the treatment of Italian POWs in Australia, Rhoades also touches on the Stolen Generation, PTSD and early dementia. This is a great read and readers will look forward to more from this talented author.