Publisher: HQ (Trade Paperback format – 18 March 2019)
Length: 416 pages
My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
Historical drama author Mary-Anne O’Connor once again presents the readers with a powerful and moving journey through a number of iconic moments in Australian history with her fourth book, In a Great Southern Land, which focuses on Australia’s colonial history and the chaos surrounding the infamous Eureka Stockade.
In 1851, the colonised but still mythical continent of Australia represents many things for many different people. For the Clancy family living in Ireland it represents freedom, as they seek their own land away from the British aristocracy that controls their country. For young Eve Richards it represents a harsh prison; she is unfairly transported as a convict after losing everything that she cares about.
Once in New South Wales, Eve briefly encounters the wild but kind Clancy brother, Kieran, who manages to save her from a harsh life in the Tasmanian colonies. Following a bad experience as he left Ireland, Kieran is wondering around Australia in search of a new purpose, while his family, including his brother, Liam, and his sister, Eileen, settle in Orange. Despite the love of his family, Kieran’s temper and thirst for adventure leads him down to the goldfields at Ballarat, close to where Eve is employed as a convict servant.
It does not take long for Kieran and Eve to find each other again, and the two are soon drawn together romantically. However, their plans for their future and a life together are imperilled by events occurring around the goldfields. The corrupt colonial regime is imposing harsh taxes on the miners attempting to scratch a living at the fields, and resentment and hostility is growing. When several shocking events become a catalyst for revolt among the miners, Kieran finds himself being forced to choose between supporting his friends or marrying Eve. Can Kieran and Eve’s relationship survive the chaos of the Eureka Stockade, or will tragedy once again strike them both?
This is the fourth book from Australian author Mary-Anne O’Connor, who specialises in historical dramas set in the backdrop of significant events in Australia’s history. Her 2015 debut, Gallipoli Street, features aspects of World Wars I and II as well as the Great Depression. Her second book, Worth Fighting For, is set in World War II, while her third book, War Flower, focuses on Australia in the 1960s, including the country’s involvement in the Vietnam War. In a Great Southern Land is the author’s first foray into a 19th century setting, and her love and dedication to recounting parts of Australia’s complex and chaotic history once again shines through.
At its heart, In a Great Southern Land is a dramatic story of several individuals who are searching for a new beginning, and find love, loss and upheaval in their new home. I have to admit that dramatic novels are not usually the sort of book that I am naturally drawn to, but something about this book really appealed to me and I had a great time reading it. The main characters are extremely sympathetic and realistic, and the reader can not help but get drawn into their story. A lot of bad stuff affects all of them, especially Kieran and Eve, and you are left hoping that they can hang on and find the happiness that they deserve. I quite enjoyed the romance angle between Kieran and Eve; it came about quite naturally and had quite a satisfying conclusion. I really got into this fantastic story and I was impressed by how this fantastic dramatic tale was woven so effectively into the book’s amazing historical elements.
One of the things I quite liked about this book was O’Connor’s ability to examine and bring several aspects of Australia’s colonial history to life. Several iconic parts of the mid-19th century Australian experience are explored by the author, including the transportation of convicted criminals from England to Australia, the often terrible convict lifestyle, the resettlement of Irish settlers to various parts of Australia and the trials and tribulations of those seeking their fortunes in the goldfields. On top of that, O’Connor also explores various Australian locations, including historical Sydney, Melbourne, Orange and Ballarat. All of these examinations of history are deeply fascinating, and I really enjoyed reading about them. The author has obvious skill at portraying all the historical aspects, and the reader gets a real sense of what it would have been like to experience these historical events, ordeals and locations.
The most significant historical event that occurs within this book is the Eureka Stockade, which plays a huge role in the overall story. O’Connor does an amazing job examining this interesting and often venerated piece of Australia’s colonial history and explores so many of the key elements surrounding the event. As such, the reader gets an excellent idea of what events led up to the Eureka Stockade, and why the participants thought it was necessary to organise as they did. The actual battle at the Eureka Stockade is pretty brutal and tragic for the reader and becomes one of the major parts within the book. I quite liked the examination of the aftermath of the event, especially the rather entertaining, but apparently accurate, courtroom sequence, which I was not as familiar with. O’Connor does a fantastic job brining the Eureka Stockade to life, and I was quite impressed with how it was utilised in the telling of the book’s dramatic storylines.
I really enjoyed the author’s underlying examination of freedom and control that seemed to permeate a large amount of In a Great Southern Land’s plot. Throughout the story, the main characters experience high amounts of oppression or prejudice, often from upper-class English characters, due to a wide range of social factors. For example, before the Clancy family leave for Australia, they are oppressed by the rich, English family who controls their land and whose greed takes something precious from Kieran. Eve is taken advantage of by the son of the household she works for and is then cast out when the affair is discovered without the son standing up for her. Even when they reach the promised land of Australia, the characters are still oppressed. The Clancy family still face discrimination for being Irish, with the police targeting Kieran, and one particularly dislikeable doctor refusing to leave a party to treat someone from Ireland. Eve, on the other hand, is treated poorly as a convict, and even after she finds work with a nice, wealthy family, she and Kieran are forced to act a certain way with Eve’s employers in order to gain permission to marry. This underlying oppression and the resentment and anger that these characters felt plays wonderfully into the events that led up to the Eureka Stockade, and it was intriguing to see how these events affected the characters’ decisions in relation to these events.
In this book, Mary-Anne O’Connor has produced another outstanding historical drama that the reader really gets drawn into. The main story is deep and emotive and ties in well with O’Connor’s rich and detailed depictions of historical events that represent key points in Australia’s colonial history. In a Great Southern Land is an amazing and powerful read that I was quite happy to find myself really enjoying. I ranked this book 4.5 stars, and I will be quite interested to see what period of Australian history O’Connor decides to explore next.