Black Bones, Red Earth

Katherine’s story

1951: Katherine’s journey begins in the unforgiving landscape of the Australian outback. Having been abandoned by her father after her mother is killed in a London air raid, Katherine finds little sympathy when she is consigned to an austere life in the care of Lachlan and Daisy Stuart on an isolated property beyond Broken Hill. There is little tenderness in the ten-year-old’s life until Aboriginal station hands offer their friendship, but love comes at a deadly price.

Current day: Now living an idyllic life in the north of England, for almost sixty years Katherine has hidden her past. But when an old letter is discovered, she is forced to relive her traumatic years under the Australian sun and explain who died and why she had to run. However, there’s a twist in the tale that will bring her once again to her knees. Will returning to Australia help her truly find peace?

A story of hope, love, sacrifice and resilience.

Black Bones, Red Earth was not only a journey for Katherine, my new novel’s main character but for me as a writer. As a dedicated panster – no, nothing to do with wedgies (see Panster or plotter) – I started this book with a simple idea, hoping as usual that it would grow from there into a finished story. I had no idea where it would end. The seed from which the story took root, came from my mum when, in her eighties, she revealed that she had been orphaned as a small child and had kept this fact a secret all her life. I wrote about this in Waifs & Strays. It got me to thinking about monumental secrets kept for years and years, even from family and friends, and I wondered what other secrets might be hidden and whose life could be changed by the revelation?

Inspired by true characters and historical events

The next bit of inspiration came from my Uncle Chris, who came to Australia as a boy, only to be despatched to a sheep station where he struggled to make a life under the care of a cranky old station owner. His adventures brought real-life experiences to my story.

Uncle Chris as a boy at Gundaur sheep station

But it wasn’t until I started writing and set my tale in the 1950s that I came to realise the weight of such stories, and how they could be entwined with the true-life experiences of characters from the bush. I found the back-story had far-reaching consequences for my understanding of Australia and its past.

Photo courtesy Molong Historical Society

In the years between 1920 and 1970, 130,000 British children were despatched to other countries, mostly Canada and Australia, under the Child Migrant Program. Government policy was facilitated and implemented by churches and charities, ostensibly to give children a better life. In reality, they were little more than unpaid servants, labourers, and blood-stock for the expanding colonies. Sometimes separated from siblings, they were sent to remote farms, church missions and state-run institutes, where they were often subjected to sexual and physical abuse. These children were usually already in institutions in the UK, either orphaned or in many cases, the children of single parents who could no longer care for them. On arrival overseas, they were often told their parents were now dead, and many lost all contact with those left behind.

Photo by Fred Hardie                         Courtesy NSW State Library

Before and including those periods above, the Australian government implemented various policies of assimilation. Indigenous Australian children were forcibly separated from their families and placed in institutions, where they were taught to reject their Aboriginal culture and adopt white culture. The government intended to allow the indigenous population of Australia to die out naturally, while those of Aboriginal and white parentage would be absorbed into white society. Speaking traditional languages and practising traditional ways was forbidden. Aboriginal Australians were denied the rights that white Australians took for granted.

Available from bookstores and online from February 24th

The above practices tore families apart, destroyed communities and left a legacy of shame that affects those traumatised until this day. The stolen generations are a stain on our history.

I have to say, shamefully, that I knew little of the true story of First Australians and their struggle to survive since colonisation. I’m grateful for the generous time and help of Gundungurra Aboriginal Elders who guided me to the truth. My personal journey in writing this novel has brought me to learn and understand the real history of this land I now call home.

Black Bones, Red Earth, is a work of fiction, but the characters and stories are based on fact. It goes on sale, February 24th 2020.