Don’t you hate it when a publisher re-publishes a book with a different title so that you unwittingly buy the same book twice? That’s what happened to me with Great Pioneer Women of the Outback which I bought when it was released in 2005. It was then rebadged in 2010 as The Complete Book of Heroic Australian Women, which is a compilation of Great Pioneer Women and another previously published book called Heroic Australian Women In War. But there’s nothing about this Complete Book being a compilation on the Harper Collins website nor on the cover of the book – this IMO rather important information is tucked away on the verso page. I didn’t discover it until I’d finished the book and then scoured the TBR for the ‘other’ book about pioneer Aussie women that I knew had somewhere. I was not best pleased to discover then that I’d already just read it!
I wouldn’t have minded so much if I’d enjoyed the book. It took me ages to read it, plodding dutifully through it over breakfast for what seemed like forever. It felt like a book that had been commissioned for the school market to redress a gender imbalance rather than a book written from the heart. I bet that great slabs of it feature in earnest essays about ‘The Role of Women in Early Settlement’, and ‘The Role of Women in War’.
The first half of the book is about 10 Australian pioneer women, whose stories are known from their letters, journals and books. Georgiana Molloy, Fanny Bussell and Jeannie a.k.a. Mrs Aeneas Gunn, and more. The story of Georgiana Molloy was quite interesting – but that might have been because she was first in the book. Tough as it undoubtedly was for these women, there’s a limit to how much you want to read about tedious journeys over appalling roads, outback isolation, cursed weather, primitive facilities and 19th century childbirth or premature death.
(And if this book is used as a resource in schools, I hope that teachers also give due consideration to the challenges faced by lower-class urban women, not to mention the dreadful suffering of Aboriginal women dispossessed by these pioneers.)
The second part of the book is better. It’s about women who went away to war, beginning with Olive Kelso King in WW1 and concluding with the largely unknown Mavis Parkinson and Sister Francis May Hayman who were slaughtered by the Japanese in Papua New Guinea.
De Vries makes a convincing case that these women were heroic because they left safe, comfortable homes to serve others at great personal risk. These women refused to conform to gender expectations and battled bureaucracy and discrimination in order to save lives. Olive Kelso, Dr Agnes Elizabeth Lloyd Bennett, Dr Lilian Violet Cooper, and Sister Alice Elizabeth Kitchen all deserve to be better known, (though perhaps not in quite so much detail. This book could have done with considerable pruning.)