Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 22, 2018

The Fierce Country (2018), by Stephen Orr

Stephen Orr is one of my favourite authors, but I’ve never read any of his non-fiction. This collection gathers together true stories that have shaped and continue to haunt the Australian psyche: mysteries, disappearances, mistreatment and murder. This is from the blurb at the Wakefield Press website:

The Fierce Country holds no malice, but neither pity. It just sits, and bakes, and waits. We do the rest. We provoke it when we mine above its aquifers. Weaken it, and ourselves, when we leave mountains of asbestos to blow away in the wind. Misunderstand it when we see it as nothing more than a resource. Resent it when it takes our children.

The open spaces and isolated places outside Australia’s cities have unsettled us from first European settlement to today – often with very good reason.

The stories cover the familiar and less-well known. The Preface goes like this:

The Fierce Country starts on the fringes of our big cities and extends through market gardens and wheatbelt, moving into the outback.  It begins in 1830s Van Dieman’s Land, where primary-school-aged children were sent to be ‘reformed’, continuing into the Western Australian desert, full of cut-snake explorers, to a murder mystery in a Gatton paddock and a journey along the No 1 Rabbit Proof Fence.  On to stories of lost children, stranded backpackers, Christlike figures searching for God on the gibbers, Peter Falconio pulling over beside the highway, Imran Zilic hurtling across the Nullarbor beside his father.

This volume describes the friction between man, woman, child and landscape.  It’s a rough edge, continually wearing.  In this zone farmers fix fences, foreign students drive for days to see waterless lakes, drug runners ferry their wares between cities and pink roadhouses serve Chiko rolls, lined up like trucks waiting for a bowser.  A folklore begins to smoke and catch among the shavings of our history.  (p.ix)

There will be plenty of readers to whom these hints of story seem familiar.  You’ll know ‘Point Puer Boys’ Prison’ if you’ve visited the Port Arthur convict settlement in Tasmania.  Orr tells us that this ‘Junior Port Arthur’ in Tasmania was an early version of San Francisco’s Alcatraz prison You can read this sample chapter at Stephen’s website where there are images to reinforce the desolation.

Australia’s Black History is included in Orr’s commentary about the cut-snake explorers, as well as the story of Jandamarra 1894, a hero of Indigenous resistance in the Kimberley. Orr also tells the brief story of Jimmy Governor, on whom the central character in Thomas Keneally’s The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith is based, characterising both Indigenous men as torn between two worlds. However, I was a bit surprised to see European encroachment on Indigenous land described as

the slow, gentle suffocation of traditions that have persisted and sustained since the beginning of time. (p.30, underlining mine),

especially when on the next page Orr writes

the frontier struggle for land and power, the ‘killing time’ raged around him. 

I think we all know that there was nothing slow or gentle about the disruption to Indigenous traditions, and the word ‘suffocation’ implies annihilation, and we also know that many traditions are still going strong while others have been adapted through Indigenous agency.

There is also an extensive chapter about The Calvert Expedition 1896-1897 which aimed to explore the remaining blanks of Australia and was made up of a group of determined men who, by design or by accident, or both, wrote their names in one of the lesser volumes of Australian history.  

All the requisite elements are there: a Voss-like leader, camels, ‘sandy-blight’, mercury thermometers that try but can’t get beyond 120 degrees, a few bad decisions, lots of persistence and, finally, the discovery of a pair of mummified bodies.  (p.38)

Orr quotes the last letter of 22-year-old George Lindsay Jones to his parents.  Even if one has come to the conclusion that Australia’s explorers mostly caused their own fate through hubris, it’s still a moving document to read at this distance in time.  Likewise, it’s moving to read the story of Carl and Theodor Strehlow’s journey to Horseshoe Bend 1922.  Not everyone has time to read the full account written by Strehlow but Orr’s summary of this biblical trek and its conflicted author should bring the story to a wide audience.

I was not so interested in the stories about violent crime.  I don’t agree with Orr’s statement that the outback is littered with unsolved murders.  The outback isn’t littered with anything.  It’s too vast for that.  And I’m not interested in melodramatic tales of true crime in any context.  So I skipped those chapters.

The chapter I most enjoyed was about ‘The Tea and Sugar’ 1917-1996.  I knew about this train that delivered supplies across the Nullarbor because I’d read the picture book about it to my students and reviewed it on my professional blogTea and Sugar Christmas by Jane Jolly and Robert Ingpen is a gorgeous book about a vanished lifestyle (see a taster here) but Orr provides useful information about the genesis of the train service that I would certainly use as background if I were reading the book to children today. It would also be worth reading this chapter if travelling on the train’s replacement, the Indian Pacific because it stops at the ghost town of Cook (the Tea and Sugar’s last stop) and travellers can get out and explore for a couple of hours.

“Lasseter’s Reef 1930-1931 still grips the imagination.  Orr quotes Edward Harrington’s famous poem:

Now Lasseter sleeps in the great North-west
Where they say the dead sleep sound
But what was the end of Lasseter’s quest
And where is the gold he found? (p.89)

Where indeed?

Of course, many believe the whole story the work of some long dead illywhacker, but others, that the suburb-sized reef must exist.

Well, just yesterday, there was news of the discovery of a ‘duck’s foot’ gold nugget worth $110,000 somewhere in remote WA.  Orr tells us that the Lasseter story continues to prompt not only searches for the fabulous reef but also possible alternative stories of Lasseter’s life. I’m going to look out for a book that’s mentioned: it’s called Dream Millions by Fred Blakeley (1972).

There are several moving stories of people lost in remote parts, and also a chapter about the Faraday School kidnapping, always a story in the back of my mind because I had a friend who taught in a one-teacher school at Buchan South, (since closed because of the vulnerability of one-teacher schools to this kind of crime).

There is also, of course, a chapter about bushfire.

It’s an interesting collection, but I prefer Orr’s fiction!

Author: Stephen Orr
Title: The Fierce Country, True stories from Australia’s unsettled heart, 1830 to today
Publisher: Wakefield Press, 2018
ISBN: 9781743055748
Review copy courtesy of Wakefield Press

Available from Fishpond The Fierce Country: True stories from Australia’s unsettled heart, 1830 to today and direct from Wakefield Press.



  1. It’s good, I agree. Wakefield often have really great covers, they are one of my favourite publishers.


  2. Have you reviewed any of his fiction here, maybe mention your favourite (s). The collection sounds interesting, even if the theme suggests it’s a certain kind of story he’s been drawn towards, a little sensationalist.


  3. I certainly hope the outback is not littered with unsolved murders! Seems a melodramatic thing to state, I agree with you there.


    • It is a rather melodramatic collection, as you can see from the title. But his fiction is wonderful.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Sounds like it contains some interesting stories, melodramatic or otherwise. “Littered with murders” though doesn’t sound like his usual sort of imagery. I wonder why he decided to write this book?


    • I don’t know… I can see that there’s a market for it. A lot of people like frightening themselves with true crime and crime fiction and this would appeal to them, I think.
      I read somewhere also that grey nomads doing The Big Trip Round Australia would find it interesting.


      • Ah yes, the grey nomads could. Read the story close to where you are currently travelling. It might result in a change of conversation from which campsite is best, and where to get the cheapest petrol. (Oh dear, that’s a bit unkind of me, but a couple of times we’ve found ourselves in groups of grey nomads – doing a day tour in the outback somewhere – and we’ve found it hard getting the conversation onto anything more interesting. Still, I suspect, besides those subjects being useful to them in a real way, they are also non-controversial.)


        • I can imagine!
          One thing, there’s a story about a family that perished because they ran out of petrol, and Orr disagrees with the SA government which doesn’t want a memorial there because he thinks it could be a useful warning about adequate preparation. But I don’t think he’s right. Firstly, by the time the grey nomad or unprepared backpacker is wandering round looking at memorials the time for a warning is well past, but more importantly, in this case the memorial would be a bit off the beaten track and surely it’s common sense that anyone who’s not local ought not to be encouraged to go sightseeing off the main highways.


  5. I could feel your lack of enthusiasm in your review.
    Too bad, his fiction is good, indeed.
    I’ll pass on this one, I’m not a good reader of non-fiction anyway.


    • The irony is that this will probably sell more copies than his fiction because the melodrama of terrible things happening in remote places is popular. People (from the safety of their armchairs) like to scare themselves.


  6. […] The Fierce Country, by Stephen Orr […]


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