Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 22, 2019

The Drover’s Wife, the legend of Molly Johnson (2019), by Leah Purcell

The Drover’s Wife, the legend of Molly Johnson by Indigenous author Leah Purcell has an unusual genesis in a prize-winning play.  The Drover’s Wife was first premiered at the Belvoir St Theatre in 2016, and won numerous awards in 2017 including the NSW Premier’s Award for Playwriting and Book of the Year; and the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Drama and the Victorian Prize for Literature.  The feature film based on the play is due for release in 2020.

Though I didn’t know Purcell’s name until she picked up these prestigious literary awards, I did know her work as a scriptwriter. Her credits as a writer, actor and director for the stage, film and TV include film and TV that I’ve seen: Jindabyne, Redfern Now, and Cleverman. She is prolific.

And now there is the novel.  Like the play it emerges from Henry Lawson’s legendary short story, The Drover’s Wife, (1893) a tale of deprivation and loneliness and  courage in the Australian bush.  (You can read the original here).  But as you can see from the ABC interview with Purcell below, her version of the story is transformed to deal with a different history of those pioneering days: domestic violence and rape; the Stolen Generations, frontier violence, and the hidden Black ancestry of many White Australians.

As you might expect, there is a cinematic quality to the writing, but vivid scenes intersect with internal monologues from the main characters: Molly, the drover’s wife who doesn’t know the truth about her own parentage; Yakada, an injured Indigenous man on the run back to his family up north; and Danny, the twelve-year-old boy who sees himself as the ‘man of the house’ during his drunken, violent father’s absence.  Additional complexity comes from the addition of two more characters: Nate Clintoff, emigrating from England to become the police presence in nearby Everton, and his wife Louisa, who’s keen to spread the word about votes for women with a bush newsletter.  (And like her real-life counterparts, her reason for wanting the female suffrage, is to improve the rights of women, with legislation to protect them from domestic violence in particular).

Storytelling is integral to the novel.  Molly is a taciturn woman, who is gradually freed from the prison of silence by the story-telling of Danny, who retells the adventures of their bush life with gusto, and Yakada who gently tells her the story of her identity.  Yakada also tells Danny that part of his responsibility as a man, is to keep his family’s stories alive.  We learn from the prologue that Danny does so: taught to write poetry by Louisa, he has kept an illustrated notebook that tells the story of a great woman, strong, steadfast, reliable and loving, his ma, Molly Johnson, nee Stewart. 

It’s the story of a mother’s love, fierce and true. And of a black man who was noble, wise and gentle, a warrior of ancient proportions — but unfortunately not Danny’s father.  Memories of cautious meetings, bonding and the sharing of stories.  Lessons were learnt and a mutual understanding and respect developed from the man to the boy and from the boy to the man — Yakada and Daniel Johnson. (p.2)

Also central to the story are questions of crime, justice, and punishment.  There is a critical moment in the story when Nate Clintoff is desperate to find Danny as a witness, to counter the drunken testimony of stockmen that Nate knows are lying.  If the reader knows anything about Australia’s Black History, Yakada’s silence is telling.  His testimony would not count, because he is Indigenous, but the testimony of a 12-year-old boy could be brought before the court.   Justice is shown in these years not long before Federation when Australia became a social laboratory admired around the world for its progressive reforms, to be a flimsy edifice, weighted against Indigenous people and female victims of male violence.  For Nate, the unfairness of the system provokes a crisis of conscience which persists in the present-day: how best to preserve law-and-order when law-and-order has failed the vulnerable.

The novel, unfortunately, has its flaws, inaccuracies which should have been remedied by its editor.  Molly muses on page 18 that perhaps her mood is influenced by her hormones.  The scene is set in 1893, and the first hormone was not identified until 1902, and not named as such until 1905. I didn’t know this till I looked it up, but the text jarred: it seemed anachronistic, and it was.  A reference to a Senator George Turner on page 44 puzzled me too.  There were no senators in the Victorian colony because the colonial government consisted of a legislative assembly and a legislative council.  The Australian Senate did not exist until Federation in 1901.  I think the person mentioned as running for election as the premier of Victoria prior to Federation is Sir George Turner who indeed became premier and subsequently Commonwealth Treasurer when, after Federation, he was a member of the House of Representatives (i.e. not the Senate, and therefore still not a Senator).   And though I’m open to correction about this, it also seems to me that Louisa’s use of the term ‘global economic situation’ on page 41 is a 21st century expression.  You might think that I’m nit-picking, but I think a debut author of Purcell’s status deserves more attentive editing than she had.  And I also think that any editor working on Australian historical fiction, to avoid embarrassment, ought to have a rudimentary knowledge of Australian history, at least to the level prescribed by the Australian National Curriculum for primary schools for Years 5 & 6.

Leah Purcell is a Goa (Koa/Guwa) Gunggari/Kungarri, Wakka Wakka Murri woman from Queensland.

Author: Leah Purcell
Title: The Drover’s Wife, the legend of Molly Johnson
Cover: photography by Murray Fredericks, design by Louisa Maggio ©Penguin Random House P/L
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Books, Penguin Random House, 2019, 281 pages
ISBN: 9780143791478
Source: Bayside Library


  1. In some ways, all discussions of Australian Literature and Australian sel-image start with The Drover’s WIfe (and with Louisa Lawson) as I have discussed elsewhere


    • Remind me where that was with a URL please?


      • Thank you. My review of Frank Moorehouse’s collection ‘The Dover’s Wife’


        • Ah yes, now I remember. I’ve got that collection too, and I was going to read it before this one, but this one came into the library on reserve so I had to read it first. I’m trying to finish everything I’ve got from Bayside library before next Tuesday when I have to go there to pick up some Xmas goodies. (I’ve just started the bio of Maurice Blackburn by David Day… it’s excellent!)


          • With some trepidation after I coshed myself in the eye with a book falling from the top shelf of the TBR, I got out my copy and I’ve read the sections about Purcell’s Drover’s Wife.
            It’s interesting what she says about the black man as the antagonist. I’ve never seen it like that: I’ve always thought of the bush being the antagonist. And what’s more, my Y5&6 students, to whom I always read the story, always thought that he was justified in stacking the wood hollow: Lawson makes it clear that she didn’t pay him except in tobacco, and ‘he was the last of his tribe and a king’ so she didn’t treat him with respect.
            Interestingly, many of us know the story from reading it in The Victorian Readers Fifth Book, but that is abridged to remove any references to Tommy swearing, and it also omits the black man’s hollow woodpile and King Billy’s help in bringing Black Mary as midwife when needed.


            • I have the Victorian Readers on the shelf behind me. I think Lawson himself wrote a number of versions of the King Billy and Mary the midwife part of the story. But it’s a year now since I read it. Though any way you look at it, it’s hard to read it as supporting the myth of the (male) lone hand conquering the Bush with his mates. The Drover’s Wife is becoming Australia’s ‘Odyssey’ and I look forward to reading Purcell’s take on it.


              • I’d love to see the play… but the film will be out soon so there’s that to look forward to.


  2. I was excited upon learning of Leah Purcell’s published play, The Dover’s Wife. I anticipated learning about lived experiences, perhaps inspired by real life figures and/or events. Learning that the drama was a re-telling of Henry Lawson’s story, I held a preconceived notion that Purcell asserted creative license in crafting the play by centralizing Indigenous life narrative(s) often marred or erased by the dominant Australian colonial history, legal documents, and literature during. Much like the drama, the novel establishes a trajectory of revisionist colonial history and the reclaiming of Aboriginal story of the 19th century period.

    I wasn’t aware that Purcell was a screenwriter. Screenwriting as well as theatrical performance adds textural elements to crafting a novel of this magnitude. Lisa, I’m in agreement with you that accuracy is important in a work of historical fiction. In historical novelists asserting creative license in exploring revisionist history, its important to give credence to central sociopolitical facets of the historical period which is being depicted. Based on your review Lisa, there are some flaws in historical accuracy which is an editorial issue but what you also bring awareness to is the authenticity of Australian Aboriginal Oral Tradition through storytelling which is central in contemporary Aboriginal Literature.

    I admire Leah Purcell’s work as an actress. I’ve seen her featured in the shows, Redfern Now and Cleverman. Prior to reading this book review, I watched video podcasts and listened to audio interviews with Purcell on the play. In a recent video interview, Purcell mentioned that she wanted to take a break from acting to focus on her craft of writing. Like many emerging and established authors, commitment to craft is a tenet that evolves over time and experience.

    Lisa, your book review has sparked my interest in reading The Drover’s Wife, the legend of Molly Johnson.


    • I’m sure you’ll enjoy it. I haven’t mentioned much of lifestyle she depicts, though there’s one very memorable moment when she has to stand by and watch one of the thugs pour their precious water supply over his head, water that she’s lugged up from the river.


  3. I want to read it. Now :-)


    • I want lots of people to read it!


  4. I’m afraid this is too Australian for me but I agree with everything you say in your last paragraph.

    I had the same experience with Slaves by Kangni Alem and I thought that if I saw the inconsistencies and anachronism, a normally skilled editor should have noticed them too. After all, I’m not a history buff, so if I see it, it’s obvious!

    Writing historical fiction is tricky that way because the writer must be accurate as far as facts are concerned but also in the way people speak and think.


    • Yes, I think it’s quite a tricky genre to master, and my guess is that the people who do it best have read a great deal of authentic writing from the period, so that the vocab and speech patterns become natural to them. Sort of like learning another language, eh?


      • I agree with you. It’s as difficult to master as crime fiction.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. […] Nancy Elin’s review of Leah Purcell’s play The Drover’s Wife (here) Lisa/ANZLitLovers reviewed Leah Purcell’s novel The Drover’s Wife (here) […]


  6. Haha, Lisa, I love your final reference to the school curriculum. Go you!

    I first properly came across Leah Purcell, with an anthology she edited in 2002 called Black Chicks Talking, which followed a documentary she made the year before in 2001. I learnt so much from that book – I got to know her and read the stories of people like Frances Rings (dancer whom I still follow with interest), Tammy Williams, Deborah Mailman, Rachel Perkins, and others. I also learnt about places like Cherbourg (which was near where I lived for a while in my childhood – I was only 5 – and didn’t know about). That book was social I think because it came out before all the stories that we are now reading came out, and for me, laid the groundwork.

    I didn’t realise she turned her play into a book, and I haven’t seen the play. But, it is interesting how The drover’s wife, which as always been around, is suddenly front and centre again. I have the Moorhouse book too, but haven’t read it.


    • As a matter of interest, was The Drover’s Wife one of the prescribed books of your school education? Here in Victoria it was in the Victorian Readers Book 5 which meant that *everybody* knew it because everybody had those readers when they were in primary school. But I’ve often wondered about other states… did they have an equivalent series of readers?


      • You know, I changed schools so much that I can’t be sure, but I did all my primary schooling in Queensland schools and I’m pretty sure we had readers. I remember reading about Grace Darling, and I’m sure that was in a reader. I really can’t recollect though where and when I first read The drover’s wife.


        • Ah yes, I remember Grace Darling too. What a shame it is that heroes for today’s children are Marvel superheroes, whereas we grew up on stories of real-life courage.

          Liked by 1 person

  7. […] The Drover’s Wife, the legend of Molly Johnson, by Leah Purcell […]


  8. […] The Drover’s Wife, Leah Purcell (Penguin Random House Australia, Hamish Hamilton), see my review […]


  9. […] film is based on Purcell’s book of the same name, which Lisa has reviewed. I have been interested in Purcell for a couple of decades now, as, well before blogging, I read […]


  10. A little late to the party, having only now in 2022 seen Leah’s magnificent film, I’m intruiged why have I nowhere seen mentioned the frequent and delightful references to Lawson’s mother and his great rival/friend/competitor, A.B Patterson. The obvious reference to Lawsons Mother, Louisa, who started a Womens magazine in the 1890’s called ‘Dawn”, and many references to Banjo’s works. When Louisa’s Policeman husband reached the crest of the range, he ‘took a pull’ just like Clancy, (they were in Snowy River country, after all, and the hidden ground was full of wobat holes, and any slip was death), the ‘Artful young rouge, ….with his ear to the keyhole was listening’ while the McGuinnesses, ‘the man in the frock’ and sister, discussed what was to be the fate of the children when made ‘part of the flock’, and not a whiskey flask in sight. This may not have been the outer Barcoo, but men of religion were indeed scanty.

    Were there other references I have missed, I wonder?

    If only there was a Bicyle dealership somewhere near a barbers shop…


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