I hadn’t read this memoir since I was sixteen. Much of the angsty, teenage need to be amongst “literary” folks comes out in spurts throughout and reminds me of my first attempt at writing a novel at 15, but mine was awful and Stella Franklin’s is a joy to read. The juxtaposition between our 17 year old heroine’s wish for an upscale life in poetry and piano is squashed by both the patriarchal society and the Australian outback’s way it has of turning its farmers to dust. She’s so hyper-focused on her career, that this novel was considered “feminist” literature for the time it was written (1890s).
Stella Franklin, publishing under the male name “Miles,” still enlists the parts of a story that engage readers, to draw them into her life. To re-read a book in one’s lifetime is quite a testament to that book, so this one must be for me since I picked it up twice and have seen the movie a number of times. I always enjoy a good rebellion, as I have a rebellious streak, and any heroine who bucks the system, whether it be in a metropolitan city or in the different environs of the Australian Outback, sucks me in.
The reason I picked it up again, though, is simply because there aren’t any hackneyed stupidities. Franklin uses (despite her young age) dialogue and action, through behaviors and characterization to advance plot and story. It’s the simple equation again. Franklin describes two very different landscapes. One belongs to her father’s new cow farm which is falling into ruin due to drought and her father’s drinking problem. The other is her refined grandmother’s oasis.
Here’s the drought:
“Time, 2 O’clock p. m. Thermometer hung in the shade of the veranda registering 105 and a half degrees. ‘I see Blackshaw coming across the flat. Call your mother. You bring the leg-ropes–I’ve got the dog leg. Come at once; we’ll give the cows another lift. Poor devils–might as well knock ‘em on the head at once, but there might be rain next moon. This drought can’t last forever.’ I called mother, got the leg-ropes, and set off, pulling my sunbonnet closely over my face to protect my eyes from the dust which was driving from the west in blinding clouds.”
Contrast the above scene with her coveted grandmother’s manor/farm below.
“I lay in the soft moss and leaves and drank deeply of the beauties of nature. The soft rush of the river, the scent of the shrubs…occasionally the musical chatter of hoofs on the road, the gentle noises of the…plop, plop of a platypus disporting itself midstream, came to me as sweetest elixir…I was a creature of joy in those days.”
It’s not unique language. She even uses the dreaded adverb. But she also doesn’t go on and on. She gets into the action, and with this contrast we are engaged in story and character. What she could have written that would have blocked us from story and plot would be something like this:
“I lived in pure desolation and then moved to pure bounty. Through this contrast, I not only learned about myself, but about life.” What’s wrong with that passage? It’s full of abstracts. Let’s take them out: learned, life, bounty, desolation. I have a list that says NO: I think, I feel, I know, I wonder, I realize. If you realize, then you need to remember how you came to realize and write about the dust that flew in your face. By mentioning the dust, then the platypus, the reader will realize. That’s their job, not yours.