To peruse the story of Mary Groves’ life is to step onto a rollicking rollercoaster which moves so fast you can barely catch your breath. The ripping yarns come thick and fast throughout An Outback Life as Groves, with almost casual ease, relays the kinds of hardships, disasters, and extraordinary experiences which city folk can only wonder at.
There are run-ins with snakes and crocs, buffalo stampedes, billionaires, light plane crashes, UFOs, and fly-by-your pants bush surgery. Birth and death are played out in primitive facilities against a backdrop of Aboriginal tribal law and mysticism. For Mary Groves, they’re simply part and parcel of 40 years spent criss-crossing the Northern Territory with her tough-as-nails husband and a crew of four hardy children.
Groves was 14 when her family packed up eight of eleven kids and moved from Melbourne to the Top End to manage the Mataranka general store. Five years later she ran off with Joe Groves, a ringer, cowboy and stockman who, in 1962, carried out the Top End’s last major droving run into Queensland before cattle trains took over.
The pair spent the next few decades on stock runs, stations, and following the rodeo and horse-racing circuits. It was hardly a conventional courting. Although they often camped under the stars with just swags, billy cans and a fire, the most romantic thing Joe ever said to Groves was: “Woman, I’m going to stick to you like shit to a blanket.”
Much like a rollercoaster, An Outback Life leaves scant room for navel-gazing. While Groves has produced a tale which leaves you bursting with admiration for the character and fortitude of Territorians, she has done little more than skim across the surface of her own emotional life.
You want to know more, not only about the often briefly sketched characters who populate the book, but about this adventurous, independent woman. What held her together? How was she shaped by those long years far from anyone, with a reticent, oft-absent husband and a small horde of children to raise practically alone?
The clues are there, but for the most part you have to piece them together yourself.
A clear picture emerges of an uncomplaining, courageous woman who took on whatever life threw at her. There’s a distinct arc from the daydreaming little girl who fantasised about an exotic outback life to the grown woman we see at the end of the book, returning to the city having lived that dream and now taking a sharp right turn towards new adventures. But it is only then, when you’ve been left stunned by the almost carelessly delivered news that her marriage has dissolved, that Groves climbs into her own head to briefly ponder where she’s at in life.
Overall, An Outback Life is the kind of read which makes you want to leap into the saddle and run off to find adventure. But you’d be going with only part of the story: the head part is up to you.