Those with a strong arm and capacious handbag capable of carrying this weighty book will reap the rewards of an interesting read about the people who made Australia the wonderful country it is. This work is the follow-up to the first volume of “Australians” and introduces the reader to the faces of colonial society in the 1860’s to the last decade of the colonial era, through Federation to the Great War. It is richly illustrated with wonderfully evocative photographs that capture particular moments in Australia’s past.
A number of remarkable Australian women are featured. The stories of the frontier women who endured such harsh conditions to give birth, only to suffer the cruelty of infant mortality, are profoundly moving. Other extraordinary Australian women include two war artists. Iso Rae, from Melbourne, stranded in France, volunteered for the British Red Cross and documented what she saw on pastels and paper. Jessie Traill, later pioneering painting in Central Australia, served as a volunteer nurse in France and, in her art, depicted the damaged young men she tended.
Keneally records the contribution of Australian women to the emancipation of women worldwide. South Australian women in 1894 led the way to become the first to gain the right to vote and stand for Parliament. Catherine Helen Spence, voted the “Greatest Australian Woman”, was the first woman in the world to stand for election to Parliament.
Thomas Keneally’s book also tells the stories of noteworthy Australian moments, such as how Banjo Patterson came to write “Waltzing Matilda”. There are also interesting snippets. For example, rabbits came to be such a pest in Australia – not from being brought on the earlier ships, but from two dozen grey European rabbits imported in 1859 by Thomas Austin of Geelong. The “Great Rabbit Prize” for the eradication of those pests, one Louis Pasteur keenly wanted to win, eluded the great scientist. These stories are part of the many little-known fragments of Australian settlement history in this book, held together in a chronological narrative spanning a century and a half.
Thomas Keneally also provides a very useful timeline from 1860 to 1919, beginning with Burke and Will’s notorious expedition, to the “Spanish Flu” epidemic in 1919. The bibliography so painstakingly documented, also provides an excellent list of reference books for readers who wish to research this period of Australian life and history in greater detail.
This is a serious work, culturally and historically informative. The reader is enabled to appreciate the present, having a better understanding of the past. It has documented what needed to be preserved, the story of the diverse elements and peoples responsible for the rich tapestry of Australian life. It is a fitting tribute to the significant contributions, effort and imagination of those who have worked, served and fought to make Australia the great country it is today.