I grew up in the ‘fifties’, on a soldier settler block in the South East of South Australia. Our family farm was near a small town called Kalangadoo: a beautiful part of the state, in the heart of rich red gum farming country.
I remember on one occasion, my father returning from a day ploughing a paddock, and showing us children a black granite axe head, unearthed by the plough. As I looked at this beautifully worked tool in my hands, I can clearly remember marvelling at the skill of its maker, and wondering too just how long it had been buried in the ground, and how long since it had been in the hands of its aboriginal owner.
I think my initial assumption was that it had been in the ground for centuries, because I can also remember my surprise when my father conjectured that it might well be less than a hundred years old. He told me that some of the oldtimers around the district could still remember aboriginal families camping under the huge old blackwood tree that stood next to the shearing shed in our home paddock. We worked out that these folk would have been camping in that spot as late as the last twenty or so years of the nineteenth century, some years before our family had taken over the farm.
Many years later (probably in the late 1970s), while I was still farming the property, our local historian, Nick Hunt, called in to the farm, and offered me a copy of a typed document, explaining that it was one of the diaries of a woman called Minnie Hunter, whose father, James, was the first lessee of the Kalangadoo pastoral property in the 1840s. The diary had been given to Nick by a descendant of Minnie, who had come to Kalangadoo looking for the site of the original homestead built by James Hunter.
I read Minnie’s diary, and was captured by some elements of it. In particular I was fascinated by her descriptions of life at that time, and by her own life journey, driven it seemed by her obvious devotion to John ‘Boss’ Brewer. My immediate thought as that here was a story waiting to be told.
I was also fascinated by her strong sympathies for the local indigenous people, the Boandiks. I thought that her views, and those of her father, though probably seen as paternalistic and patronising through enlightened late twentieth century eyes, were nevertheless extraordinarily enlightened for their time.
I put my interest in Minnie and her story to one side when I sold the farm and left the district to pursue other career paths. But that interest was reinforced when, many years later, I was given a copy of the entire set of diaries by my good friend and former farming neighbour, Lois Dean. Like me, Lois had been fascinated by the many unique and contradictory parts of Minnie’s character and approach to life. She spent a huge amount of time and effort tracking down the remaining diaries and exhaustively researching all aspects of Minnie’s life, and the background to the Hunter brothers’ adventures in pioneering Australia. This culminated in her publishing the diaries in full, together with copious notes and background information.
So when I retired from the public service, I set about realising my long held ambition to tell Minnie’s story, and the story of the indigenous peoples she encountered and befriended over her life. And I could not resist weaving into that story an account of the Leake brothers, those colourful and enigmatic pioneers of the South East, who, despite being near neighbours of Minnie’s, are mentioned only fleetingly in her diaries.
The other person I wanted to bring to life was Lizzie Brewer, Boss’s beautiful, passionate, mercurial and ultimately tragic wife. In Minnie’s diaries she is demonised, no doubt partly because she was such a trial to all the family over the years, but partly also, I suspect, because in Minnie’s eyes, she was always seen as a key rival for Boss’s love.
I suspect that the reality was that she was a far more complex and interesting person than the selfish shrew portrayed by Minnie. In many senses Lizzie is the real heroine of this story, a vital, passionate woman brought down by the isolation and loneliness of her life in the bush.
As I read Minnie’s diaries, and as I researched the Hunter and Brewer families, and the people and places they encountered over their lives, my overwhelming impression was just how tough and difficult life was for people in those times, and how heroic all these people were to persevere in the face of such adversity. My book is dedicated to chronicling and celebrating that heroism.