core-of-my-heart-my-countryHenry Lawson has a lot to answer for.

His drover’s wife, and her ilk, reinforced and perpetuated the stereotype of the frontier being no place for a woman.

Yet women were of course very much present at the boundaries of settlement.  And their experiences moved far beyond the confines of the domestic house and garden.  They were not, as MacKellar points out “absent and alienated from the drama of nation building.”

In her moving and vivid book, MacKellar sets out to foreground and explore those women’s experience of the white frontiers of Canada and Australia.

Core of My Heart, My Country (Melbourne University press, 2004) works on a number of levels.  At its most basic, the book is a wonderfully easy read.  MacKellar’s narrative voice is compelling and the examples she uses to illustrate her themes are interesting and vividly drawn.

At another level, MacKellar critically examines the notion of a sense of place and women’s relationship to the new landscapes in which they found themselves.  While I suspect this text is drawn from a thesis, the reader is offered an in-depth articulation of the issues in prose that flows clear and bright: no obfuscatory rocks here.

 By looking at women’s lives and their various responses to the landscapes of Canada and Australia, this book explores the ways in which frontier myths in both countries have served to silence and marginalise white women’s experience and their role in articulating how we ‘belong’.

MacKellar’s themes are viewed through the letters and journals of ten women who lived in Australia and Canada between 1830 and the early twentieth century.  Their personal experiences, and to a much lesser extent MacKellar’s, are used to illustrate how women embraced the place in which they came to live.

[The women in the book ] seek connections between themselves and the New World.  They reach out and claim a sense of belonging to the land and community.  In writing about how they do this, I have to confront the moral and political implications of the troubling knowledge that, in Australia and Canada, non-indigenous women’s sense of place rests upon and may serve to obscure ancestral acts of dispossession and theft.

The book is well-structured.  The chapters progress chronologically, and each chapter focuses only on one, two or (in one case) three women.  This gives the reader time and space to learn about each woman, to engage with her as a character.

Each chapter also examines a theme, and the women are grouped in such a way as to beautifully and personally illuminate that theme.

Chapter two, for example, is called ‘Looking through a fawnskin window’ and examines the relationships between white and indigenous women.  In some Canadian sod houses, the windows were made of thinly stretched fawn skin.

The metaphor of the fawnskin window offers a way to talk about the view of the land white women were given through their relationship with indigenous women.  The view is partial, distorted even, but it is outwards for information did pass…

Each woman’s story is fascinating in itself.  I was particularly enthralled by Dr Mary Percy Jackson, an English woman who in 1929 travelled to the arctic circle the to serve a remote settler community.

Women doctors cost less than males, could be relied upon to do the nursing as well as the doctoring and were considered easier to recruit, having fewer opportunities available to them than their male contemporaries.  So at the age of 25, with seven years of hard study behind her, Mary left Birmingham, a safe job in the hospital, and her family and friends, and travelled to Northern Alberta to the Peace River to be the first white doctor in the area.

There is an even mix of Canadian and Australian examples, demonstrating women’s common experiences.  In the vivid description of the way Georgiana Molloy’s (1805-1843) gradual physical acceptance of the bush the beyond her garden mirrored her psychological engagement with the landscape of Western Australia, I found many parallels with Elizabeth Macarthur (1766-1850).

Her eyes, which had been trained by observing her garden, were opened to cycles of the seasons.  Her interest in botany gave her the opportunity to explore the land on her terms, within an order that reflected her upbringing and her culture.  Her [seed] collecting was an attempt to conceive of the land within a system of knowledge that was familiar to her, to know it and to name it.  her grief at the loss of her son taught her that refuge could be found in a place that had [previously] only represented loneliness, difference and isolation.  Finally, her collecting produced a sense of place in the new land, an expansion of herself that was articulated through her longing to ‘be’ in the bush.

I’d just started reading this book when Whispering Gums hosted a lively discussion on her blog about landscape and sense of place.  The comments are relevant to MacKellar’s book and well worth a look – and they get better and better as you scroll down.

The title is of course drawn from Dorothea MacKellar’s famous poem and I believe the two MacKellars are somehow related.  I read and very much enjoyed MacKellar’s 2011 memoir When It Rains and was at my library looking for her recently published follow-up How to Get There when I stumbled across Core of My Heart, My Country.

I’m so glad I took the detour.

Try also this great interview with Mackellar over at the Meanjin blog.  Mackellar discusses how writing fits into the practicalities of her life in a forthright and (for me) very comforting way.  Life gets in the way of her writing, too.