Sunday, May 5, 2013

Lynne Leonhardt on childhood landscapes

Novelist Lynne Leonhardt, author of Finding Jasper, writes for us on stories of childhood and memories of the country
Final stages of grape crop, Mandalay Wines, Donnybrook
Lynne Leonhardt:   Growing up as a child in the country, I became quite accustomed to the idea of travel. For me, venturing outside my pretty little hometown usually involved longish periods looking out of a bus or car window. Though the journeys were often familiar ones, the changing landscape always engaged me because it was different from home.

To pass the time travelling between the various towns I would sometimes keep a mental count of the horses I spotted in the passing paddocks. If they were absent or acting shy, there was always something fresh to spark my imagination: the way the light fell and cast its shadows, defining the bush and the paddocks with their transient hues. Not surprising then that a pencil or paintbrush was never far from hand at home. The subject matter rarely differed: lots of horses (oh, how I longed for a horse!) but mostly landscapes from out of my head, which I would try to replicate on sheets of butchers’ paper spread out on the kitchen table.

Books I relished at the time were the Billabong series by Mary Grant Bruce and Joan Phipson’s Good Luck to the Rider, which was named Australian Children’s Book of the Year in 1953. All girls’ adventure books set in the outback, which in turn I passed on to my daughters to read.

Despite a healthy childhood diet of Australiana, my literary tastes widened dramatically with my impatience to leave home and country for the wider world. Having long since returned, I love nothing better now than a story that takes me away from the “city” back into the Australian “bush”.

Gillian Mears certainly does that in the most moving and confronting of ways. It is well over a decade ago since I first read the author’s earlier award-winning works. Ride a Cock Horse, Grass Sister, and The Mint Lawn are semi-autobiographical stories set around the town of Grafton in northern New South Wales, evoking the wild fresh sensuousness of adolescent experience.

Gillian Mears writes like an angel,” said one critic back then. But nothing could prepare me for the author’s latest novel set yet again around her childhood landscape. So raw and grim, so tough and earthy, it shocked me to the core. And yet behind the toughness, the frightening boldness, there is immense power, beauty, astonishing insight and understanding in her writing.

Foal's Bread is the title of this story, as well as being a talisman in lieu of angels.  Presented to fourteen-year old Noah by her soul mate Roly, this curiously named piece of horseflesh and good-luck charm unites the two in love and livelihood, fueling their desires as they battle the hardships of country life together in the 1920s and the Depression. The obsessive world of showjumping with its inherent risks is already in their blood.

We can only hold our breath and grit our teeth as it intoxicates them like a drug, propelling the couple higher and higher in search of fame and fortune. And for a while luck is on their side.  Horses and riders remain as magically connected to each other as they are to their surroundings, until suddenly a bolt of lightning strikes one down.

Going against the current of the sexual electricity that runs between Noah and Roly is the young woman’s ongoing guilt. The memory of the “little butter box baby” in its “butter box boat” persists in resurfacing time and again in search of restitution.

Only someone with a very deep connection to a place could write such a story, someone with an acute understanding of the dreams and aspirations of its people, their pain and daily struggle to earn their bread and butter out of horses. Only someone who has had to suffer personally the physical and mental torment of being similarly “struck down”, who in spite of it all, is still able to appreciate the benefits of taking a risk.

“Our veins grow in the landscape of our childhood”, says Kate Llewellyn in her poem 'Australian Childhood Landscape'.  The place where I grew up in the Preston Valley near Donnybrook used to be predominantly apple orchards and natural bush; “Granny Smith country”, it was famously called. Since then the population of the town has grown and diversified and so the landscape and its patterns too have changed. Orchards still flourish, but these days many vineyards can be seen on the once timbered hillsides rejoicing now in their rich autumn colours.

Although I have lived most of my life in the city, my connections to the south west corner of Western Australia will always remain. When I return there I feel comfortable – at home – despite the many changes, yet there comes a point in time when I feel a yearning to be back in that other place where my family now belongs.

Lynne Leonhardt's novel, Finding Jasper
Lynne Leonhardt was brought up on an orchard in Donnybrook in the South West of Western Australia. She earned a PhD in Writing at Edith Cowan University and her debut novel, Finding Jasper, was published by Margaret River Press in 2012.

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