A Waltz for Matilda (2010) by Jackie French
*this review contains spoilers!*
The first in a series of historical fiction set in outback Australia at the turn of the 19th century, A Waltz for Matilda is a novel intended for young adult readers. However it is easily enjoyed by anyone with a love of country, history and strong characters who overcome adversity and hardship with tenacity and courage. French is a much loved young adult author whose stories contain the kind of detail that can only be written about through lived experience: she lived and worked on farms for much of her life; my first experience of her writing were my Mum’s copies of The Chook Book and Backyard Self-Sufficiency. As well as books about livestock and small holding, French has a long list of young adult novels that explore complex issues from religious persecution, war and refugees to environmentalism, racism and sexism. The series beginning with A Waltz for Matilda uncovers a young Australia, still bound by colonial law and British sovereignty, and the remarkable events that forged the nation that we know today.
A Waltz for Matilda follows the life of twelve year old Matilda, a girl living in an unnamed Australian city, working in a factory six days a week for little pay to keep her ailing mother alive. When her mother dies and she cannot stay in the city, Matilda travels to the tiny remote town of Gibbers’ Creek where she finds the long-lost father she barely remembers and his small farm built from love and dreams. Her father dies in a dramatic last stand against the troopers and landowner Mr Drinkwater, which inspires the song Waltzing Matilda and becomes legend throughout Australia to this day. Matilda then builds her life on her father’s farm, using her resourcefulness and courage to survive and prosper, and finding friends and family in unlikely places. Historical aspects of A Waltz for Matilda include the referendum to unite the colonies into one nation, the Boer war and its consequences for Australian soldiers under British rule, white women gaining the vote in the new Australia, institutionalised racism, and the environmental impact of white settlement. The themes in this story are of strength and courage in hardship, romance and friendship and the lines in between, and learning to live and love a land as a home like no other.
French has structured the work in chapters, with each chapter headed by a letter to or from Matilda to her parents or friends, which give context to the time and place. Matilda is a character that every young adult will love: she is strong, resourceful, fierce, fair and hard-working. She endures many losses and grieves each one, but she carries on, going from strength to strength in her friends, her business and her farm. The farm, and the landscape of the place she lives, is a major part of the story and is often portrayed as a source of Matilda’s strength and courage; this is a common theme in French’s work.
A Waltz for Matilda is a well-written young adult novel that blends fiction and historical fact into a highly readable and memorable novel. French’s use of landscape and history paint a rich picture of a young woman and a young nation forging a life and a future from a stark and ancient landscape full of secrets.