A Little Bush Maid introduces us to 12 year old Norah Linton, who lives on a cattle and sheep farm in northern Victoria with her father, the widowed David Linton and a horde of staff. During school holidays, her 15yo brother Jim joins them from boarding school in Melbourne and in this novel he brings two friends with him, Harry and Wally. I know that Wally becomes a regular fixture around Billabong, visiting every holidays and actually living there upon finishing high school, but I don’t recall how many more times Harry appears in other novels. Although Norah is 12, she’s had no formal schooling and spends most of her days riding her horse around the farm, helping her father and the stockmen. She’s an accomplished horsewoman, riding astride rather than sidesaddle, which is uncommon of the day. She has been taught how to cook and sew and run a household by the Billabong cook and sees no need to be educated in things such as Math, Latin and History. All she cares about is Billabong and her family.
Thankfully it’s school holidays so Jim arrives back, his friends in tow. Norah frets about them leaving her out but the boys take to Norah and she to them and the four of them spend their days having adventures around the huge property including meeting a hermit while on a fishing expedition and some drama about a murderer believed to be hiding out in the district. Billabong is very remote, it’s 16 miles to the nearest town and travel is done on horseback, or by horse and cart unless you’re the local doctor who is the only one mentioned to own a motor car. The book comes to a climax when Norah and her dad discover the gentle hermit gravely ill in the bush – Norah has been hiding his existence from her father in case people think he’s the murderer believed to be loose in the district and when David Linton recognises him, Norah fears the worst.
I think the most important thing when reading these novels is to remember when they were written. A Little Bush Maid was published in 1910, and life in this country has changed a huge amount in the past 100 years. Back then, huge cattle and sheep stations were the norm, with stockmen working the land and families passing down properties for generations. These days such a property would probably be an economic nightmare, given the sheer amount of staff Billabong was supporting and given current climates, which have delivered both crippling droughts and devastating floods in the past three years alone. Before automobile travel was common, parts of even Victoria, the second smallest of our states of Australia, would’ve taken days to reach from the capital and schooling would’ve been very relaxed – probably education for children in bigger towns, but for country kids it would’ve been tutors or small primary schools until the age of 12 and then boarding schools for higher education. These days Norah would have no hope being able to loaf around the family property all day but back then it was probably quite common for wealthier families to employ a tutor/governess – which David Linton does for Norah at the end of this book.
These novels have also been republished, something about which I am not surprised. I was reading an original text and I know that political correctness didn’t exist much back in 1910, especially in Australia towards the native indigenous population and the Asians that emigrated around the gold rush times, but even I was extremely taken aback by the casual usage of racial slurs about the Aboriginal stockman/helper Billy and the Chinese gardener Lee. It was very disconcerting to read a 12yo girl dropping a word I won’t even type in this review!
These novels focus very heavily on the identity of the ‘bush’ and ‘bush people’ which are clearly defined as being very different to city people. The divide is less today, but it’s still there – country folk, especially those that have grown up on the land and worked it for a long time, are very different to their city counterparts and the bush does have an identity and culture all of its own, very much based around helping each other out whenever it is needed and generosity towards anyone and a huge respect for the land which you are farming/working. Even back in the early 1900′s Mary Grant Bruce was pushing responsible farming and giving back to the land. Billabong is well celebrated for its beauty and a lot of the land seems to remain untouched, farming only what is necessary, moving animals and crops in a rotation and resting paddocks. There is great respect for the livestock that work the farms too, with Norah and Jim both reiterating how much their prize horses mean to them and indeed, how much all of the animals on the farm rate in importance, right down to Jim’s guinea pigs.
Another huge theme in these novels is the importance of family. The Linton’s are very close – Jim and Norah don’t argue that I can remember and neither of them argue with their father. Norah and Jim spend as much time together as possible, having a truly unique sibling relationship that you don’t see too often, even in fiction. And although David Linton loves both his children, it’s quite obvious (and even Jim will say) that the relationship between him and Norah is special. The family unit of Billabong extends to more than just the Lintons, with much of the staff being accepted as such and them also pretty much adopting Wally after a while.
I thoroughly enjoyed my little trip down reading memory lane, immersing myself in this world again and only wish the site had the rest of the books uploaded! They’re quite hard to source, with The Book Depository having them out of stock, Booktopia possessing only one on their site (this one, naturally!) and Fishpond seem to want to charge me between $26.95 – $42.95 for the few they can source which doesn’t exactly have me reaching for my credit card.
Thankfully my local library seems to have come partially to the rescue, having 11 titles by Mary Grant Bruce, 10 of which are Billabong novels. Unfortunately they don’t have my favourite one, Billabong’s Daughter and also some of them are apparently not for loan, or you have to inquire about them at the desk, which I find intriguing. I will ask about them the next time I am there.
But I was thankful for the chance to read this one again with such ease. They are a series that has obviously stuck in my mind over many years, even though it’s been quite a while since I visited them. I was surprised by how much I thought I remembered about the series only to find that there was so much I had forgotten. I think I read a few of the later books, when Norah and Jim are older, much more than I did the earlier novels and there’s much that I didn’t recall at all. It was almost like reading an entirely new book, but with characters that I had been introduced to before.
eBook A Little Bush Maid (Billabong, #1)