Jill Roe, Our fathers cleared the bush (#bookreview)

Jill Roe, Our fathers cleared the bushAs that old pop song goes, what kind of fool am I? I went, you see, to Macquarie University, which I chose for its then modern approach to tertiary education. It was great, but somehow, I didn’t end up in tutorials taught by Thea Astley, nor did I study Australian history in which Jill Roe was one of the University’s foundation lecturers. What was I thinking? Hindsight is a marvellous thing, eh?

Most of you will know who Thea Astley is, but non-Australians, in particular, may not know Jill Roe. She is best known for her comprehensive award-winning biography of Miles Franklin (see a review by Lisa, ANZLitLovers), but she wrote many books and was, among other things, a regular contributor to the Australian Dictionary of Biography. The book I’m reviewing here, Our fathers cleared the bush, was published last year, only months before her death early this year.

Old and new regionalism

What a fascinating read it was – for its content, which tells the story of Eyre Peninsula, a part of Australia I don’t know, and for its form and style. This latter is what I’m going to focus on mostly in this post. The book’s subtitle, “remembering Eyre Peninsula”, provides some clue to its form, which I’d describe as an amalgam of memoir/family history, regional history and historiography. Roe seems, overall, to be exploring an approach to writing the history of regions.  In her introduction she writes:

The aim is not so much to tell my own story – though I often start there – nor to fill a gap in the literature – though there is one – but rather, on the basis of personal reflections and a now quite extensive range of materials, to capture some key aspects of, and moments in, the regional experience over time.

“Extensive range of materials”. Hold that thought, because I’ll come back to it. For now, though, I’m sticking to the regional history idea. Chapter 7, one of my favourites in fact, is titled “I danced for the Queen”. In it she writes quite a bit about regionalism and regional histories. She suggests that as Australian history established itself in the 1950s and 60s, “some fine regional studies appeared” and she names a few. It was “a golden age of regional history when it seemed the national story was becoming clear”. But, she argues, that was “old regionalism”. Since the 1970s, new issues and factors have arisen. These include the understanding of “regionalism” itself; the rise of interest in local and family history which is adding “new building bricks, even new layers” to the undertaking and appreciation of regional history; the role of the environment; and that major factor, the recognition of Aboriginal history, which she says introduces a discontinuity into held narratives. She suggests that exploring Aboriginal history “seems to work best in regional frameworks”. Perhaps, but there is also need to include Aboriginal history in the overarching national story. I presume she would argue that too?

She teases out the Aboriginal history issue a bit more. She says:

On a grander scale, the history of the Kimberley in Western Australia is being transformed by research into the Aboriginal experience, much of it distressing, none of it yet settled or fully integrated into the national story. This history may be hard for some to take in, but that is because it adds new data and a challenging dimension to taken-for-granted narratives. In time, along with environmental and the other histories, Indigenous history will most likely lead to a new regional history in this country.

She then makes what could almost be a manifesto:

… my firm belief that any history in which people cannot recognise themselves – whether proudly or ruefully, in surprise or dismay – is not good history.

Beautifully said, and hard to argue with – at least these days when we don’t accept that history begins and ends with great deeds by big men (and occasionally women).

“a now quite extensive range of materials”

Now, histories can often be rather dry, but Our fathers cleared the bush has a lovely conversational tone. It almost felt like she was talking to me as I read along. We learn a lot about life on the Peninsula from the 1840s to the 1960s and beyond. We hear about farms and schools, churches and sport, transport and the country show. I laughed at her comment that when she turned her mind back to the Peninsula in 1998, she “paid no attention to sport as a source of social life and values, a mistake I mustn’t make again”. Anyhow, all these are features of country life, and many are shared through the prism of her and her family’s experience, but while we come away knowing the skeleton of her life, this is definitely not a memoir. The focus is the history.

However, as well as telling the history, she also shares her methodology and her sources. She says that “the discovery of a new source is the historian’s delight”. She mentions women’s diaries and school records; and she talks about the value and limits of census data. She uses anecdotal evidence but carefully notes the unreliability of recall. She notes there are limits to what personal memories can offer the large picture. In her family, for example, there were no sons so the daughters “did more than usual of the outdoor work.” It would be not be valid to generalise, then, she’s saying, from her family. For some readers, Roe’s historiographical discussions might get in the way of the history itself, but I enjoyed getting to know the historian’s mind.

Finally, she also points to histories that are still waiting, such as “a comprehensive account of the Aboriginal experience of the Eyre Peninsula”. Others include “the coming of service stations” to Australia or the role of Greek Orthodox churches in fishing communities. Anyone looking for a PhD topic might like to start here!

So, I’m at the end of my post and I’ve told you very little about the Eyre Peninsula. All I can say is that if you are interested in the Peninsula, or in the history of rural Australia, you should find what you’re looking for in this book (particularly given its index and extensive end-notes) but if you are interested in approaches to modern history writing, this would also be a good book to read. Roe says, early on, that her approach to history is “post-modern, in the sense that it can’t come to a definite conclusion”. That is certainly what she has presented here – a story about a region that tells us much but which also leaves many questions to be answered – because life goes on and there’s always more historical research to do.

PS For a lovely tribute to Jill Roe written just after her death, please read blogger (and historian) Yvonne’s post.

aww2017 badgeJill Roe
Our fathers cleared the bush: Remembering Eyre Peninsula
Mile End: Wakefield Press, 2016
ISBN: 9781743054291

(Review copy courtesy Wakefield Press)

20 thoughts on “Jill Roe, Our fathers cleared the bush (#bookreview)

  1. Growing up in the bush I think it was clear that social life centred on Saturday football, netball, tennis. But what I really wanted to comment on was women’s labour on farms. My mother b.1932 drove tractors and pitchforked hay. James Tucker (Ralph Rashleigh) writes of framers’ daughters indistinguishable from men and Miles Franklin makes clear the distinction between the easeful lives of squatters’ daughters compared with labour expected of them on farms.

    • Thanks Bill. Yes, fair point. I don’t think she was saying women didn’t do such labour, but that because there were no boys in her family the balance altos have been different. BTW she makes a lovely reference to Russell Ward and his contribution to history.

  2. In my last post, I said that this book was one I wanted to read. Your review has made me want to read it even more. I totally agree about the importance of regional history and histories of states. Having lived all up and down the east coast of Australia I am very aware of the differences between regions stemming from the cultural, historical and environmental differences in this diverse country. I could go on and on but I have spared you by frequent use of the delete key while writing this 🙂

    I like your approach to this review and have found your comments about the form and style of the book timely. I am about to review a kind of memoir which does not fit the usual form that a memoir takes. Your comments and Janine Rizzetti’s in her ‘History, Memoir and Biography’ roundup for the Australian Women Writers Challenge post about memoirs will help me write the review.

    • Thanks Pam … yes, there sure is, which makes it exciting doesn’t it. I hadn’t really thought much about that part of the world, but now I’m intrigued. I hadn’t even realised that the famous Coffin Bay (for its oysters) were on the Eyre Peninsula.

  3. This sounds a fascinating book. I liked the quote about recognition and history. I expect there is resistance to this kind of history writing with many wanting a more celebratory approach to the national story. How much is conveyed in that “much of it distressing”.

    • Thanks Ian. Re your last question, a lot, I’d say. I got the sense that she was uncertain how to approach this Indigenous history issue. She didn’t really grapple with the sensitivities involved in telling the story, but clearly recognised that it was a gap that needs rectifying.

  4. Can I just say how much I love your literary blog, which I just recently found online.
    As an expert Australian, I got to know Jill Roe in Boston when she was Chair of Australian Studies at Harvard. At the time she was working on a book about Australian war brides in the USA. Not sure if it ever came out. Do you know?
    What a warm and wonderful person Jill was, and is greatly missed.

    • Why thanks Margaret, that’s a lovely thing to say about my blog – and it’s lovely to hear a personal reflection of Jill Roe. I don’t think that book did come out. One did in 2013, but not by her. I wonder if she wrote some articles on the topic.

  5. Thanks for bringing Jill Roe’s book to my attention! I was at Mac U in her day, and Thea Astley’s, but wasn’t really aware of her later career and historical interests. It sounds like her approach might be in the same mould as Don Watson’s The Bush??

    • Oh nice to hear from you Liz. Thanks so much for commenting. She refers to Don Watson’s book calling it “big and sometimes tantalising”. But her main point is to note his reference to Russell Ward’s The Australian legend. I have Watson’s book, but haven’t read it (yet) so can’t comment on their approaches.

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  7. Thank you for this review, Sue. I also have this on my ‘must-read-one-day’ list. I like the way that you’ve picked up on the historiographical aspect of this book, which sounds as if it broadens its appeal far beyond the Eyre Peninsula.

    • Thanks RJ (love called you that!). I guess it’s what interested me. Well I was interested in the history of course, but I didn’t want to just regurgitate content! And she does actively talk about these issues. I enjoyed thinking about them and writing the post so I’m really glad that others have appreciated it too. I’d love to hear what you think, if/when you get it off the must-read list!

  8. Pingback: May 2017 Round Up: History, Memoir and Biography | Australian Women Writers Challenge Blog

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