Title: A Waltz for Matilda
Author: Jackie French
Series: The Matilda Saga, book 1
Major Themes: Australia, Australian History, Historical Fiction, Farming
Synopsis: When Matilda’s parents die unexpectedly, she must find her own way in the world and figure out how to run her father’s farm in the Australian outback, and make a profit from the only thing she has left of him.
Just over a year ago, I was working with a disabled girl, and one thing we did together several times was listen to audiobooks her mother had found. I have many fond memories of sitting in the living room together, fingers busy with some crocheting, while we were transported to another land and another time. The one I remember most of the different stories we listened to together was A Waltz for Matilda. The girl I was helping went ahead of me at one stage, but I found the story gripping, and recently when I thought about it again, I decided to go back and listen to the whole thing this time. As soon as I started it, the wings of memory took me back to the flashing needle and yarn, and the scent of roasting veggies. It was a good memory—and the book proved to be just as good the second time around as the first.
Matilda’s story opens with her work in a jam factory in the late 1800s in Australia—burned, calloused fingers from trying to make ends meet, a mother who is slowly wasting away, and only one friend in her desolate world. Then, when her mother dies, she has no choice—she must go out to where her father owns a fabled farm, one she never remembers seeing, but that she is assured is there. Her trip out is difficult, though. As a 12-year-old girl pretending to be 14 to pass scrutiny, there are many things she isn’t sure of yet. She finally makes her way to her father’s farm—but soon, trouble crops up there again with the local large landowner. With union strikes on and a drought dogging the land, there’s little choice but to find any work they can. But when she ends up in charge of her father’s farm all alone, is there any chance she can make a go of it and survive? Even with several friends pulling around her to help, life seems hopeless at times. Can she make the right decisions and keep living on this land she’s grown to love?
A Waltz for Matilda is a sad book in many ways. Matilda loses many of those closest to her, and has to depend on her own strength and others to make it through the different difficulties she faced. But what I loved about this book was that I felt like I got to see Australia through its pages—what it was a hundred years ago, and also what it is today. Beautiful, despite the many droughts and struggles the people who live there have faced. Resilient. Resourceful. Forest fires and major floods are shown in here. The hatred people had toward Aborigines is also shown—and also how that slowly started to change. It’s a masterpiece of a story, each word carefully chosen and the words themselves bringing you into a place from another time. For its historic and creative value, I’d recommend this story. It’s a unique look at an interesting time in history.
Oh—did I mention that this book covers around 20-30 years of Australian history? I never once felt like it was stretched out too long just to fit, and it managed to showcase quite a bit of change in those years! From the worker’s strikes and the formation of unions, to the women’s suffrage and temperance movements, the Boer War, and then becoming a self-governing nation, there’s a lot of change that happened in Australian history through this time. This is an excellent way to learn about history, with an interesting story to boot. I wouldn’t be surprised if I find myself reading it again one day!
WARNING: This book was not written by a Christian author. I did my best to take notes as I listened to the audiobook of this story, but please forgive me if I missed things! One expression that comes up frequently—that I know I didn’t write down every instance of—is bastard, that a character substituted the word biscuit for—“the old biscuit”, etc. Also, this is a fairly realistic portrayal of Australia in the late 1800s/early 1900s, so there is a good amount of disruption and things that happened that I don’t agree with. Worker’s unions, the women’s suffrage movement, and the temperance movement are all spoken of frequently in here, generally in a very good light. This book is strongly feminist in some ways. It also seems to have almost a worshipful attitude toward the land of Australia; for example in ch. 54, I noticed it said the rain they got was “a gift from the land, the sky”. I appreciate the focus on being thankful for the beauty around us, but when we don’t recognize the Giver of the beauty, things get imbalanced rather quickly. And I felt like, especially near the end of the story, things tended more toward worship than I believe appropriate. One last thing that I noticed, but didn’t write a specific note about, was that one of the main characters in this story was married twice—his first wife walked out on him, and years later he remarried, while his first wife was still alive, which is not what I believe the Bible teaches. Ghosts are mentioned off and on throughout the book, and a girl thinks about how people’s spirits may still be hanging around long after they were dead, haunting a place.
Here are the specific notes I took down: In ch. 1, the “push”—a gang—caught a girl and threatened her with a knife to her throat, and there are mentions of people who had been badly injured by hot jam in a factory. In ch. 2, a boy is badly burned by hot jam, “my oath” is used, and there are some descriptions of his injuries. In ch. 3, a woman dies. In ch. 4, there is talk about someone’s funeral and a girl kisses a boy’s cheek. Ch. 5 has a mention of the bedroom (not explicit), and some boys boast about going hunting for Aborigines and killing one. Ch. 12 mentions hunting “natives” again. In ch. 16, a man jumps into a billabong. In ch. 17, a man drowns and there is the story of him being found and pulling his body out. Ch. 21 has people talking about men who were shot. Ch. 22 has some talk about drinking. In ch. 25, an old woman takes off her clothes to prove a point to a man (not described beyond this). There is a description of flystrike in ch. 26, which isn’t nice. In ch. 27, men try to steal something, and a girl threatens the men with death if they keep trying, lying to them to convince them to leave. In ch. 29, some men are drinking. Ch. 30 has some boys who destroyed a gift out of hatred and spite. There is a terrible bushfire that rages through ch. 31-33, and “in God’s name” is used as an expression. In ch. 34, there is a mention of people who died in the fire—“Mrs. Heenan didn’t care anymore.” Ch. 35 has some talk about a girl thinking about her body when she was given new clothing. Ch. 37 talks about some men who were speared, and how other men were killed. A boy flirts with a girl in ch. 38. There is touching between an unmarried couple in ch. 41, as well as a kiss. There’s an argument in ch. 43, and a man with a black eye in 46. In ch. 48, an old woman knows she’s dying, and she walks off into the outback to die. Ch. 49 has a story of a man who was killed by firing squad, and later in ch. 52, there is another story of men who were shot. In ch. 56, a woman gets upset at something someone says, and pours sheep tongues on a man. A man dies in ch. 58. In ch. 59, there is a little touching with an unmarried couple.
Lying appears frequently throughout the book—ch. 1, 3, 5, 16, 18, 19, 27, 28, 41, 56, and 59. The word bastard is used in ch. 1, 5, 9, 16, 20, and 22; dashed in ch. 1, 9, 16, and 35, “flaming hell” in ch. 9, 16, 37, and 38, blighter in ch. 12, 22, 48, and 59, “you coot” in ch. 20 and 28, bloody in ch. 28, damned in ch. 35, 41, and 59, blinkin’ in ch. 38, and gosh and crikey in ch. 40.
Reading Independently—Ages 12 – 15, 15 and Above