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Russel Ward

I am writing this review in a cafe in the main street of Gympie, a town founded on gold discoveries in 1867. It is 200 kilometres north of Brisbane and seventy kilometres from the coast. Frontier types abound in a town population of 11,000 and in farming communities around. Rough, craggy, sunburnt faces, wizened facial muscles, arms creased by years of hard work and a determined walk. In their everyday habits they exhibit loyalty to friends, a capacity to improvise and a contempt for blacks. And these are the women.

As our feminist historians have pointed out, there are few women in Russel Ward’s The Australian Legend, first published in 1958. Indeed in the index there are only a handful of entries: ‘on goldfields’, ‘prostitution’ or and ‘shortage of, in bush’, the last being the longest entry.

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For anyone who has ever complained about a difficult mother, or written a memoir about one, this is a humbling book. How trivial, by comparison, our complaints seem. The subtitle promises (or threatens) a disturbing memoir, and so it is. I found it difficult to get out of my head days after reading it.

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What would you like to know? Doc Evatt’s on-the-­spot explanation of why he wrote to Molotov? Archbishop Mannix’s response to Cardinal Spellman’s claim on the papacy? The particular pleasure derived from small boys by the headmaster of Geelong Grammar Junior School? How a knowledge of Urdu maintained the Hands off Indonesia blockade? What Malcolm Ellis said to Charles Currey when the lift opened? All those delights and more tumble out of Russel Ward’s autobiography.

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