The Ripping Tree, Nikki Gemmell

Nikki Gemmell (1966- ) is an author I really admire. If I had more time (and energy) I would have made her my feature author for a year as I did with David Ireland a couple of years ago. I have written about her previously so if you want to know more start with my review of After (2017), Gemmell’s memoir of dealing with the death of her mother by her own hand, pre-Assisted Dying laws.

An author I admire, but the rest of the world, not so much. She gets “International Bestselling Author” for The Bride Stripped Bare (2003) but where’s the hype for this, her first novel in eight years, or for that matter, for After, which was a really powerful work, but which attracted just one commenter, as did my previous Gemmell review (thank you, respectively, Sue and Lisa).

I picked up The Ripping Tree as an MP3 CD at my latest library, which means I listened to it a week ago, took no notes and there is almost no textual material online to provide me with reminders.

First up, it’s Historical Fiction. How do I deal with that? It’s not a re-telling of an historical event, but rather an imagined story set in maybe the 1840s on an island or coastal community on the east coast of Australia. I read it as a sermon using an alternative reality to posit a world where a powerless young woman, bereft of everything, down to her own clothing, nevertheless stood up to power both for herself and for the local Aborigines whom the settlers were massacring.

Australian history must be re-written to include the Indigenous massacres, oppression and deaths in custody which from 1788 till today, and no doubt well into the future, enable us to live on this land. Gemmell no doubt is an advocate of this re-writing. But I think that by doing it through Historical Fiction she runs into the old #NotAllMen problem, or in this case #NotAllWhites.

No doubt there were ‘good’ Germans, and there are ‘good’ men, but the Germans have shown that the way forward for them is to accept responsibility for the Holocaust; the South Africans that Truth precedes Reconciliation; women are asking all men to acknowledge their privilege; I am saying ALL non-Indigenous Australians must acknowledge that our prosperity derives from theft and murder. The problem with this book is that it will leave readers with the option of saying ‘well, we weren’t all bad’ when the truth is that right up to today we either participated or looked the other way.

[Does the sensible thing, rings the library, goes and picks up a paper copy].

The novel is framed as a story told by a grandmother to her grandchildren who have been up the coast to visit the ‘stately home’ Willowbrae. “The turrets, the crenellations, the magnificent library, the avenue of elms, the circular flower beds”. But that is just two or three pages, of no consequence.

The novel otherwise, is divided into seven consecutive days and the days into chapters of just a few pages. On day one Thomasina Trelora, 16 years old, from Knockleby, Dorset wakes to find herself in a strange bed, in a girl’s bedroom.

Her father has died. Her half brother has sold the estate to pay his own debts and has brought Thomasina to his home in Australia where she is to marry a clergyman sight unseen. But their ship has missed the harbour entrance in a storm, has smashed on the rocks, and she, the only survivor has washed up onshore, barely conscious, has been rescued by an Aboriginal man

Black. I took the hand in mine and turned it over, held the rescuing fingers close. The hand was darker at the knuckles and ghostly pale underneath, as if the sun had never reached into it, or use had rubbed it light, and there was a paleness under the nails and near them and, no, actually, the skin wasn’t uniformly black at all: the fingernails were yellowed and ridged and strongly thick as if from something else. The ocean perhaps, shells or sea creatures …

who deposits her in the night on the steps of Willowbrae. She determines to keep her name to herself, to avoid the unwanted marriage, and the youngest son of the house, Mouse, names her Poss, for the “opossum that comes in the night and scrambles things up and is really cheeky with lovely big eyes”.

The family in whose house she finds herself, the Craws, consist of mother, father, two adult sons, Tobyn and Virgil, a dead sister in whose bed she is lying, and young Mouse. The two elements of the story are Poss’s refusal to be tied down to a proper feminine role, let alone take the place of the dead sister; and her discovery of a dead Aboriginal mother and baby – and subsequently the dead woman’s young English-speaking daughter – and her determination to have the death investigated, when it’s clear that a) it’s part of a wider policy of ‘dispersing the natives’, and b) that the baby was Virgil’s. The second element is made worse by her further discovery that Mr Craw is sending Aboriginal bones back to England for ‘research’.

A strange Vicar is introduced into the story, a shy, awkward man who offers Poss friendship. But the local townspeople want her gone, and by day seven Poss is facing the very real possibility of life-long incarceration in an institution for unmanageable women.

Mr Craw’s fists smash upon the desk. ‘You’re mad, child. Seeing things. It’s a sign of hysteria – and that ridiculous insistence on men’s clothes was only the start. There’s no “black man” here or anywhere near Willowbrae. You had a blow to the head and need medical help.’ Is he right? No, surely. ‘You need a doctor. Immediately.’

Gemmell is a fine writer and this is a powerful story, full of tension, about an imagined past in which heroic young women fought back against the murder of the original inhabitants. Despite my reservations I enjoyed it. I hope you read it for yourselves.


Nikki Gemmell, The Ripping Tree, Fourth Estate, Sydney, 2001. 340pp. (sorry, I returned the CD without noting the reader. I imagine the running time was about 9 hours).

Nikki Gemmell website (here)

The ‘ripping tree’ is a tree from which the bark may be ripped in sheets. Gemmell says paperbark but (IMO) they are a relatively small tree and the bark comes off in flakes. Perhaps it’s different on the NSW north coast (I’m wrong, see Lisa’s comment below)

Patience & Sarah, Isabel Miller

Journal: 060

Audiobook Review of Patience and Sarah

Don’t you hate it when you’re driving along, or mucking out the stables, or cleaning house, working on autopilot, mapping out a post with perfect opening lines that say just what you want to say, and when you sit down at your desk, or your laptop on the steering wheel, there’s nothing there. It’s all gone.

I read years ago that you should never write a book in your head, all that creation is wasted, and it might be the best you ever wrote. I thought maybe, get my fingers moving on the keyboard, knock out a few lines, it’ll come back, but of course it hasn’t.

A couple of audiobooks ago I listened to Patience & Sarah (1969) by Isabel Miller, historical fiction, romance, thoroughly enjoyable.

In my occasional research into the archetypal Independent Woman I sometimes run into lesbian stories, or possibly lesbian stories, women who eschew marriage not for independent lives but to live with another woman, say Catherine Helen Spence with Jeanne Young or Mary Fullerton and Mabel Singleton, there’s quite a few. And what we know about them, their lives together, other than that they were ‘companions’ is very little. Sylvia Martin writes that she doubts they had the language to even imagine a sexual relationship.

I suspect that she is right, and that the loving, sexual partnership of Patience and Sarah owes a lot more to the 1960s when it was written than to the early C19th when it is set. I suspect. But just as I am an advocate for revising the way we look at early Australian writing to emphasise positive role models for young women, so I am happy in this case for women in the great blossoming of second wave feminism and sexual liberation to look again at earlier women’s relationships.

The outline of the story, loosely based on the life of painter Mary Ann Wilson who lived with her companion, Miss Brundage, on a “farmerette” in Greene County NY., is that Patience, well-off, educated, a talented amateur painter and Sarah poor, illiterate, dressed as and working as a boy for her father in place of the brothers she doesn’t have; in rural Connecticut; meet, fall in love, and form the intention of taking up farm land together in upstate New York, only recently opened up.

Two things strike me and they are the similar (true) story of Anne Drysdale and Caroline Newcomb in 1840s Victoria (here); and that Australia and the US were opened up within very similar timeframes. Of course settlement of New England and the Southern states down the east coast began a couple of hundred years earlier, but the movements inland, in both the US and Australia seem to have begun at around the same time in the early 1800s.

The romance, its ups and downs, Sarah’s adventures as a boy travelling alone, and the eventual happy ending are all well done. There is not too much sex and, as I say, what there is seems to owe a lot to women’s growing awareness of and assertiveness about their bodies in the 1960s, but that can be excused, and the general descriptions of farm and town life – to someone who couldn’t for the life of him place Connecticut on a map – seem realistic.

The story of the book is interesting too. It was originally self-published as A Place for Us, and was sold by the author, real name Alma Routsong, “on street corners in New York” before finding a real publisher in 1971. I think it must have gained a following in lesbian circles, it was subsequently made into an opera and a screenplay, and this audiobook version was produced by Janis Ian (for a company with an odd name which is not reproduced on the back cover and which of course I did not write down while I was listening). Janis Ian and Jean Smart do an excellent job reading the alternating voices of the gently spoken Patience and the rougher Sarah.

After this I listened to some bog standard crime fiction – I’ll list my reads another day – and then I started on Gone With the Wind which I have not previously read. Scarlett O’Hara must be the least attractive heroine, spoilt and childish, that I have ever had to endure. Sadly (or maybe luckily) about the time the widowed Scarlett is taking up with Rhett while living with her sister-in-law and Aunt Pittipat in Atlanta, the uneven surface of the mp3 CD gave up the ghost and I was able to get no further.

I forget what I’m listening to now, except that it has 15 CDs. I often need to hear a few lines to bring the story back to mind. When I get back in the truck I’ll write down the details (The Unquiet read by Jeff Harding) and you can tell me what you think of the resonant voice of the actor, whom I have heard quite often before.

This weekend I’m in Melbourne. After a hectic Friday in which I unloaded 2 trailers in Wodonga, reloaded them in Melbourne 300 km south, ran one 250 km up to Charlton where I’d left the third trailer, took that trailer back to Melbourne and then 140 km out the other side to unload Saturday morning, When I got back I booked into the Burvale Hotel which has plenty of parking for trucks and spent a pleasant 24 hours with mum, who lives nearby, and brother B2 who had dibs on her guest bed.

Now I’m back out in the western suburbs where I’ll finish loading tomorrow and be on my way. For my last trip of the year I think. The WA premier is reneging on his undertaking to open the state border to Victorians when they reached 28 days clear of Covid, which they did 2 days ago, and so I will have to waste 14 days isolating before Christmas which I might have used to do another trip.

I’d better spend those 14 days preparing for AWW Gen 3 Week 17-23 Jan, 2021 as I’ll probably have resumed work by then to make up for lost time.


Isabel Miller, Patience & Sarah, first pub. 1969. Audiobook: Brilliance, 2014. 5 hours 47 min.

The Sorrow of Miles Franklin beneath Mount Kajmakčalan, Ivan Čapovski

That is an odd painting, on the cover, based on a well-known photograph of Miles Franklin in nurses uniform, in Macedonia during WWI, but then this is an odd book. And shockingly for me, it is the book I said the other day that I had begun to write. My first lines (for the nonce) go:

In 2020 I am an old man and Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin is of my great grand parents’ generation, separated from now by gulfs of time, gender and geography. Yet this is me telling her story, imperfectly of course, but if you know my defects perhaps you will recognise the defects in my story telling, will maybe make a clearer picture of Stella/Miles, because of course we all think of her as Miles, than my own words, unmediated can convey.

What are my defects? Well first of all and maybe last, I am as I say an old man, an old white Australian man, and what do old men know of young women, very little. Very little when they were young men, and just as little when they’re old. Though daughters help, and wives and girlfriends. When they’re not grimacing, turning away. Listen to them. You’ll be surprised. I was. And what do old men know of old women? Nothing at all, they’re too busy thinking of young women. Old women pass them by.

As I read, I realise that I know more about MF than does the author, but that he, a Macedonian is of course much better placed to situate Franklin – whom he calls Miles throughout and not Stella as she was almost certainly known – in the complex, indeed Byzantine, geopolitics of Macedonia where she for six months, between July 1917 and Feb. 1918, served as a volunteer with Scottish Women’s Hospitals at Ostrovo.

Čapovski (b. 1936) has Franklin as a nurse, almost at the frontlines of the war, where a bewildering array of Bulgarians, Serbs, Greeks and Macedonians are blood enemies from deep in their shared histories. But in fact the SWH unit, under the command of Australian Dr Mary De Garis, was well back from the conflict behind Serbian lines, and Franklin was an orderly, in Stores and assisting the matron (probably because she could type).

Franklin wrote about this period in the extended essay Ne Mari Ništa (It Matters Nothing): Six Months with the Serbs which I am yet to locate, and I wrote about her in Miles Franklin’s War for Anzac Day 2016. What Čapovski has read I can’t be sure. My concern in writing this fiction was how much research it would take. Čapovski seems to have a good if occasionally mistaken general knowledge of Franklin – and total familiarity with Macedonia’s geography and history – and has taken it from there.

You of course want to know how I reconcile my oft stated dislike of Historical Fiction, of WWI Hist.Fic in particular, and of authors with protagonists of the opposite gender, with my intention of writing just such a work. I make no excuses. My model was to have been Brian Matthews’ marvellous Louisa with all my defects, biases and failures of research out in the open for you all to see.

You might also ask how I can bear the errors in Čapovski’s account of Franklin’s life. The answer, I think, is that this Miles Franklin is a fiction just as the Sybylla’s were; just as Justine is in Justine Ettler’s The River Ophelia (both cases in which the authors gave up writing because they were so often conflated with their protagonists). Čapovski imagines a life for this 38 year old Australian single woman, and the things he gets ‘wrong’ – Franklin’s home being Talbingo, Linda (MF’s sister) dying before MF leaves for America, Franklin working on My Career Goes Bung (in fact the ms was lost until well after the War), and on Up the Country (not started until 1927) – these things don’t impinge on the story. Even Franklin being a frontline nurse instead of a behind the lines orderly is not particularly important. There were a number of Australian women in different roles at Ostrovo and any one of them could have been the protagonist. I’m just pleased that Macedonia remembers that ‘we’ were there.

The author discusses his decision to build his novel around Miles Franklin in an Afterword which I have chosen not to read until after this review is posted.

So what’s the story? In fact, is this a story, or just a cross-section of lives briefly intersecting near the end of the War? More the latter. Franklin arrives at the camp, makes friends with Lina a local girl whose fiancee has been conscripted not once but twice by the various powers vying to incorporate Macedonia. Two men, a poet and a photographer*, once friends, find themselves attached to opposing armies, save each other from death, move on, run into each other again, talk, shoot, end up in adjacent hospital beds. Macedonian villagers are enslaved by the Bulgarians in 1916, by the French and the Serbs in 1917. One young man kills a French officer in a futile attempt to protect his wife and baby, runs, hides, seeks refuge in the hospital at Ostrovo. The War goes on. In the Balkans the war is always going on. MF rests in the summer sun

What did poet EJ Brady who was in love with her, say to her back in 1904? To write about love .. To write about love. Love is like the snake: both conceal venom… She has never had anything against men. She has simply questioned their dominance.

I might have written an interesting novel about Miles Franklin aged 20-40 as I intended, but Čapovski does MF in Macedonia better than I could ever have hoped, because Macedonia and its history is his home territory. Don’t read this novel to learn more about Miles Franklin, but gloss over the minor errors in her back story, and read a fascinating account of a woman writer from the other side of the world observing, swept up in, one more iteration of the ancient conflicts which men have inflicted on each other in these mountains since before recorded history.


Ivan Čapovski, The Sorrow of Miles Franklin beneath Mount Kajmakčalan, Cadmus Press, Melbourne, 2020. 280pp. Published in Macedonia, 2004. Translated by Paul Filev. Cover art by Aleksandar Stankoski. (website).

Further reading:
Miles Franklin page (here)
Lisa/ANZLL’s review (here)
Dianne Bell, Miles Franklin and the Serbs still matter (here)
Australians Working with Scottish Women’s Hospitals, Debbie Robson
The Scottish Women’s Hospitals and Australians talk, Debbie Robson

*The photographer, Jasen Krstanov, says that he is inspired by the Australian writer and war correspondent AG Hales (1860-1936)

Troubled Bones, Jeri Westerson


Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400) and in particular, his Canterbury Tales, marks the transition in English Literature from Latin to English. Or so I always thought. But this is what wikipedia has to say:

It has been suggested that the greatest contribution of The Canterbury Tales to English literature was the popularisation of the English vernacular in mainstream literature, as opposed to French, Italian or Latin. English had, however, been used as a literary language centuries before Chaucer’s time, and several of Chaucer’s contemporaries—John Gower, William Langland, the Pearl Poet, and Julian of Norwich—also wrote major literary works in English. It is unclear to what extent Chaucer was seminal in this evolution of literary preference.

I’ve owned Langland’s Piers Plowman since my student days but I think I’d rate it as even more difficult to take in than Finnegan’s Wake.

Chaucer was a well-off bureaucrat, under the protection of the first Duke of Lancaster, who was third son of Edward III and acted as regent during the minority of his nephew, Richard II (1367-1400), King of England (1377-1399).

I’ve been listening to The Canterbury Tales as I work – one prologue, one tale then listen to something else. A couple of posts ago I was making my way backwards from Jane Austen (here). Well I guess this is as far as I go unless someone records Beowulf. Anyway, one of the something elses I listened to was a work of ‘Medieval Noir’ by American woman, Jeri Westerson, one of a series apparently, featuring fourteenth century private eye and disgraced knight, Crispin Guest and starring, in Troubled Bones at least – Geoffrey Chaucer.

The plot, as a best I can remember a few days later, is that the Archbishop of Canterbury, who makes a great deal of money from pilgrims coming to worship at the tomb of Thomas à Beckett, gives Guest and his offsider/apprentice 13 year old Jake the job of guarding the saint’s bones which he says he thinks will be stolen by Lollards (early Protestants).

On arriving at his hotel in Canterbury Guest finds a group of pilgrims, including Chaucer whom he hasn’t seen for some years when they were both in the service of Lancaster. The pilgrims who are of course the pilgrims from The Canterbury Tales, include the Wife of Bath, the Franklin, the Pardoner, the Summoner etc.

On the first night the Prioress is murdered in the Cathedral while Guest sleeps nearby ‘guarding’ à Beckett’s tomb, and then when he goes to investigate the screams of the Prioress’s attendant, the bones go missing. Do we have one crime or two? What is causing unrest amongst the cathedral’s monks? Is the monk-treasurer on the take? Chaucer, who is clearly a Lollard appears to be involved. The Pardoner and the Summoner are up to something, are they involved in the murder, in the theft of the bones? (A Pardoner appears to be an intermediary in the sale of indulgences by the Church, something about which Martin Luther got very agitated a century later.) The Knight and the Prioress had previously been involved in a legal dispute over land, a dispute in which Chaucer had given evidence. The Knight is still angry.

And so we go on with leads and counter-leads. It’s an interesting and well-written work and, except for the idea of a private investigator, probably quite well done in terms of historical fiction. Guest inevitably gets his rocks off with Alison, the Wife of Bath (whom I think is younger in Troubled Bones than she is in the Tales). Jake’s head pops up at all the wrong times and I think the author occasionally forgets he is only 13. But that is just a minor quibble. Give it a try.

The version of The Canterbury Tales I have been listening to, from Brilliance Audio Classic Collection read by David Butler (2002) is straightforward and enjoyable, clearly a modern translation (the table below is extracted from Wikipedia), although it doesn’t say so anywhere on the cover, however not so modernised that you lose all sense of the original, and consists of eight tales and their prologues.

Original Text Modern Translation
This frere bosteth that he knoweth helle, This friar boasts that he knows hell,
And God it woot, that it is litel wonder; And God knows that it is little wonder;
Freres and feendes been but lyte asonder. Friars and fiends are seldom far apart.
For, pardee, ye han ofte tyme herd telle For, by God, you have ofttimes heard tell
How that a frere ravyshed was to helle How a friar was taken to hell


Jeri Westerson, Troubled Bones, 2011. Out of print (self-published?). Audio and ebook versions available here

Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, 1387?. Audiobook: Brilliance Audio The Classic Collection, read by David Butler, 2002