What do you know about women bushrangers?
If your answer would be, ‘Not much,’ you wouldn’t be alone. Before I picked up The Burial by Courtney Collins, my response would have been, ‘What women bushrangers?’
The Burial’s central character is inspired by the life of Jessie Hickman, Australia’s ‘Lady Bushranger’ who ran with her gang in the 1920s in the area now known as the Wollemi National Park, part of the Blue Mountains range between Lithgow and Muswellbrook. While other women were consorts of male bushrangers and some carried out daring exploits, Jessie Hickman is the only one who stands out as a mover and shaker on the bushranger scene in her own right.
It’s easy to see why Collins was captivated by her story. Sold off while still a child to a bush circus, she became a skilled rider and performer, developing the skills and confidence in her own abilities which allowed her to take off into the bush, and to escape captivity multiple times. Stories of her include riding off a cliff into a river to evade police, and escaping after being locked in a toilet on a train.
While she’s reputed to have married three times and had a cattle and horse rustling career over many years, The Burial concentrates on a short period of her life at the end of her third marriage. It’s a beautifully written novel, but perhaps it’s a testament to the skill of its author that for the most part I didn’t notice that as I read it. The prose is evocative, but doesn’t get in the way of the story or characters.
Collins doesn’t claim historical accuracy. A statement before the ‘Prelude’ reads, “This is a work of fiction – inspired by art, music, literature and the landscape, as much as the life and times of Jessie Hickman herself.” The narrative begins in the voice of a dead child and the burial of the novel’s title, but the story is primarily told from Jessie’s viewpoint as she heads into the mountain bushland, and that of Jack Brown, a half-Aboriginal drover/rustler and tracker. He and police sergeant Andrew Barlow are ‘inspired-by-life but mainly fictional characters’ (according to Collins), who provide the narrative of the search for Jessie and the hunter-versus-hunted tension.
This was one of those novels when I was looking out through the character’s eyes and couldn’t help contrasting my life with hers. To be sold off at a young age, essentially at the mercy of the men around you, be they kind and fair or lecherous and abusive, is it any wonder she chose to take her chances in the bush? A hundred years ago in Australia, when this novel is set, how many women suffered what she did but didn’t have the ability to survive in the bush or evade those who would come after them? I wonder how many tried – and died?
Of course, this type of scenario still happens, on large scales in countries where women are legally and socially oppressed and, closer to home, on smaller scales in secret. It’s a moot point to ask if Jessie Hickman would still have ended up on the wrong side of the law if she hadn’t been exposed to such abuse and injustice. We’ll never know. What we do know is that abuse and injustice distorts and destroys lives.
A book like The Burial helps remind us of that.
Links: Courtney Collins website
The Burial will be released in the US at the end of May under the title The Untold.
Her upcoming novel is entitled The Walkman Mix.
More about Jessie Hickman
by Di Moore
A newspaper article on Di Moore and her non-fiction book
about Jessie Hickman, Out of the Mists