Friday, June 20, 2014

Interview with Courney Collins - The Untold

Please welcome to the forum debut author Courtney Collins whose novel came over from Australia and changed it's name on the way. When you hear the premise or read the excerpt I bet you'll be as anxious to read this as I am.
Welcome Courtney, take it away!




  • ISBN-13: 9780399167096
  • Publisher: Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam
  • Publication date: 5/29/2014
  • Pages: 288
 



Overview

With shades of Water for Elephants and True Grit, a stunning debut novel set in the Australian outback about a female horse thief, her bid for freedom, and the two men trying to capture her.




Read an Excerpt:

PRELUDE TO DEATH
Who hasn’t heard of Harry Houdini? The Big Bamboozler. The Great Escapologist. The Loneliest Man in the World.
—-
It is 1910 . Harry Houdini, the World’s Wonder, the Only and Original, is up to his armpits in mud. Intractable fingers of sea grass and kelp surge around him. With his eyes open, he can see movement and murky shadows.
He knows that above him twenty thousand people— stevedores, clerks, women in hats—anticipate his death. They line Queens Bridge three deep. Past Flinders Street Station, all the way to Princes Bridge, they crane their necks and jostle for a view. Some have fallen over, tripped on hems and the clerk’s pointed shoe, to see him, the World’s Wonder, dive into the Yarra, hand-cuffed and wrapped in chains.
Slapped by sea grass, shrinking from shadows, Houdini brings his wrists to his mouth. With his teeth he pulls out a pin, one from each handcuff. The cuffs fall free and sink farther down.
Houdini grabs at the weeds around him to anchor himself. They are loose and rootless, like slack rope. It is as if the river has no base—just layers and layers of sediment floating upon one another.
He tucks up his short legs and digs his knees into the sludge. His knee scrapes against some rock or reef and he reaches down to follow its seam. He runs his hand over a moss-covered thing, smooth becoming fibrous, until his fingers catch in the familiar loops of a chain. The chain is thick and he follows its links until his hands hit up against a leg iron. And though he is running out of breath and he has yet to free himself from the locks around his neck, his hands seize around the thing within the leg iron. It breaks off. An ankle? A foot? Certainly not rock.
The thing is a thing of limbs.
Houdini gags. He takes in water. The taste is rotten. The thing of limbs is so eaten away by fish that Houdini’s grasp has freed it. He is still clutching part of its brittle remains when the larger part of the body floats up and over him. It is the bluntest of shadows.
Houdini beats into the sediment with his legs, stirring up a cloud of silt and other undiscovered things. He swims upwards at an angle, away from the cloud, away from the body, and reaches into his swimsuit for a key. He is just below the surface, veiled by murky water, when he finally frees himself from the locks around his neck. He breaks the surface and raises the locks above his head. Twenty thousand people cheer.
His wet curls conceal his face from the crowd as he turns in the water, searching for the body, the bloated mass. The river reveals nothing but ripples moving unevenly out to sea.
Houdini treads water, waiting for a boat. His chest aches. The rowers move too slowly, their oars striking and slicing the water in a rhythm that does not match the urgency he feels. He coughs and spits as they grow nearer. Finally, one of the rowers reaches down to him while the other balances the boat.
You swallow the river, Mr. Houdini?
Houdini does not answer. He grips the man’s arm and hauls himself up and into the boat.
Houdini is silent as the two men row him back to shore. His eyes continue to search the surface of the water but there is no sign of the bloated body and he cannot think of how to explain it or who to tell.
I
If the dirt could speak, whose story would it tell? Would it favor the ones who have knelt upon it, whose fingers have split turning it over with their hands? Those who, in the evening, would collapse weeping and bleeding into it as if the dirt were their mother? Or would it favor those who seek to be far, far from it, like birds screeching tearless through the sky?
This must be the longing of the dirt, for the ones who are suspended in flight.
Down here I have come to know two things: birds fall down and dirt can wait. Eventually, teeth and skin and twists of bone will all be given up to it. And one day those who seek to be high up and far from it will find themselves planted like a gnarly root in its dark, tight soil. Just as I have.
This must be the lesson of the dirt.
—-
Morning of my birth. My mother was digging. Soot-covered and bloody. If you could not see her, you would have surely smelt her in this dark. I was trussed to her in a torn-up sheet. Rain and wind scoured us from both sides, but she went on digging. Her heart was in my ear. I pushed my face into the fan of her ribs and tasted her. She tasted of rust and death.
In the wind, in the squall, I became an encumbrance. She set me on the ground beside her horse. Cold on my back and wet, I could see my breath breathe out. Beside me, her horse was sinking into the mud. I watched him with one eye as he tried to recover his hooves. I knew if he trod on me he would surely flatten my head like a plate.
Morning of my birth, there were no stars in the sky. My mother went on digging. A pile of dirt rose around her until it was just her arms, her shoulders, her hair, sweeping in and out of the dark while her horse coughed and whined above me.
When she finally arched herself out of the hole in the ground she looked like the wrecked figurehead on a ship’s bow. Hopeful as I was, I thought we might take off again, although I knew there was no boat or raft to carry us, only Houdini, her spooked horse. And from where we had come, there was no returning. She stood above me, her hair willowy strips, the rain as heavy as stones. Finally, she stooped to pick me up and I felt her hand beneath my back. She brought me to her chest, kissed my muddied head. Again, I pushed my face into the bony hollow of her chest and breathed my mother in.
—-
Morning of my birth, my mother buried me in a hole that was two feet deep. Strong though she was, she was weak from my birth, and as she dug, the wind filled the hole with leaves and the rain collapsed it with mud so all that was left was a wet and spindly bed.
When the sun inched awkwardly up she lowered me into the grave. Then, lying prone on the earth, she stroked my head and sang to me. I had never, in my short life, heard her sing. She sang to me until the song got caught in her throat. Even as she bawled and spluttered, her open hand covered my body like the warmest blanket.
I had an instinct then to take her song and sing it back to her, and I opened my mouth wide to make a sound, but instead of air there was only fluid and as I gasped I felt my lungs fold in. In that first light of morning my body contorted and I saw my own fingers reaching up to her, desperate things.
She held them and I felt them still and I felt them collapse. And then she said, Sh, sh, my darling. And then she slit my throat.
—-
I should not have seen the sky turn pink or the day seep in. I should not have seen my mother’s pale arms sweep out and heap wet earth upon me or the screeching white birds fan out over her head.
But I did. 
Soon it was light enough to see the birds stripping bark with their beaks and the morning was full of the sound of their screeching. My mother stood on my grave, packing  down the dirt with her feet. She slid across the smooth river rocks and plunged her arms into the water. Blood, ash and dirt ran down as dark estuaries to her wrists. She turned her hands over in the water until they were clean, until she could see the loops and whorls of her skin magnified.
She said, Could I cut off my own hands? And in saying that, she did not sound like my mother at all.
The knife at her belt still had my blood on it. She set the blade at an angle to her wrist but, although she may have doubted it her-elf, it was not in my mother to cut off her hands or to kill herself. Her hands trembled with her own wish to live and she dropped the knife into the river. She went after it like she was going after a fish but she did not catch it. Instead, she brought up a lump of sand and scrubbed her palms until they were pink and raw. Then she held them up to the sun and said, Ghost hands, as the sun seemed to pass straight through them.
My mother raised herself from the edge of the river, sloped over rocks, back to my grave. She sank down on all fours and smoothed over the dirt with her arms and the backs of her hands, erasing her footprints. Back and back she crawled, canceling her tracks and the tracks of her horse, scraping and roughing the earth until she hit water.
She stood knee-deep in the river next to her horse, surveying the ground to be sure she had vanished all traces. To any other observer, they would have appeared as fixed and haunted as two swamped trees.
But my mother was not one to linger.
It was the thought of my father that impelled her then.
What if he’s not dead? she said. But there was no one or nothing that could answer back except her own unease, and she pulled herself up onto her horse and turned it into the river. Then they pounded against the current, away from me, away from my grave.
Death is not a simple exit.
When my mother cut my throat she thought she was saving me from some protracted death. But in truth she would have done better to burn me down to ashes with my father than to plant me in the dirt. For it is in the dirt I discovered I have eyes to see and ears to hear, and I can see and hear beyond logical distance and beyond logical time. And with all of these peculiar senses the dirt has brought to life, I wonder if, in our wish to live, my mother and I may not be made of something the same. And then who is there to blame but nature?
When my mother set me down in my grave, the dirt came through like some surrogate mother. It gave me rich feed—food and words and company. It kept me warm and it kept me safe. But still, my mother is my mother. And even with this most generous succor, all that the dirt could muster, I have clung to the simple idea of her returning.
But over time, this simple need for her to return to me, to pick me up and hold me, has sprouted like the most unruly seed and I have found myself tormented and longing for all and everything around her.
Forward and back I have tracked her.
Morning of my birth, my mother tried to put me to sleep in the same way you might put to sleep a pup expelled from its own mother too soon. Any legged creature born two months premature out here did not stand a chance and although my mother suffered to think it, she believed that neither did I.
Beneath the downy fur that covered me, she could see her pup turn blue. And despite her forcing air into my lungs with the explosions of her breath and then the prizing of her thumbs between my ribs as if she might untangle me from death herself, life did not spew forth. I was growing bluer than the sky.
There’s a slow rattle in death and she’d heard it before, all kinds of creatures gurgling their way through their final agony. When it sounded from me, she could bear to hear it no more. Death, she thought, was a waiting river, signaling itself in the rising of that sound. She would not wait for its slow claim on me. She was my mother. She would deliver me to it herself.
But right behind that twisted cave of my chest, it was her breath, her thumbs, her love that snagged me and I could not give in to this thing of death. Not yet. Not completely.
—-
This is how we differ, my mother and I:
I do not know death as a river. I know it as a magic hall of mirrors and within it there is a door and the door opens both ways.
My mother pitched her horse against the river. After the rain the current was strong and the water was unknowable. She searched for the split tree she had taken as a marker but through her tiredness the trees all looked the same and then, in narrowing her eyes to see them better, they looked more and more like men than trees, all leaning into the river.
She could not let them find her.
The water was suddenly deep, deeper than she recalled it, and her heart rose inside her as Houdini’s hooves scraped and slipped against the river stones. She did not let go of his reins. She urged him on and squeezed her thighs against his sides and tilted her hips forward until at last, with a great surge, his hooves found land.
They had crossed the river.
There was more daylight than my mother wished for, and on this side of the bank their tracks were still visible. The rain had softened them, but they held their form.
She stepped Houdini carefully over them, slow and pained, until the impressions of his hooves forward and back were so close it was impossible to tell which direction they had set off in first.
The forest floor was a webbed mess of fallen branches and ferns and they galloped over it at full pelt. Their tracks would only matter again when she reached the boundary of Fitz’s land.
—-
She rode out into Fitz’s clearing and angled Houdini along the fence line until they reached the first gate. He was shying and even if she had wanted him to, he would go no farther than the gate.
She swung herself down and unbuckled the saddlebag. Pulling out Fitz’s boots, she drained them of water, then walked towards the upper gate barefoot. The long grass was a carpet flattened by rain. She walked past livestock which shifted around her in a silent stupor. From the beginning of the upper gate, there were no trees; Fitz had cleared them all.
There was still smoke rising from the house. Only part of it had tumbled, only part of the roof collapsed. Half looked like it was sliding into a hole while the other half was perfectly intact.
She slid her feet into Fitz’s boots, which were heavy—and even heavier wet. The leather against her toe was cracked, a monument to Fitz, to his kicking. Her skin was smarting within them and her bruised hip pained her as she walked. She was thinking that a bruise should not outlast a man. A boot may last, but the bruises he made should vanish with him.
Please be dead, she said. And it was not the first time she had said it.
She pressed her weight into the boots and stepped inside the house. The kettle was still sitting on the stove amid remnants of the chimney.
She moved farther into the remains of the house and felt heat rising into her feet.
Fitz? she yelled.
She pulled up the hatch to the cellar. She could not remember closing it. The boards were creaking and parts of the house were still hissing with f lame and damp as she leaned into the mouth of the cellar and searched out the form of him. There was not enough light to see but for small lit patches splattered against broken glass. She held on to the edge of the hatch and leaned in further.
Fitz, you fucker, she called. Where are you?
And then, leaning in, she saw him.
Or some of him. An arm. A torso. The strange patterning of burnt skin. A smell rose up of him. The smell of vinegar and onions, just as he had always smelt, and before she could cover her mouth from the stench of it she was vomiting into the cellar.
She was on all fours and the house was sucking the life from her. There was hardly any strength left in her as she wiped her mouth and rolled onto her back. The shock of the morning had finally hit her. Any part of her that was not numb was trembling.
But this is my mother.
Lying on her back she pushed with her legs and her feet what mess and rubble she could into the mouth of the cellar. She heard it all crash in around the remains of Fitz and the sound of it consoled her. She did not look back into the cellar but turned herself over and launched herself, unsteadily, to standing. Still wearing Fitz’s boots, she staggered from the house and all the way down to the wet grass, collapsing into it.
Fitz was well dead.
She could breathe.
—-
Beyond the house and Fitz’s forest, the mountains spread out north and west. The sight of them, the magnificent stretch of them, was enough to bring my mother to her feet again. She swayed through the paddock towards the gate. Cattle moved quietly around her, looking dim.
When she reached the gate she used it to step up onto Houdini’s back. She took his mane and steered his head to face the highest point of the mountains. Then she leaned in close to his ear and said, My friend, even if I fucking die and rot upon your back, do not stop until we get there.
Morning of my mother’s birth was not like my own. She was vital, for one.
Her father, Septimus, had taken her in his arms as soon as Aoife, her mother, had given birth to her in a washtub on the porch.
It was 1894. The night was clear and the sky was full of stars and Septimus watched on like some anxious popeyed insect, pressed against the window of his shed. Aoife bellowed and roamed outside as the midwife, Mrs. Peel, tried to steer her back to bed.
But when Aoife caught sight of Septimus at the window, backlit by a fire, his hair sticking on end, she raised her fist to him, and then she slipped. She fell backwards into the washtub and as she did a contraction seized her. When it passed, her legs and neck and arms went limp and she hung over the tub like some overwatered plant.
Septimus watched as Mrs. Peel disappeared and returned again, her arms full of candles and lanterns. She set them all around Aoife’s feet, exclaiming, None of God’s creatures shall be born in the dark! She went about lighting them like a zealot.
Aoife had begun writhing and screaming, Get it out! Get it out! And as she writhed a wave of water spilt out of the tub and collected the candles and the lanterns and put them all out.
Mrs. Peel tried to hold down Aoife’s legs but they were splitting around her like scissors in the dark. Aoife did not want the child inside of her and she did not want it out. Septimus clutched his heart and cast his eyes skyward. He saw Centaurus there, marking his bow, and the Southern Cross sparkling like some talisman around an upturned neck. He thought at least the beauty of it augured well.
In no time, as this was Aoife’s fourth, Septimus heard a trembling wail.
He jumped up, ran to his furnace, thought to put the fire out, changed his mind, caught his shirt on the tin of the door, freed himself, then sprinted across the lawn. He took the child in his arms and Mrs. Peel cut the umbilical cord and then they wrapped my mother in a cloth.
A daughter, said Septimus, leaning down to Aoife to show her.
You take care of her, said Aoife. I just want to sleep.
Mrs. Peel helped Aoife inside and Septimus stepped out onto the lawn, my mother curled against his chest. He kissed her damp head and held her above him. She cried and then her little face, still crinkled by the passage of birth, opened up. Septimus saw it as he felt it then: Centaurus drawing his bow among other constellations and firing an arrow straight into his heart. He held my mother and he knew he could never, in all the world, love another trembling creature so much.
—-
Years later, when my mother asked him what stars he saw on the morning of her birth, he could not describe them. He would only say, Darling, there were constellations wrapped in the visible sky and the sky below the horizon, and they were all spinning by some force and design. There was a carnival, a parade, on the day you were born and it was spinning around the poles of the universe.
And although Septimus did know what he saw in the visible sky (an archer, an arrow sent forth) with his own passage through life he had begun to believe more that there was no design in it at all—that the stars themselves were just nebulae visible but indistinct to one another, silhouettes shifting against other luminous matter.
But he did not want to tell that to his daughter.
With her gaze fixed on the mountains, my mother rode all day. Her eyes grew hot and her neck felt too weak to hold her head. Yellow grass streamed  endlessly beneath her and she did all she could not to slip sideways into it.
She was losing blood. It soaked into her trousers and the thick skin of her saddle. On the brink of passing out, she lay against the neck of her horse. He was a dam of hot and cold and the feeling was not like riding, it was like sinking and sinking was her fear. She fixed her back like a steel beam and faced the distance.
There was so much distance.
The mountains seemed farther away now than ever and as she tried to focus on the sharp edges of the cliffs where they cut into the sky, they shifted like an unsteady backdrop, one way, then another. The sun was full and bleaching and nothing was solid.
She rode on.
—-
She held herself upright for as long as she could. But even her determination was not enough. Soon she fell against her horse’s back and dropped the reins completely.
Houdini, a stallion, a Waler, moved easily from a gallop to a long-striding walk, and the weight of my mother across his back was enough to balance her. He turned east towards the thin arc of river and did not falter from his even step until he reached its bank. Then he shook her from his back and she fell onto the sand.
Hitting the sand she came to. She did not know where she was. She could see Houdini drinking from a part of the river she did not recognize and edged her way to it, put her mouth against it and drank the water until it revived her. She had enough energy then to peel off her sand-encrusted trousers and turn them over to the shallows. Red clouds bloomed out.
My mother was not one to say oh dear or oh my. She was one to say fuck. And often. It was a word she had fine-tuned in prison. Half naked by the river, looking down between her legs, that is what she said: Fuck, Houdini. I’ve gone and bled a trail.
—-
There is never a good day to die. And you’ll see my mother is not the quitting kind. But there is courage in blood and she had lost so much of it. She did not have the strength to get back on her horse.
To the north of her were the shifting cliffs and ridges of the mountains. Even if she could have ridden solidly, just to get to the base of the first rise of the mountain range was a whole day’s ride. Beside her was the river. If she rolled herself into it and floated down, it would deliver her directly back to where she had come from, the place to which she could not return. Above her was the clearest, bluest sky with no cloud or apparition and it seemed to be sinking down upon her. She covered her face against it.
Fuck, Houdini was the best assessment.
You might like to think of your own mother knitting blankets expanding outwards in all colors while you were in her womb. Or at worst vomiting into buckets. On the eve of my birth, my mother concertinaed my father while I lay inside her. Six foot. Eight inches. She brought him down with the blunt side of an axe.
I was still two moons off by her measure. Already I was large and awkward enough inside her that I was breaking her sleep a couple of times in the night with my knee or my elbow wedged into her bladder.
Eve of my birth I was wide awake, listening to a thrumming sound that I knew was not the sound of her heart. I stretched out and woke her. Hearing the peculiar sound for herself, she lit a lantern and wound up the cloth wick to cast more light. There were two moths attached end to end and they were beating their wings like a fast-rolling drum and making dust on her pillow.
She picked up the moths by the edge of their wings and cupped them both in her palm. She maneuvered a shawl around her shoulders with her spare hand and shifted us all out of bed. Tiptoeing past Fitz’s room she saw his door open and his empty bed and she relaxed, walked heavy on her heels.
The moon was just a scrape in the sky and a fog rolled around the house so she could hardly see beyond it. She stood on the veranda and threw the moths into the air and she was surprised they did not fly but just dropped to the ground, stuck together, their wings still beating.
Even with the fog, the air was unseasonably warm with the turning season and she felt herself being drawn into it. She was barefoot but her feet were hardened and they were as warm in the dirt as they had been in bed. She ran her hand over the great mound that was me and she pulled up her nightgown and squatted and pissed.
She preferred squatting on the ground to the humiliation of carrying the bedpan past Fitz in the morning. When he was not there, it was her small act of defiance; over the years she had encircled the whole house with her piss, one piss at a time, and she wondered if he would ever pay enough attention to his surrounds to actually smell it. Imagine what he would do then.
Squatting down in the fog was like squatting in a cloud and the cloud stretched around her. She realized it was more comfortable for her to squat than to stand and she rested there for a while, rocking on her haunches. She felt a drop of water on her face and she wondered if the fog was dissolving but then there were heavier drops on her arms and her legs and the far-off sound of a storm breaking.
She pulled down her nightdress and reached the veranda just before the rain began to pour down. She looked for the moths on the ground. They were gone or she could not see them.
Her thoughts turned to Fitz. They were not thoughts motivated by concern for him but more the mounting concern she had for herself and for me inside her. At this hour, every minute that he was not there was a minute he was growing drunker. And no matter how far gone he was, when he returned to the house he may yet have saved a parcel of fury for her.
She went inside and rocked from foot to foot by the stove. The light from the fire did not reach the edges of the room and she thought that was a good thing. There was only more dust there and bad feeling. In front of her was the same scene she had looked at for four years or so and it did not please her. It had never pleased her. A roughhewn table with a bench seat on either side and two wooden chairs at each end, and the ominous opening to the cellar, into which Fitz had thrown her too many times to remember. There was nothing else in the room but another fireplace she had seen lit only half a dozen times and two raggedy armchairs.
The armchairs were dead weights and they faced each other. One was narrower than the other and Fitz had designated this one to be hers. It had always looked like a trap to her: so low to the ground, so tall at the sides, and it tilted back in such a way that you could not get out of it easily. The fabric was brown and gold, a pattern of leaves twisting around f lowers and f lowers twisting around vines, and she could still recall the uneasy feeling of when she first sat in it.
—-
Jessie had just turned twenty-three when, in October 1917, she met Fitz. She was to be his apprentice, breaking in horses for the war and occasionally serving as his domestic. She knew nothing about housekeeping. Every woman vying to leave prison listed housekeeping in her file, regardless of whether she had ever kept a clean house or lived in one. But my mother insisted on listing horse-breaker instead of domestic because it was the work she knew how to do.Although it was a coveted skill—and one Fitz was looking for—she was discouraged from listing her other significant talent, horse stealing, as it was the thing that had landed her in jail in the first place.
As a condition of her release she had to accept an offer of employment and Fitz’s offer, as it was outlined to her, seemed to be the best by far. It was the only offer that would not have seen her working for salt in some inner-city terrace, lace upon her head, cleaning up another family’s mess or running after another woman’s children. She thought she had escaped some terrible fate.
On the day of her release, she waited for Fitz with a warden on the sunny side of the sandstone wall of the prison. She clutched her only bag of belongings. It contained a clean shirt, two pairs of socks, a pair of men’s trousers and a dozen soaps that made the canvas bag weigh much more than it otherwise would have. The soaps were the color of candle wax and they were carved into birds and angels and wrapped in tissue, each one a gift from the other women in prison.
She leaned on the wall and swapped the bag from arm to arm and the warden said, Nervous, Jessie? and she replied, Never!
There was heat in the wall and more heat in the day. Her thoughts were on the soaps in her bag, the carved angels and birds, hoping that they would not melt like wax before she could get them safely to wherever she was going.
What is the name of the place? she asked the warden. And exactly how far is it?
The Widden Valley, he calls it, said the warden. It’s west or north-west of here. You should ask him along the way. Show your interest, Jessie. It will be a good topic of conversation.
In the days before her release my mother had begun to look forward to the distinct seasons of life in the country. In her two years in goal, eight seasons had apparently passed, though in her cell it just seemed like one unwavering twilight. The only things that marked a difference for her were the temperature at night, the occasional shifting angle of light on the floor and the number of cockroaches scuttling through her cell.
But when Fitz pulled up in his cart she forgot the promise of the seasons and the soaps in her bag and everything else. He swung down and landed on the footpath in such a way that he seemed larger than both she and the warden combined. He was the most asymmetrical man she had ever seen. And he was red all over: his hands, his face, his hair. She did not know where to look and she was grateful that the warden led him away from her and into the shade to fill out one form or another while she got her bearings by the wall.
She thought to run but resisted it. It would only lead her back to jail. She leaned down and grabbed the laces of her boots in case her feet took off without her. She said to herself, Don’t fuck it up, girl, and then she fixed her skirt, smoothed her hair and took off her jacket as beads of sweat sprang from every part of her.
When the signing was done, the warden called her over and said, Jessie, this is Fitzgerald Henry. He is your guardian now and I trust he will be a good employer. He has all the faith of the Crown.
Jessie shook Fitz’s hand. It was rough and damp. Fitz did not say a word. He just nodded his head and then he took her by the elbow and led her to the cart. She glanced at him and then the warden and the warden waved good-bye and that was that. She not an inmate anymore; she was an employee. So far, it felt the same.
Fitz scooped up the reins and stared straight ahead. She looked at him again. His profile was not flattering. She chided herself. Have you learned nothing yet? Do not judge a book by its cover. You’re not marrying the man; he’s your employer. Be grateful. This is your chance to go straight.
Fitz used a long-handled whip on the gaskins of the horses and they lurched forward and soon he and my mother were careening through the streets of Sydney. Jessie held on to the edge of the cart and peered out.
There was so much to take in.
First, there was a green park which was more like a green knoll where she knew executions had happened and maybe happened still, though now women stood wearing neckties and holding painted signs saying no! and no more of our sons! and cars were beeping, more cars than she remembered, cars competing with horses and carts, and then a tram traveling so fast it sprayed shit from the tracks all over the road and in the wake of it she forgot herself and covered her mouth with her skirt until she saw Fitz looking at her legs, and not looking at the road, so she dropped her skirt and covered her mouth with her hand instead and thought what a curious thing modesty was and what a curious thing that she still had any at all. And then she saw women and men meandering along serpentine paths and in a larger park men in army uniform, some alone, some walking hand in hand with their sweethearts around fountains.
And then there were houses in rows. Flat-faced houses, and further, houses opened up, springing up in spaces with yards and fences between them, and she saw children, childrenplaying with hoops and making games with chalk along the roads.
Soon the road widened and they were traveling across a flattened field and it was so hot and dry she thought the horses would expire and she asked Fitz to stop and he said, Not until we hit the first rise and when they hit the first rise he said, Just a bit farther. It was the first time they had spoken over the cacophony of noise from the cart and the horses, though she was glad she did not have to answer any questions about life in jail or life before it.
It was pitch-dark before Fitz pulled up at a hotel and watered the horses and checked in at the desk and asked for a drink, but the attendant could not serve him because it was past six o’clock and Fitz said Very well and asked for one room. My mother had no money to pay for her own and Fitz knew it. She looked at him and he said, Don’t worry, I will sleep on the floor.
That was her first night beside him.
He snored and she stared at the ornate ceiling and even in the dark she could make out the detail though it was a strain on her eyes and soon she found sleep. Fitz woke her in the morning and said, Freshen yourself and I will wait for you outside. But she had nothing to freshen herself with except for a shallow dish of water and a hand towel in the room—not forgetting in her own canvas bag were a dozen soaps, but each one was a thing of hope and she knew they were not just hopes for her but hopes for the women themselves and she would not sacrifice any one of them. So she dampened the small towel and wiped herself down and she could see streaks of dirt appearing with each wipe as if she was wiping away a day, a week, a month in prison. Near the dish of water was a small vase with sprigs of rosemary. She took one and rolled the woody stem between her hands and under her arms and between her legs. The smell released. It smelt clean. She pinned up her hair and when she was done she hung the towel over a chair and pulled the blanket up over the bed. She took her bag. Fitz was waiting outside the door and he led her down to breakfast holding on to her elbow again, the keys to the room jangling from a silver hoop he had attached to his belt, just like a warden.
Over breakfast on the terrace, she turned in the sun, one hundred and eighty degrees and there was a basket of freshly baked rolls and two kinds of jams and tea in individual pots and she ate as many rolls as were on the table. Fitz asked again for a drink and the waiter said, I’m sorry, sir, not before eleven o’clock and Fitz said, Very well.
Fitz drove all day and she offered to drive but he said, You don’t yet know the roads. That was true but she was not used to being a passenger and her limbs began to shake with the ceaseless motion of it and she regretted eating so many rolls because bread never agreed with her. But she said nothing more, just held on to the side of the cart and closed her eyes for a while and recalled that the farthest she had traveled in two years was twenty laps at a time around the prison yard.
They reached the beginning of the range and the road wound around and she thought it was an ingenious feat of man to build such a road, but after a while she wondered why he did not think to build a road that went straight over the mountain and came down the other side, rather than one that went in and around bends and cliffs that seemed designed to make a traveler sick and giddy.
Then she saw an eagle as big as a man perched on the edge of a cliff and she was sure it looked over its shoulder and into her eyes before lifting its great expanse of wings and tipping off into a great expanse of sky. She gasped at the sight of it.
That night they did not stop at all and she did not know what Fitz’s horses could possibly be made of that they could travel ceaselessly, and by the time the road dipped into a stony track and then dipped into a valley it was midday again and the air was dry and the sun was so bright that she could no longer see anything but fields of yellow, as if the whole place were washed with just one color. Fitz pushed on and on and the fields turned over to the edge of a forest and then everything changed. It was green and dark and damp and when she breathed in the air it felt different in her lungs.
We are close, he said.
Can I walk then? she asked, as she wanted to reclaim something of herself, beginning with the muscles in her legs.
There’s no time to waste, he said and she asked Why? but he did not answer.
When they arrived at his homestead she knew by the way he said Here it is that he was proud of it and he had built it himself but she was not sure what to make of it or what to say so she said nothing. She just tried to take it all in.
It was a wide house with a wide veranda and there were two chimneys sticking out each end of it. All trees within a hundred yards of it had been cleared and she could see neat fences and holding yards and a shed and a stable.
Come inside, Jessie, Fitz said.
Inside, he poured himself a drink of whiskey and her a mug of water and he said, Whiskey is not a woman’s drink. But she disagreed.
Then he pointed to the other side of the room and, attempting formality, gestured awkwardly and said, Be my guest.
And there it was, the armchair, the trap, and although she saw it that way from the very first sighting, she sat in it anyway. She was thin then from a diet of gruel but still the walled-in sides of the chair did not seem wide enough for her arms, unless she kept her hands in her lap or rested them on the huge panels either side of her, which she did.
Her eyes flicked between her hands and her arms and they had never looked paler. Suddenly, sitting there, she felt ill and her hands did not look like her hands and her arms did not look like her arms and the sight of them haunted her.
Fitz began speaking and she heard him say, rustling, and wife, and jail and still she was trying to take it all in.
Do you understand me? he said.
She shook her head.
It’s our agreement, he continued.
She looked up from her arms and straight into his eyes and she said, No.
And that was all she said.
The effect of the word on Fitz was immediate. He swelled up like some sideshow spectacle she had seen in the circus. She sat back in the chair and watched a rash spread from his neck to his chin and blossom around his nose so his face became two distinct colors, and then his arms swept down to the floor and wrapped around his chair and he wrestled it towards her.
You will understand, he said.
And then, after the longest ride through the city and over flat fields, around a mountain range and down into a valley, he raised his arm and hit her.
—-
Out of all the hopes that the women in prison had for my mother, carved out in the round faces of angels and birds that flew and some that perched, was one my mother had for herself. Her hope was that her employer was a good man.
But he was not.
Fitz was my father. He was mean and violent and he blackmailed my mother and over time he bruised every inch of her. He had the power of the law over her as her legal guardian and she knew that on the slightest provocation he could cart her back to jail. And if she tried to escape him, he warned her, he would send his men out after her, although she never knew who his men were. Many times she thought jail would be better than life with him, and yet somehow she found freedom in the ways she defied him. Ways he did not know and ways he could never imagine.
Four years on, as she looked over the dusty room and the chairs she hated in the corner, she knew that time was running out. I was on the way and this was no life to be brought into. She would have a child to protect.
She could not have guessed how soon.
It is hard to know what tipped my mother on this particular night to a place so sharp and vengeful. The scrape of moon, the moths, the rain, the memory, all of it fertilized something inside her.
Shifting back and forth on her feet in front of the fire did not ease her discomfort. As the rain pelted down hard on the roof she thought of Fitz falling from his horse and stumbling up the steps and then entering the house as if he owned everything in it, including her, and pressing himself upon her, smelling of whiskey and mud and other women. And as she thought it, anger pulsed within her.
Other nights when she knew he would be drunk she would lock herself in her room, though that would only postpone his rage until the morning.
She scanned the room. Next to the door was a cabinet where he kept his rifles and next to the cabinet was an axe. Fitz kept the key to the cabinet in his pocket so she took the axe instead.
She pressed her back against the side of the cabinet and pushed it with all the strength of her legs. Then she set a chair in its place and sat and listened and waited. She was used to that.
She knew every sound of him. The crashing as he rode through the forest, the thud as he struck through the paddock. All of it: the slapping, groaning, dragging, lurching sounds of him as he approached the house.
And she knew, too, what she had never heard and longed to hear: the sucking sound of the earth as it clung to him and swallowed him up. 
Half-naked, encrusted in sand, Jessie did not get back on her horse or roll herself into the river. She reached up, pulled a blanket from her saddlebag and wrapped  herself in it. She writhed and cursed as pain seized her womb and she bit down on the edges of the blanket to contain it. Then, as three figures moved across the paddock directly towards her, she blacked out.
Had she the strength or consciousness to mount her horse, she would have seen the figures first as shadows thrown across the yellow grass. And eventually she would have made them out: a woman, a man, a dog.
As they approached, she would have seen the man was old, his mouth cragged like barbed wire across his face, his eyes deep sockets like dents in the earth when you kick away a stone. Bits of him were missing. His teeth, a piece of his ear.
The old woman was better put together, though she was surely as old as the old man. Her white hair streamed behind her like spiderwebs and she was towing a cart. In the cart was a dead lamb.
The old woman and the old man were following the dog.
The dog was a yellow stripe with yellow eyes, and he zigzagged out in front of them. He vanished in the long grass of the paddock and the old woman and the old man kept track of him by the splitting and crackling of the grass where he went. They were both eager and charged by the find of the lamb and they were confident the dog would sniff out any warm-blooded creature within a mile of them.
—-
The dog was a hunting dog and the old man had found it a year or so before tied up to a tree. He had heard the dog barking in the valley as clearly as if the dog had been barking in an amphitheater. He followed the sound until he finally saw it in the distance, just a streak of a thing leaping up and down, barking a frenzy. As the old man rode in closer to it, the dog launched itself so far the rope around its neck snapped it back and its feet went skidding out from under it.
The old man dismounted his horse and took a hessian sack out of his saddlebag. He walked slowly towards the dog and as he did the dog shook itself. Its skin f lapped around its bony legs like a curtain. He goaded the dog, Come on, you wretch, smell that! and pushed the sack out in front of him. It was the same sack he used for rabbits and their scent was all over it. The dog latched on to it as quickly as anything. The old man wrapped the dog’s rope around its muzzle and sank the bag right over him.
The dog thrashed in the old man’s arms and the feeling of it enlivened him. Walking around the tree, the old man could see the dog had worn a circular track and there were bones and the remains of the dog’s past owner scattered around it.
The old man laughed then as he understood the dog to be a prize. Within the dog’s thrashing body was all that was fading in the old man. Wretched though the dog appeared, here was a creature whose senses were still primed, a creature so intent on life it ate its owner to survive.
—-
Weaving through the yellow grass the dog sniffed out my mother. It had caught the scent of her as surely as if she had dragged her bloodied trousers with a stick for a mile behind her.
It tore across the sand and plunged its snout into her neck. She was in and out of consciousness still but she woke to it, to see teeth and saliva. The dog barked into her ear and her head rang with voices and the sound of other dogs barking. My mother was not a religious woman. She did not believe in heaven and she did not believe in hell, but at that moment she thought she had been wrong after all and that hell, finally, was the place she had found herself. The dog was in a fit, savaging the blanket to get to the source of her blood, and she thought,This is what happens in hell. Dogs disembowel you.
But what my mother took as other dogs of hell moving in on her was the old man and the old woman swinging down from their horses and grunting and croaking as they scrambled down the bank and then the sound of the old man lifting the yellow dog with his boot and the dog’s mournful howling.
Soon, their pale faces hovered over her. And with their strange eyes and mess of silvery hair my mother took them to be harbingers of death, as surely as she knew a frost was a harbinger of winter.
You’re late, she said. Because in truth she believed that death had already come to her.
But she was not dead and nor were they harbingers of death. They were old and they were human and they began quarreling about what to do with her. 
My mother had been set up. It began years before my birth. She was just five months out of prison. She was still in the land of hope then, and she  hoped directly to the leaf and the dirt as much as to the sky and the mountain that things would get better. She buried herself in her work and tried to prove herself to Fitz through her efficiency and her talent for breaking in horses. But the only acknowledgment he had given her was a walloping when he found her petting the horses in the evening when she should have been preparing his dinner.
She hated him already and it was only the beginning of her first autumn there.
There was some reprieve. Mostly, Fitz disappeared during the day and only returned to the house just before sunset. That left her alone to do her work and enjoy the peace and challenge of the horses. Day by working day she could feel her balance and her strength returning. But with the turning of the season, she noticed the nights were coming sooner. And although there was a time she thought she would welcome every change of nature, she knew that soon there would be much less daylight to get things done and much less time to be free of him. She feared what a winter alone with him would bring.
—-
The night of the setup, it was just on dusk, the time she expected him. The sun was her clock and it had all but sunk and there was no sign of Fitz—or, rather, no ranging sound of him.
She set the table as he had instructed her to do, with the forks lined up against the knife and the spoon and a napkin folded in a triangle. She wrapped the plates in a tea towel and put them on the stove top to warm. She sampled the stew. She waited, warding off an uneasy feeling.
It was fully dark when she heard a cavalcade of horses and it was not the sound she expected to hear or the sound she was used to. She pulled at the wooden door of the gun cabinet and was thankful Fitz had forgotten to lock it. He usually always locked it and he usually always kept his guns loaded. She grabbed a rifle, crouched down and peered through the front window.
There were two men approaching the house and neither of them was Fitz. Beyond them she couldn’t quite see but she knew she was hearing the muster of at least half a dozen horses, and if they were being mustered there must be more men.
There was a banging on the door.
Fitz? yelled one of them.
Jessie crawled beneath the window and stood behind the door. She yelled back, What? It was her best impression of Fitz.
We’ve got the horses, said the voice on the other side of the door.
Fitz had not told her of any delivery. But he never told her of anything. She concealed the rifle on one side of her and opened the door.
Sorry, ma’am, said one of them, surprised to see her. Is Fitz in?
Both men looked like droving types. Tall and lean. They kept their hats on.
He’ll be back soon, said Jessie. Do you have business with him?
We do, but we won’t stick around if he’s not in.
Was he expecting you?
Yes, ma’am. Told us to deliver the horses tonight.
They’ll need to go into the holding yard, said Jessie.
And they need rebranding quick smart, said one of the men.
I’ll get to them in the morning, said Jessie.
You might want to get to ’em sooner.
They stolen? she asked.
I’m just saying, ma’am. You might want to rebrand ’em tonight, before dawn.
—-
By the time Fitz arrived back at the homestead the next day, Jessie had rebranded the stolen horses and she had chosen one for herself, the dapple-gray Waler she named Houdini. She was riding him in the paddock when she heard a gunshot. The horse reared up but she was able to calm him. She turned to see Fitz riding out of the forest. Even from far off she could tell he was drunk by the way he was swaying back and forth in his saddle.
He was riding towards her and he was aiming his gun. She dismounted Houdini and stood in front of him.
You aiming that gun at me?
You’ve got an imagination, he said, dropping the gun to his side. I see you’ve been busy.
I’ve been branding your horses.
Well done, he said. Come up to the house. I’ve a present for you.
At the house, Fitz pushed a brown package across the table and Jessie unwrapped it. Inside was a long white cotton dress with a hem of embroidered roses.
Why would I want a dress? she asked. I’m perfectly at home in my trousers.
Go and put it on, Fitz said.
She did not. Instead, she busied herself lighting the fire.
Fitz sat down and put his feet up on the table. You’re looking at a year for each horse.
I haven’t stolen any horses, said Jessie.
Unless there’s something wrong with my eyes, half a dozen horses have appeared in the holding yard.
The horses were delivered for you.
But it was you who took delivery of themAnd I suspect I could track down the owners.
She knew what was coming. All of these months he had been biding his time, unable to accept no as an answer.
Jessie, you have two options that I can see.
And what are they?
I can take you back to the same jail I collected you from.
Or?
You can marry me.
—-
My mother chose but it was a false choice. On the same day that Fitz had swayed out from the forest he doubled her back into it. He was dressed in a blue suit and his hair was slicked back and she wore the long white dress. They rode fast beneath low-hanging branches and when Fitz yelled, Duck! she did and then she did not. She held up her arms and the branch hooked her but only for a second before she fell to the ground and when she stood up he slapped her.
That afternoon, the justice of the peace—the postmaster— who married them made a note in his book that the bell sleeves on the bride were ripped in places and speckled with blood. No family or friends were present. The bride appeared unsettled but in the end the postmaster took the groom’s money and a photo and he did not ask any questions other than Do you take this man? and Do you take this woman? And they both said, Yes, and then they both signed.
Beside the river my mother blacked out again. The old man rolled a cigarette while the old woman dropped to her knees and began unwrapping the blanket to determine the source of my mother’s bleeding.
The old woman was muttering, I will save you, I will save you, which irritated the old man exceedingly.
Woman! he screamed finally. She’s too far gone. And if she lives she’ll surely be trouble.
I will not leave her, said the old woman, and she was calm and defiant and she kept about what she was doing.
She’s just another mouth for me to feed, said the old man. He sat down on the sand and his dog sat down beside him.
The old woman stood up and raised a crooked finger to the old man. All of these years in this miserable place I have prayed for the company of someone other than you and here she is. I am taking her.
The old woman shuffled over to the river to wet her handkerchief to clean up my mother.
She’s of no value, said the old man, sucking in his breath. Then he lit his cigarette and poked the air with it, pronouncing, Woman, nothing is of value in this world if it does not fight.
The old woman was not listening. She was slightly deaf anyway and distracted by my mother’s trousers, which were still billowing and bloody in the shallows of the river. She reached after them with a stick.
While the old woman’s back was turned the old man leaned in over my mother to examine her. Her brow was heavy and her jaw was sharp and he did not like the look of her. Her dark hair fanned out in a tangle around her and for all he knew she could be some runaway, some murderer—which, in fact, she was.
He crouched right over her and blew smoke into her face.
My mother opened her eyes and saw the old man and she did not know what he was but she knew he was danger. She took a gurgling breath and she coughed up something from the depths of her. And then she spat it dead center between the old man’s eyes.
The old man went hurtling back, falling onto his dog, who was whimpering and howling. The old man hooked his arm around the dog’s neck and said, Don’t worry your mongrel head. If she does not die here, I will kill her.
Morning of my birth, the sounds of Fitz were indistinguishable against the rain. He was already scraping his boots on the steps before my mother realized he was there.
She had grown tired in her waiting, but on hearing him she was suddenly awake, suddenly standing on her chair, all seven months pregnant of her, steadying herself against the wall as Fitz wrestled with the handle of the door.
He flung the door open. It hit the edge of the chair and she could see him pitching back and forth and then there was no time for hesitating.
Her anger surged within her and pulsed through the wooden handle of the axe, and as Fitz lurched forward she threw the axe across his back and he was so drunk he fell down immediately. He roared and she leapt down from the chair before he could get up and she swung the axe down again across his back and she did not stop swinging till she was certain that he could not walk or lift himself up from the ground ever again.
—-
Not every d ay is a good day to be born and whatever bright stars were concealed by clouds that morning and whatever their angle, they did not bode well for me. As my mother took the axe to my father a wave rose inside of her and pushed me up and turned me over till I felt sick and deaf to everything. Till I grew cold. When I could not hear her heartbeat I panicked. I kicked and twisted and dug my heels in where I could and then I felt her drop to her knees and, worse, I felt the wild sea inside her spill out.
My birth, though months too soon, was not an agony. I put all of my weight onto my head and bore down. My mother moved around me like a snake sliding out of old skin. And then I thought I heard bells ringing and I fell into the bells of her hands and that was my birth.
I opened my eyes and thought: Is this life?
I saw my poor mother gasp at the sight of me. There was just enough light to make me out and I felt her mouth around my mouth and her breathing into me and then spitting out all of that wild sea I had drunk in. And then she shook me from side to side and covered my mouth with her mouth again. And then she grabbed me by the feet and swung me around and smacked my arse, and I thought, Fuck, Houdini! What life is this?
Then I heard my mother sobbing. She held me in her arms for a while and then she carried me over to my father’s view. I looked into his dark eyes and I saw them grow wide and then I heard a crack as his head hit the floor.
I saw my reflection in his eyes. Covered in fur, unlovely, I do believe it was the sight of me that finally killed him.
—-
My mother tried to feed me milk from her breast but no milk would come. She put hot washcloths over her chest and then she tried to feed me again. But I could not breathe and I could not feed so she bathed me in warm water while my father grew cold at her feet. And then she bundled me up in a sheet and tied me to her before she smashed the gun cabinet with the axe and took out a rifle. She dragged Fitz to the opening of the cellar and then, with her feet, she rolled him in. She poured kerosene into the mouth of it and then into every dark corner of the house. She threw a match into the cellar and then match after match until it threw back f lames. With what was left of the kerosene she drenched those armchairs and set them ablaze.
The flames leapt up and the sound was like Fitz on a tirade. But we were safe and already outside. I clung to her as she saddled her horse, packed a blanket, a gun, a knife.
The rain was upon us. We could hardly see where we were going. We rode anyway.




Courtney, welcome to the Reading Frenzy. Tell my readers about The Untold.
The Untold is inspired by the true story of a female outlaw, Jessie Hickman, who roamed Australia in the 1920s. She’s hell-bent on freedom and on the run.

I’ve noticed frequent title changes when a novel comes across the pond. Why did The Burial become The Untold?
I think The Burial probably resonates in a different way in Australia than it does in the US.  It might be mistaken in the US for a horror novel, which it is not.

The Untold is based on a real woman, Jessie Hickman, an Australian bush outlaw. What made you want to tell her story?
I wanted to tell Jessie’s story because, largely, it was untold and little known. It certainly had not reached the popular imagination in Australia or overseas.

For novel research, did you visit any of Jessie’s real location or hideouts?
Are they still remote, or like here in the US, are there houses all around now?
I did.  The Widden Ranges, where Jessie hid out, are familiar to me because I grew up not too far from there. I visited the area again when I was writing the book and spent time in the bush. It is still a remote area and much of it is untouched wilderness. Unfortunately, it is currently under threat of being mined for coal.

This is your debut novel. What is your personal story of becoming a novelist?
I’ve always written. Writing a novel is what I have been always growing myself to do.

Courtney, on your title page it lists you as a pugilist. Why?
While I was researching the life of Jessie Hickman, I grew curious about my own family history. I discovered that on my mother’s side, my great-great-grandfather came to Australia as a professional boxer, performing on the country touring circuits. He was known as a gentleman boxer. He quit boxing after he won a fight but broke a man’s jaw. The story goes that he split the prize money and took up wheat farming instead.
I thought that was a helpful thing to draw on when I was bringing a novel to completion—the boxer’s energy. To fight the fight but remain aware of your limits. What you won’t do as much as what you will do.

Courtney, since The Burial/The Untold was originally published in 2012, have you published another novel or are you working on one?
I am currently working on a second novel.

Courtney, are you a reader?
Of course. Writing and reading go hand in hand.

What is some of your favorite reading material?
I used to read much more indiscriminately but now I tend to read on different themes that are related to what I am working on. For example, right now I am reading books about walking, such as Annie Dillard’s Teaching a Stone to Talk. The main character of my second novel walks to keep sane.

Courtney will you be traveling to the US for the release?
I am just home, having finished a breakneck book tour of some of your best independent bookstores: Flyleaf Books, Tattered Cover, Warwick’s, Powell’s, A Great Good Place for Books, Book Passage. If your readers are looking for signed copies of The Untold, they can find them there.

Congratulations on the novel and thanks for answering my questions.


 MEET THE AUTHOR:
 Courtney Collins lives on the Goulburn River in regional Victoria, Australia. The Untold is her first novel, and she is currently at work on her second novel.


CONNECT WITH COURTNEY- Website - Facebook - Twitter


10 comments:

  1. I love that this is based on a true story about a female outlaw! I agree, the premises sounds fantastic!

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    1. Kindlemom, me too!
      Thanks for the comment
      deb

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  2. I have only read one book set in Australia. and I loved it, so this excites me!

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    1. Thanks Kimba, I've read a few but set in the Outback will be sort of like another planet so I'm excited too!

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  3. Oh my gosh that is such a neat concept/set up. I love when authors do something a little outside the "norm". How interesting about the title. I've seen that happen a few times and always wondered why. Makes sense though :) Thanks for the intro Debbie!

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    1. Hi Anna you're welcome. I know it's not a romance but boy what a great premise.

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  4. I love the sound of this one since I love reading books set in Australia I'm going to have to add this to my list. I can't wait to read it, thanks for the great interview and the heads up Debbie :)
    -Kimberly @ Turning the Pages

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    1. Thanks for the comment Kim, I love novels set in Australia too especially historical novels the terrain is almost alien and well Australian history is fascinating anyway

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  5. Bush outlaw... need to look that up

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    1. Hey Braine, doesn't this sound Fab!
      Thanks for visiting!

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