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Salt Creek, by Lucy Treloar

December 12, 2018

Salt CreekSalt Creek, by Lucy Treloar. London: Aardvark Bureau, 2017 (First published in 2015)

5 star—FAVORITE

A revealing novel of a family who settled in an isolated station in South Australia’s Coorong region in the 1830s, but instead of triumph brought tragedy on themselves and the indigenous people of the area.

Lucy Treloar is an Australian writer, editor and creative writing teacher.  Herself of European descent, she was born in Malaysia attended school in Melbourne, England, and Sweden. Her short stories and her non-fiction have been widely published and honored.  Awarded an Asialink Writer’s Residency, she lived for several years in Cambodia. She now lives with her family in Melbourne.

In part, Salt Creek seems to be the result of Treloar’s attempts to deal with her family’s past.  The novel grew out of her own family’s stories about ancestors who settled in the Coorong in the 1800s.  Although the book, and Salt Creek itself, is fictional, the people, the place, and the moral issues they raise have inspired Treloar’s narrative.  She is particularly sensitive to the Indigenous experience of European settlement, yet she states in an interview that she chose to center on the narrative of Hester Finch and leave the Indigenous peoples the right to tell their own story.  Instead, she is has chosen to include an Indigenous boy character brought into the Finch family to be “civilized.”

The narrator of Salt Creek is Hester Finch, fifteen years old when her father moves the whole family to the Coorong.  Coming to Australia from England, Papa Finch feels he needs to recover his own financial losses by establishing a successful station on a lagoon along the sea coast.  A determined and self-righteous individual, he brings his submissive wife and seven children into brutal living conditions which they are inadequately prepared to survive.  In England, he had been a strong Abolitionist, but his attitude towards the Indigenous people he encounters exhibits the worst of the colonial mindset.

Treloar’s excellent writing ability allows her to interweave plots focusing on different members of the family.  Hester is the oldest girl, forced into taking care of all the others as her mother’s health declines.  She struggles with duty, love, and the desire for more of life than the unending drudgery she experiences.  Her older brothers are strong and conventional and simply want to escape their father’s tyranny.  Another brother excels at drawing and science, absorbing the newly available ideas of Darwin.  A younger sister is a flirt, unwilling to carry her part of the load, but later shows a capacity for love. Younger children fill out the household for a time.  Tully, an Indigenous boy, comes to live with the family, bringing even greater disruption to them.  Overall, doom hangs over the Finch family and individual tragedies take place.  Yet the book and Hester, its central figure, are also filled with life and resilleince.

I highly recommend this book for readers who like family stories set on a frontier and interacting with Indigenous peoples.  Having read many narratives set on the American frontier, I particularly liked reading about the similar, yet different Australian experience.

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