4 out of 4 stars
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Natalie Chapman, the main character of Jennie Linnane's young-adult novel Ironbark Hill, may only have just turned sixteen when the story opens, but she’s got a lot on her plate. On the remote Australian homestead in the mid-fifties, her stepfather drinks and keeps the family walking on eggshells. Not only that, but Natalie is out of school and cleaning houses to supplement the meager income of the remote and struggling dairy farm that the family lives on, meanwhile coveting both the lifestyle, and, later the husband, of her expat employer, Mrs. Glover. The two begin an affair, which an awful neighbor does, in fact discover, but Natalie gets some help in some unexpected ways at last. We learn that adult Natalie is able to thrive and make peace with her choices.
The audience for this book is either girls in their middle teens, or women like me who remember reading books like The Thorn Birds under the covers with a flashlight. The copy is clean and well-presented. There is a fair amount of discreet sensuality in this book, as well as quite a few scenes of domestic violence which set up the conflicts of the book. For this reason, some parents may hesitate to allow middle-school students who want to read more “mature” chapter books to read this one, but I think it offers a good lesson about resilience.
Natalie is a strong and determined main character. She is a big sister to four siblings, and often takes charge when her mother can’t. In this situation, the impulse to start up a romance with her boss makes some degree of sense. The book was great, if not exactly restful, since there is a great deal of struggle in it. Scenes within the family, even the painful ones, strike me as being very true-to-life and vividly depicted. The fight between Alex and Natalie about the cow seemed to stand in as a present-day proxy for the first triangle between Alex, Natalie’s mother, and Natalie’s father Johnny. It seems to make it clear that there wouldn’t be much Natalie could do to win Alex over, given her strong resemblance to his youthful rival. I am even sympathetic to the extra-marital love affair depicted here, since, whatever love is, it’s often not convenient. In some ways, Natalie’s aboriginal blood, bookish nature, and all she’s been through at home mix together in such a way that it is easy to see why she would feel older than her age group. Perhaps Mr. Glover always felt different from everyone else too, although the book being in Natalie's point-of-view sometimes leaves his motivations murky.
If I had one complaint about this book, it’s the way it creates a neat and tidy resolution for events that would seem to defy such treatment. For example, getting by with a quick fling outside of marriage, even given the controversial age difference between Natalie and Mr. Glover, might be expected. I’m just not sure that a wife, even a modern-style wife, would calmly allow her husband and her protegee to ride off into the sunset together. I’m not sure I believe that the people in a small town like that, particularly in that era, would ever let them forget how the relationship started, either. Would Natalie really be able to teach their children art?
After showing how boxed-in Natalie is, both by her secret with Mr. Glover, and by living in a home filled with child abuse and alcoholism, the welcome resolution seems to tie everything in a bow that satisfies on an emotional level but sacrifices some of the credibility Linnane built up in early chapters.
If I read this book as a critic might, I suppose this big flaw might count harder against this book. As much as I struggled to stay objective, however, I couldn’t stop picturing myself reading it as part of its target audience. If I had read this book as a girl in her mid-teens, I believe that I would just have felt relieved for Natalie. Even at my own age, a certain amount of satisfaction came from watching this long-suffering character have some of her biggest dreams come true. It seems that we don’t live in that world, but does it hurt to read that book? I don’t think so, so I am generously giving 4 out of 4 stars anyway because it fulfills its emotional mission so well.
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