“Once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong,
Under the shade of a Coolibah tree,
… And his ghost may be heard as you pass by that billabong,
you’ll come a Waltzing Matilda with me.”
– A.B Patterson, Waltzing Matilda
Hippies wear beads, demonstrators march against the Vietnam War, and the world waits to see the first human steps on the moon’s surface. But at Gibbers Creek, Jed Kelly sees ghosts, from the past and future, at the Drinkwater billabong where long ago the swaggie leaped to his defiant death. But is seventeen-year-old Jed a con artist or a survivor?
When she turns up at Drinkwater Station claiming to be the great-granddaughter of Matilda Thompson’s dying husband, Jed clearly has secrets. As does a veteran called Nicholas, who was badly wounded in the Vietnam War and now must try to create a life he truly wants to live, despite the ghosts that haunt him too. Set during the turbulence of the late 1960s, this was a time when brilliant and little-known endeavours saw Australia play a vital role in Neil Armstrong’s ‘one giant leap for mankind’ on that first unforgettable moon walk.
The fifth title in the highly acclaimed Matilda Saga, The Ghost by the Billabong is a story of deep conflicts and enduring passions – for other people, for the land, and for the future of humanity.
Where do I begin when attempting to review one of Australia’s most well-known and most-loved authors? Jackie French is an amazing writer whose stories span many genres from children’s picture books, history, fantasy, science-fiction and historical fiction. The Australian Children’s Laureate is a stunning writer and the Matilda Saga captures her passion for writing, her enthusiasm for knowledge and learning and her obvious love for her country. The Ghost by the Billabong is book five in a series that captures and highlights moments in Australian history.
It is 1968 and Jed Kelly has hitchhiked all the ways to Gibbers Creek and has arrived on the front steps at Drinkwater Station. She demands to meet Tommy Thompson and then chooses to drop a bombshell; Jed is claiming to be his long-lost great granddaughter! She has no evidence to support her claims and won’t tell them her real name or where she has come from. Despite their reservations, the Thompson’s take her in and have her working at their rehabilitation centre for kids with physical disabilities. For the first time in a long while, Jed finally feels like she belongs… but is she telling the truth?
What I love most about French’s books is the way she turns fact into fiction. She takes Australian history and makes it both interesting and exciting! It never feels as though you are sitting through a boring history lesson; her extensive research and knowledge is subtly woven throughout each story. The Ghost by the Billabong is set against the 1960’s when demonstrators were protesting against the Vietnam War and the world was holding its breath, watching the space race and eventual moon landing with fascination and fear. The Matilda Saga is characterised by history, beautifully created characters and a strong sense of family and culture. Aboriginal culture features in all the books in some way. Their knowledge and connection with the land is often referenced and French offers a gentle nod to the prejudices they faced (and still do).
Jed is a troubled and secretive kid who is dead-set on being alone. She refuses to let anyone in or get close to doing so. Over the course of the book, she softens considerably and her development highlights French’s ability to bring her characters to life. Beneath the tough exterior, she is passionate about the space race and really learns to love the kids she is working with. She develops a fondness for Nicholas, a Vietnam veteran who has returned with more than just physical scars. They are both haunted by the ghosts of their past and must decide what future they are to create for themselves.
Each book in the Matilda Saga can be read as standalone stories however I really think they should be read in the order they have been written. They may be targeted at the young adult audience but they have a depth to them that will satisfy any audience. I cannot recommend this series enough!
AUTHOR: Jackie French
PUBLISHER: Harper Collins Publishers Australia
PUB DATE: 1 December 2015
Thank you to Harper Collins for sending me a reading copy in exchange for an honest review!