Jeff McGill, Rachel. Allen & Unwin 2022, Sydney. ISBN 9781760879983.
Tonight I had the privilege of attending the book launch for local author and raconteur Jeff McGill’s Rachel at Mary Sheil Centre, St Patrick’s College at Campbelltown.
McGill’s Rachel had been brewing for about 40 years and it was only in the 2020 lockdown when Jeff’s freelance work dried up that he got mobile on writing the book.
A friend advised him to send a couple of chapters to two publishers. He sent the work to Allen and Unwin and a small publisher in Melbourne. Allen & Unwin got back to him in two days and wanted to know if he had more material, so he sent off chapters 3 & 4. The rest is history.
Jeff often visited Rachel Kennedy’s farm at Box Ridge and listened to local storytellers at Coonamble and Coonabarabran. He is the sort of writer who walks the ground and soaks up the ghosts of the past. He allowed the landscape to talk to him and embedded himself in the spirit of place.
Rachel Kennedy was quite a woman and the Mudgee Guardian and North West Reporter wrote an extensive obituary in 1930 on her death. It stated in part:
The late Mrs. Inglis was one who rarely gave a thought to herself, her one object in life being to help others. She was always to be found at the bedside of almost every sick person in the Warrumbungle district, and has been known to have ridden as far as 20 miles in the middle of the night to reach some sufferer, even when far from well herself. Considering that all her grand efforts were done in an age when motor cars were unknown, it stamps this fine old pioneer as one of the world’s best — a race that is fast vanishing from our midst. The deceased lady had reached the great age of 85 years. (MG&NWR, 11 April 1930)
Rachel’s obituary was also published in the Gilgandra Weekly and Castlereagh (10 April 1930).
At the time of Rachel’s death, it was usual for the country press to publish any sort of obituary of a woman unless she was white and from an influential rural family. The country press was a very white-male institution.
The obituary published in the Mudgee press was an acknowledgement that Rachel was a true local identity and bush character well known in the area. A rare feat indeed. The bush was a male-dominated landscape where women remained in the shadows.
Rachel did not fit the stereotypical 19th-century woman. Yet, she did not seek recognition for her community work and never received it in any public fashion.
The local community understood Rachel’s contribution to their lives and when she was buried in the Presbyterian section of the Gulargambone Cemetery, it was
in the presence of one of the largest gatherings, ever seen at the cemetery. The Rev. G. Innes Ritter, of Coonamble, performed the last sad rites at the graveside. (MG&NWR, 11 April 1930)
McGill’s Rachel represents the genealogical genre of family history as it should be written. The book shows how such a story can be approached and can generate an appeal to a wide audience. Others who have achieved this goal include Nick Brodie’s Kin, A Real People’s History of Our Nation, Graeme Davison’s Lost Relations, Fortunes of my Family in Australia’s Golden Age and Peter FitzSimons’s A Simpler Time.
It was very common for women from the rural under-class to disappear into the shadows of history without any acknowledgement of their existence. The lives of some of these women are probably best reflected in stories like Henry Lawson’s The Drover’s Wife (1892), a piece of Australian Gothic fiction. Author Samantha Leersen writes:
‘The Drover’s Wife,’ and the fears felt by its protagonist, presents a fictitious account of the real concerns experienced by settler Australians.
Rachel’s story has many parallels with Lawson’s The Drover’s Wife.
McGill’s Rachel is another addition to the popular genre of female biography which has seen a number of publications about colonial women in recent times. These include Michelle Scott Tucker’s Elizabeth Macarthur: A Life at the Edge of the World, Elizabeth Rushen and Perry McIntyre’s Fair Game, Australia’s First Immigrant Women, Larissa Behrendt’s Finding Eliza Power and Colonial Storytelling, Kate Forsyth and Belinda Murrell’s Searching for Charlotte, The Fascinating Story of Australia’s First Children’s Author, Anne Philp’s Caroline’s Diary, A Woman’s World in Colonial Australia and others.
The cover notes for McGill’s Rachel state:
Rachel Kennedy stood out on a wild frontier dominated by men… her extraordinary and unputdownable pioneering story is told for the first time
‘Just a girl, but when it came to chasing wild horses nobody questioned Rachel Kennedy’s skill in a saddle. What raised the eyebrows was the type of saddle she used: a man’s.
Rachel Kennedy was a colonial folk hero.
She also built rare friendships with Aboriginal people, including a lifelong relationship with her ‘sister’ Mary Jane Cain.
Meticulously researched and written with compelling energy, this is a vivid and at times heartbreaking story of a pioneering woman who left a legacy that went well beyond her lifetime.
Emerging from the shadows of history
The book is a ripping yarn about the colonial frontier and the role of women in early New South Wales. Another woman emerges from the shadows of history and we are allowed to understand their true contribution to the settler story of our nation.
Updated 2 June 2022. Originally posted 1 June 2022.