The Woolgrower's Companion, the book which the character Kate Dowd refers to in her work on her family's sheep farm in rural Australia, offers bits of advice and hints on how to manage your sheep. Although Kate has grown up on the farm and watched how it is run from a distance, as a newly married woman in WWII Australia she must take on increasingly more responsibility in running it, something that would have been unheard of before the war. Sheep farming is a man's job and it's a man's world. Sometimes messy, very rugged and and hard to manage financially. This is the world that Joy Rhoades sets her story also called The Woolgrower's Companion, a sometimes bittersweet, often tensely dramatic but ultimately satisfying first novel.
Kate is an interesting character. She is flawed yet likable. She makes a lot of mistakes, holds more than a few prejudices--not surprisingly formed in her somewhat narrow upbringing considering the time, place and environment not surprising, but she has a capacity for love and acceptance and room for growth as she learns how to run her family's sheep farm. Raised to be a lady rather than a rancher, when her mother died she is left caring for her father who lived through the First World War but age and a hard life have taken their toll. She marries a man she barely knows before he ships off to fight in the war mostly because her dying mother wants her to. When all is said and done, however, she is left to fend for herself.
There are some very interesting threads that make up this story. Although Kate's father is alive and initially is managing the farm with the help of a few good hands, including a number of Aboriginal men, as the story progresses he begins to lose his grip on reality. Age and perhaps the effects of the War begin to take their toll and wreak havoc on his memory. In order to keep the farm running she must take on more and more responsibility as her father turns inward and behaves erratically, so much so that he spends money meant to be used on the farm and for bank payments leaving Kate scrambling to pay the bills. Her overtures at helping run the farm are not especially appreciated by the farm hands.
While most young men are called to fight in the war, there is an influx of Italian POWs who are sent to the farms to help keep the local economy moving forward. Two men are allocated to Kate's ranch with a warning not to become friendly with the Australians, particularly not with the women. For Kate this is not a problem as her prejudices, or maybe her snobbishness (or maybe to some degree her ignorance) means she looks rather askance at not only the Italians but also the Aboriginal workers. This includes the young maid who has come from an orphanage to work on the farm. She befriends Daisy, yet she still has assumptions about how she lives and what she thinks and so keeps everyone at arm's length. Kate has lots of assumptions that are often not at all correct.
The inevitable of course happens. The more she takes on a role in running the farm the more she is exposed to the uglier side of Australian society and the narrow thinking of others. So much of what she sees and must deal with leaves her uneasy and uncertain of what is right and true. But she also sees beauty and the goodness in others. She feels both repelled by one of the POWs and drawn to him. Dangerous business for a woman of her station and situation and for the fact that she has a husband that she barely knows not far away training young recruits.
This is an engrossing story that moves along at a good clip with tensions both romantic and dramatic. It's weightier than a lighthearted romance, yet the tension is softened by a love affair that shouldn't and can't take place. The weightier side, too, includes seeing how Aboriginal characters are treated and misunderstood. The story elicits a gamut of emotions--anger, worry, frustration but a certain amount of contentment as well. Kate may have a few sharp edges and plenty of wrong ideas, but she is willing to take chances and really see what is before her eyes. She becomes more and more likable and you can't help but root for her to win out in the end. This is an impressive debut and I am eagerly hoping that Joy Rhoades is even now writing another book.