by Courtney Collins
(Sydney: Allen and Unwin)
Paperback: 304 pages
Reviewed by Michael E. Daniel
Over the years, numerous Australian studies and novels have been written about male bushrangers. However, comparatively few have paid specific attention to female bushrangers.
The Burial is a fictitious re-telling of the life of the remarkable Jessie Hickman, a cattle-rustler during the 1910s and early 1920s, and is the author’s first novel.
Courtney Collins first heard of her protagonist while growing up in the Hunter Valley, New South Wales, near where the main events in Hickman’s life took place. Her novel has been shortlisted for the Stella Prize and the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards — the UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing.
While Jessie Hickman was a real-life figure and is regarded by some as Australia’s last woman bushranger, Collins’s fictitious account differs on many points from the historical record.
The story opens dramatically with Jessie, 22, on the run from the law.
We are told that Jessie Hickman was born in 1894 to poor parents, who gave her up to a travelling circus when she was only a small child. She came to perform in the circus until it broke up shortly after World War I.
She then turned to horse-stealing, for which she served a two-year jail sentence. She was paroled on condition that she be apprenticed to the lonely and tormented Fitzgerald “Fitz” Henry.
She travels to the bush where she becomes enmeshed in Fitz’s business of horse-rustling and cattle-duffing. Fitz threatens her with a return to prison should she refuse to co-operate. Jessie effectively becomes Fitz’s slave and is ultimately forced into marrying him.
When Fitz is wounded in an accident, he hires an Aboriginal stockman, Jack Brown, to continue stealing livestock with Jessie.
Jessie looks for a way out of the unhappy marriage of convenience in which she is trapped.
On one dramatic night, Jessie, heavily pregnant and about to give birth, can endure Fitz’s abuse no longer. She kills him and flees to the mountains, taking her husband’s horse, Houdini.
Pursuing her are Fitz’s Aboriginal stockman, Jack Brown, and Sergeant Andrew Barlow, the new policeman in the district, whose father has arranged his posting to this remote location in the hope that his son would break free from his opium addiction. .
Both Brown and Barlow are anxious to capture Jessie, not only to claim a reward, but also to prevent her from being captured and killed by a group of vigilantes, who are hunting Jessie to avenge the theft of their livestock.
The Burial is an engaging novel. Although it would be difficult to describe it as high literature, the writing has a lyrical quality about it.
However, readers should be warned that some of the scenes that the author describes, particularly Jessie’s treatment of her newborn baby, are confronting and the novel contains coarse language.
Notwithstanding this reservation, the book is undeniably a thoroughly good read.