The desert of Western Australia is vast and unforgiving. It's a miracle that the little girl dressed in rags and abandoned in the sand is still breathing when an old miner discovers her. Even more so that he is able to keep her alive long enough to bring her to the town from which she'll take her name: Leonora. Sent to an orphanage, mute with grief and fear, Leonora slowly bonds with another orphan, James, who fights to protect her until both are sent away--Leonora to a wealthy American family, James to relatives who have emigrated from Ireland to claim him.
Years later, Leonora is given a chance to return to her beloved Australia. There, in Wanjarri Downs, she will again come face to face with James, who's grown from a reticent boy into a strong, resourceful man. Only James knows the truth about Leonora--that her roots and her heart are here, among the gum trees and red earth. And they will fight to find a way back to each other, even as war, turmoil, and jealousy test their courage again and again.
Sweeping in scale yet filled with intricately drawn characters and vivid details that conjure the fascinating setting, Daughter of Australia is storytelling at its most
Advance Praise for Harmony Verna’s DAUGHTER OF AUSTRALIA
“Verna’s elegant and concise writing evokes a clear sense of the expanse and cruelty of the bush country and the toll it extracted from its people while examining themes of abandonment and human connection, the ebb and flow of life's fortunes, and ultimately, how our choices create our personal sense of identity. A beautiful, heart-wrenching story set at the turn of the twentieth century, Daughter of Australia is a compelling read!”--Ellen Marie Wiseman, author of What She Left Behind and Coal River
“A captivating story of love and the search for identity. A mesmerizing debut novel.”--Kristina McMorris, New York Times bestselling author of The Edge of Lost
“A dazzling debut. Her story pulses with a cast of intriguing characters.”--Duncan Alderson, author of Magnolia City
“What distinguishes this powerful story of a love forged in a lonely and difficult childhood is the keen and vivid depiction of a harshly beautiful land and the people who choose or who are forced to inhabit it. This is a novel readers won't soon forget.”--Holly Chamberlin, author of Summer With My Sisters
|Product dimensions:||5.60(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.40(d)|
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Daughter of Australia
By Harmony Verna
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 Harmony Verna
All rights reserved.
Western Australia, 1898
They walked into the sun.
Her small legs moved without thought; fingers rubbed eyes full of sleep. No need to dress; the clothes she wore day and night. Hunger as normal as breathing.
The fiery ball inched up the horizon leaving waves of heat in its wake, rippling across the landscape as a black shallow lake. Nocturnal beings scurried and slithered and hid with the light, sought shade for slumber. The animals of day woke fresh and loud from nests and mounds and burrows. Flocks of birds settled heavily on the few branches sturdy enough to bear their weight. Brightly colored feathers and noisy chatter quickly brought life to an otherwise dead plain.
The earth was cooked, the red ground baked and brittle. Morning air rested still and hot. The black flies flocked, landed on faces, inched into clothing — a normal nuisance. Only the most intrusive, the ones seeking a nostril or an eardrum, were worth the swat.
Her shoes bulged with stuffed rags, each step kicking a miniature sandstorm. Rust-colored earth stained her stockings to the knees. Over and over she tripped upon the floppy shoes, the soft impact of heel to dirt echoing singularly through the swelter.
She clutched his hand, though his fingers remained limp within her palm. She looked up. He was so tall that his hair seemed to scrape the sky. The sun moved higher and his head appeared as one blinding orb. As he stretched out his neck muscles, his features sharpened — thin cheeks, dark skin tanned as leather, gray and black stubbly chin. He stared at his feet, his eyes vacant, glazed, almost wild, like a sick dingo. Her stomach sank. In the next moment, the sun eclipsed his face and she turned away from the painful glare.
Step. Step. Step. The hole in her shoe chased the shadow of her hat brim, a shadow shortening under the ascending sun. They walked for minutes or hours or days. Hunger and thirst gnawed. Burning heat. Each breath a poker to the lungs. Her feet broiled inside the ragged shoes; her hat melted on her head. Dripping sweat blurred vision.
A lone gum tree rose in the emptiness, its sparse leaves faded gray with a powdered finish. He pulled her weakly to the trunk and made her sit, slipped his fingers from her hand. His arms quivered and his eyes watered as he took the dented billy can from his belt and laid it next to her feet. He turned and began walking. She watched him rub his hands through his thinning hair and rest them on the back of his neck. She watched as his shoulders shook and his legs wobbled, as if he might fall to his knees. She watched as his figure got smaller and smaller in the distance until he was a tiny black dot on the horizon. In another moment, the dot evaporated into the wavy air.
Sinking. Sinking. Sinking. Her stomach lurched, her mouth too dry to vomit. She picked up the can. The water sloshed inside with dull, constrained waves. She tried to turn the top just as she had seen him do, but her tiny fingers slipped from sweat. She tried again and again, her throat tightening. Finally, she cradled it upon her stomach. He would open it. She leaned her head against the smooth bark. He would open it. Patience and sun mingled with throbs of thirst and lulled her to sleep.
Flies flitted across her eyes, tickled her lashes and buzzed in satisfaction upon moist skin. She woke startled, smacking her face and clothes. She looked for him. Panic swelled her throat and she tried to swallow, the reflex painful and chafing. Pushing against the panic, she focused on her feet, clicked them several times and watched the dust fall in puffy clouds. Tree limbs, emaciated lines of shade, pointed inertly — no wind, no breeze, would offer relief.
The sky changed from blue to pink, clouds trimmed lilac. The hues darkened. She wanted it to stop. Dread crept across her flesh and tingled sharply. Her eyes strained to see his emerging figure across the plain. Her pupils searched for a spot moving, one that would grow and lengthen. Blood throbbed as drums. Water pooled in her eyes, dropped down her cheeks and landed salty on her lips, precious water draining. Blackness inched and played tricks, distorting mulga scrub into dogs, tree limbs into extended arms. Shadows magnified, took over the landscape and drowned out the light.
She grabbed her knees and buried her head between them, held her ears against the pulse of terror. "Papa?" she whispered, the fear in her voice breaking any ties of control. She scrambled to her feet, searched the darkness. "Papa? Papa!" She choked in raspy spats, morphed the word into a howl. "Papa!"
The moon climbed.
She bent into her screams and tears, shook with the chilled air. The animals began their night shift, replacing the singers with the chirpers. Her cries echoed over the plain, carried away and diffused by the sounds of insects — a child's pleading call lost amid the vacuum of night.CHAPTER 2
The sun beat through Ghan's shirt, not a patch of fabric dry of sweat. He took a swig of water from the duck skin bag and pulled the hat farther down his forehead. Eternal landscape — red dirt; blue, cloudless sky; low, scraggly saltbush; a spotting of salmon gum and gimlet wood. The rattling caravan, the doughy camel steps, the only noise, the only indication of movement, a small animation in a sea of stillness.
Neely stretched his legs until his feet pressed against the front boards. "Hellova lot hotter than yesterday."
"Gonna be a scorcher."
"Should've left earlier," Neely decided.
"No shit." Ghan glared at him.
A fly chewed Ghan's arm. His hand holding the reins smacked it absently, then brushed off the flattened blob. White scars dotted his arm, all the more obvious against his coppered skin. They were the markings of his mining history, his own collage of abuse underground — along with a missing ear from a carbide lamp explosion, a crippled, twisted leg crushed at the knee. His cheek poached from burns, the nose bulbous and hopelessly slanted from fists — an ugly face to match an ugly life.
Neely ground his cigarette stub into the old wagon wood. Suddenly, his shoulders rolled and convulsed. He gripped his shirt at the neck, his body shaking in choking spasms.
"Not again," Ghan mumbled, but his eyes flitted with worry. "Breathe into it, mate."
Neely's head reared, his mouth silent and begging for air, his eyes wide and desperate before the violent hacking erupted again. Ghan turned his face away. The wagon rocked under the man's barking body for minutes on end. Then the relief, the wheezing inhale. Neely raised his bottom off the bench, leaned over the wagon and spit out a bloody mouthful. He pulled out a new cigarette, lit it with trembling hand and sucked in slowly, evenly, with sallow cheeks.
"Need water?" Ghan asked softly. Neely closed his eyes and shook his head. The man would be dead within six months. Ghan had seen it before. That cough, the one carried by so many of the men underground with dust on their lungs — the "miner's complaint."
Neely reached under the seat and dug through a brown sack.
"Yeh just ate!" Ghan snapped.
"I'm hungry." Neely rummaged through a second bag. "Whot's it to yeh?"
"Don't complain when yeh got nothin' t'eat later on."
Neely found the wrapped sandwiches, opened one and threw the waxed paper into the dirt. "Like t'eat when the meat's still cool." He chewed slowly, sideways like the camels. "Don't like mine crawlin' wiv maggots like yeh do."
A crowd of emus skipped off in the distance on silent prehistoric legs. The dust quickly sprayed around the creatures' haunches before settling back as if never stirred. Ghan abruptly pulled the camels to a stop, sending Neely's body halfway off the bench.
"Jesus, give a man a little warnin'!" Neely barked. "Why yeh stoppin'?"
Ghan pointed into the sun's glare. "See that?" His eyes narrowed on the object — a rock, maybe an old pack, a dead dingo. His vision blurred, then spotted black.
Neely squinted. "Naw, it's nothin'."
"Gonna check it out." Ghan climbed from the wagon, his boots landing with a puff. The dead leg instantly cramped and for a moment he struggled to keep upright, the sensation of wagon movement still throbbing under his rear.
"Don't waste yer time." Neely clicked his teeth, settled back into the seat. "If it was anything good, someone would 'ave picked it up by now."
Ghan walked slowly, both legs stiff from sitting. He left footprints of one boot heel and one swerving rut trailing like a snake. The sun poked his eyes. Sweat fell from his nose one lazy drip at a time.
He inched closer to the lone gum tree in the distance, its branches at one moment shielding the sun and the next conceding, blinding him again. It was not a dead dingo, no stink. Somewhere between the blotches, the object began to take shape — clothing, old rags maybe, left in a small heap, innocuous enough that he could have turned back. Instead, he quickened his pace and galloped, felt like ants were crawling atop his flesh.
A few more dragged steps and the tree eclipsed the stabbing glare. Despite the heat, each bead of sweat chilled and his thick breathing grew loud and unsettling in the stillness. Details no longer blurred as he made out the lines of a dress, of tiny shoes. He froze. Sharp light reflected off a metal canteen. Ghan's stomach pitched at the tiny fingers clutching it.
His knees dropped and crunched the earth beside the small, lifeless child. A child. The innocence cuttingly detailed in the oversized socks that hung at her ankles and the tiny brimmed hat crushed under her matted hair. His fingernails bit into his palms.
Ghan rubbed his hand over his dry mouth, his chest hollow — he couldn't breathe. He reached out slowly, but his hands quivered so severely that he pulled them back, afraid his clumsy touch would break the child's bones into a million pieces. He set his jaw and reached out again, putting one arm under her knees and the other under her neck. Her body moved with the motion, had not hardened.
A light moan escaped her lips. Ghan's nerves iced from feet to hair. She's alive. Fear, whole and total, pushed the horror away. She was barely alive, closer to death than life, a delicate, ebbing balance that he now held in his incapable hands. With one swift swing, he lifted the child and held her tight against his chest. Air labored through his nose. Sweat dripped onto the girl. He ran toward the distant wagon, cursing his slow dead leg, trying to propel it with panicked pulls. "Neely!"
With one hand, Neely shaded an eye; then his body stiffened tight as a rod. He jumped off the wagon, raced to Ghan, stopping short in a flurry of raised dust. Ghan did not stop, did not hand her over. She was alive now — alive in his arms.
Ghan sputtered through panting breath, "Get my water."
Neely dug for the water bag. Small cries squeaked from his throat as he fumbled through the supplies.
"Put it to 'er lips. See if she'll drink," Ghan commanded, holding the girl's arched body under the opening.
Neely's hand shook as he put the spout to her dried, cracked lips. The water splashed and ran down her chin. She made no movement. Her head, deadly still, hung as if her neck held no bones. Ghan shuffled her to the back of the wagon. "Move the crates so I can put 'er down."
Neely pulled out the padding and Ghan laid the child down in the shade of the canvas. He dribbled the water onto her lips, only to have it roll down the sides of her cheeks. He tried again, this time holding her mouth open with his fingers. "Come on, girl; drink it."
His nerves cringed at the sunburned face and hands, the half of her that had faced the sun completely covered in blisters and scabs. The weight of helplessness hit with suffocating force. He tried to read Neely's face for an answer that wouldn't come. He rubbed his hand hard across his lips and looked at the wide expanse of desert, a pit in his gut. "She needs a doctor."
"Christ, Ghan." Neely clawed his scalp, pulled his face back tight. "Whot we gonna do?"
"Think there's a hospital in Leonora." Ghan pinched the bridge of his nose as he tried to remember the route. "We could veer west toward Gwalia. Not too far off, I think."
Neely wasn't paying attention, his mouth drawn. "How yeh think she got 'ere?"
"Don't know. Can't think of that now."
"We'll miss the delivery to the train," said Neely, his tone neutral, resigned to the new course of action.
"Fuck the train," Ghan said with equal tone. He stared at the little girl and his voice croaked, "I need yeh t'drive, Neely. Think yeh know the way?"
Neely nodded, his eyes alert. "I know it."CHAPTER 3
Ghan, Neely and the burnt child inched across miles, ticked through hours too drowsy to quicken. Ghan chewed a hard sliver of cuticle along his thumbnail. Through the canvas flaps, the dust pillowed around the back wheels, every turn impossibly slow. Each minute that passed in the desert brought her closer to death. He chewed the cuticle farther until a drop of blood squeezed in response.
Tucked between boxes of explosives, the child's body swayed with the wagon's rocking. Desperation tightened Ghan's muscles to sinew. Emotions — weak, stingy pulls that choked his throat and sat on his chest — threatened to take over. He slapped them away like blowflies and only glanced at the girl long enough to trickle water into her chapped mouth.
With a sudden fury, Ghan hated this place, this country. Madmen lived here. Men who left jobs and cities to live in the bush, sick and dry with drought. Not a handful of men, but men by the trainload. Spurred by rumors of alluvial treasures, the men flocked, dragging their families in tow or leaving them behind to fend for themselves. But wealth wouldn't fall for these men, just as the rain wouldn't fall for the burnt shoots of wheat. Only the churning beasts, the large mining companies, found the gold.
Ghan turned to the child, lightly pushed a strand of hair away from her face. His large fingers, stubby and filthy, were monstrous near her tiny features. She was covered in rags and the fury shot hot again. Madmen. The hardships of life under the sun, without money or hope, a brutal existence that could turn sane men to madmen. Ghan scanned the scars along his arm. This was a place where a madman leaves a girl to die and a crippled madman is left to save her.
As the wagon rolled, intermittent signs of civilization appeared. The road widened, dirt settled solid and compact. The ruts deepened. The occasional broken bottle signaled the familiarity of human litter. Ghan leaned out of the wagon. "How much longer?"
"Comin' on Gwalia now. Mount Leonora's up ahead." Neely whacked the camels and the wheels lurched.
The white canvas overhead dimmed to beige as the sun descended, each inch toward the horizon a small reprieve from the day's swelter. Ghan put the water bag back to the girl's lips. This time they parted slightly. For a moment her eyes opened, and he stopped dead, the canteen suspended half-tipped in the air. Her listless pupils locked with Ghan's, a fleeting moment of communion before rolling into unconsciousness. His throat constricted. If she died, that look would haunt him until his last days.
Outside, signs of life burst forth. Prospector tents of the transients dotted the landscape. Through an open tent flap, a bent man cooked over a blue flame. At another, a sleeping man's feet stuck out from under the canvas. Then came the more permanent homes, the humpies, constructed by the prospectors who decided to stay. Humpies, exaggerated tents reinforced with flattened cyanide drums and corrugated metal, miserable structures that held in the heat during the summer and the cold in the winter. If a fire caught, the canvas would burn on the inside while the iron held in the inferno like a covered pot. Life in the diggings. Here a man builds his palace from scraps of steel and canvas, holds it together with green hide and stringy bark.
People. Ghan exhaled for the first time in hours. People. Help. The road was smoother now. The humpies transitioned to shacks surrounded with rudimentary wire fences or old rusty bed frames, only strong enough to keep the chooks from wandering off. Feral goats roamed the streets, the animals looking more at home than the human inhabitants. At first glance, it was hard to tell if the town was up and coming or one that was on the brink of desertion.
The wagon pulled into Leonora under a blinding ball of orange setting over the plain, silhouetting the few trees in the distance. Neely stopped the camels and came around, glanced at the girl. "She still alive?" The question came out too easy, too quick, and Neely lowered his eyes. "There's a pub up ahead," he offered. "Want me t'go?"
Excerpted from Daughter of Australia by Harmony Verna. Copyright © 2016 Harmony Verna. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
It was okay... not worth 9.99 though.