Rachel Leary’s Bridget Crack (Allen & Unwin) is Kill Your Darlings’ First Book Club pick for October. Read an extract from the book here. To win a copy of the book, simply review the KYD Podcast on Apple Podcasts to be entered in the draw!
The year is 1826, and 21-year-old Bridget Crack is caught using counterfeit coins to buy bread. For her crime, she is sentenced to be transported from England to Van Diemen’s Land. Upon her arrival, she is shifted from household to household as she struggles to navigate the arbitrarily cruel master-servant dynamics of the young colony. Finally, she is sent away from ‘civilisation’, to the ‘Interior’ to serve farmer Charles Pigot. Her new master is steely and negligent, treating Bridget and her fellow convicts like livestock.
Fearing for her life, Bridget escapes, intending to return to the city. As she pushes deeper into the wilderness, she becomes lost, and on the brink of death is rescued by a group of bushrangers led by the darkly captivating Matthew Sheedy. Faced with choosing between a certain death in the bush and a life of crime with Sheedy and his gang, Bridget decides to follow the bushrangers. Following the accidental killing of a man during a robbery, the gang and Bridget become Van Diemen’s Land’s most wanted, and must stay on the run in the harsh, untamed bush.
Bridget’s is an unkind and transactional world. Its people, whether crude bushrangers and convicts or refined free settlers, are unfeeling; help is only given begrudgingly, and even then, with the expectation of some kind of repayment. The worst is always assumed. It’s not only the people Bridget must fear – the wilderness of Tasmania is as unwelcoming as its colonisers. Her mother country was significantly more urbanised – and, more importantly, she had family she could turn to in times of strife. The colony has no such comfort.
It’s not only the people Bridget must fear – the wilderness of Tasmania is as unwelcoming as its colonisers.
This world is entirely new to Bridget. While travelling with the gang of bushrangers, she is shocked when she sees two Indigenous men, and is even more surprised when one speaks English fluently. In this encounter, we see a glimpse of the horrors colonial rule perpetrated in Tasmania – these men have been forced to assimilate into the underside of this new society, dealing with men like Sheedy to survive. There are traces of Indigenous Tasmanians throughout this novel – while there are almost no Indigenous characters, there are multiple reminders that this is their land. Almost all of the useful information Sheedy and his gang know about the land come from encounters with Indigenous people. This novel is set during an active genocide of Indigenous Tasmanians, and we are not allowed to forget this. Their physical absence in this book is another reminder of the horrors of Australia’s past.
Rachel Leary successfully imbues Bridget’s surroundings with a true sense of foreignness – Leary herself is from Tasmania, and while her descriptions of the land come from Bridget’s perspective, they still ring true. When Bridget does find salvation, it is always in the form of something European: an Englishman turned bushranger, a lost hunting dog, an abandoned shack to take shelter in. They, like her, have become feral in their new environment – an environment that actively rejects them, and one in which they do not belong. In this, Leary is able to articulate the terrifying loneliness of the world in which Bridget has found herself – she is at the mercy of her surroundings because of their absolute unfamiliarity.
Leary is able to articulate [Bridget’s] terrifying loneliness – she is at the mercy of her surroundings because of their absolute unfamiliarity.
While the character of Bridget Crack herself is purely fictional, there are points in this novel where Leary gives her reader a direct view into historical fact. There are letters written from one barely-literate author to another, totally devoid of grammar and punctuation, and more emotionally affecting for it. While Bridget is on the run with Matthew Sheedy (whose character is inspired by real-life Tasmanian bushranger Matthew Brady) and his gang, a proclamation is issued for their arrest. Leary includes this proclamation in the novel, and in the author’s notes clarifies that this text was copied from an 1826 edition of the Hobart Town Gazette – she just changed the names and added a few extra details. These nods to the archives give Leary’s novel a sense of intertextuality and great texture, and I wish they’d cropped up more frequently.
Leary’s prose is hazy at times, but in a way this amplifies the sense of what Bridget is feeling. The novel’s pacing is relentless; Bridget is dragged through one sickening situation after another, and just when you think she’s been granted a break from the cruelty of her world, things take a turn for the worse. She faces cruel masters and mistresses, exposure, thirst, hunger, constant threats of sexual assault from men in Sheedy’s gang, and so many more awful things.
Leary does not mythologise Crack. She is much more of the ‘warts and all’ approach.
The seemingly endless nature of Bridget’s misfortune was the part of the novel that, to me, felt the most real. Leary does not mythologise Crack. She is much more of the ‘warts and all’ approach. Bridget is naïve about the world around her, and frequently makes poor decisions. This approach extends to the novel’s setting – there is so much sadness and ugliness in Bridget’s world, and Leary doesn’t attempt to hide her reader from this.
One of the most prominent and enduring ideas in the popular imagination of Australia’s early colonial history is the figure of the bushranger. These men have been mythologised in our culture; their stories of adventure, theft and rebellion are still told today. Most of these men were very poor, and often had convict backgrounds, but this doesn’t dampen their appeal – poverty is often the incentive behind a life of crime, and this is an intrinsic part of the bushranger narrative.
While mothers, wives and daughters do appear on the fringes of bushranger stories, when it comes to this era in Australian history, women are largely absent from the popular imagination. Often, they are anonymous; sometimes they are just not recorded. Some authors have tried to tell the stories of these women – Jordie Albiston’s Botany Bay Document and a number of Kate Grenville’s novels are some examples of this – but more often than not, the stories of men are better recorded, more familiar and perceived as being more interesting. With Bridget Crack, Rachael Leary has imagined one such forgotten woman – poor, anonymous, inconsequential – but by turning her bushranger, Leary weaved Bridget into this great Australian myth.
Bridget Crack is available now at Readings.