Title: Salt Creek
Author: Lucy Treloar
Published: August 1st 2015
Publisher: Pan Macmillan
Genres: Fiction, Australian, Historical
Rating: 4 stars
Some things collapse slow, and cannot always be rebuilt, and even if a thing can be remade it will never be as it was.
Salt Creek, 1855, lies at the far reaches of the remote, beautiful and inhospitable coastal region, the Coorong, in the new province of South Australia. The area, just opened to graziers willing to chance their luck, becomes home to Stanton Finch and his large family, including fifteen-year-old Hester Finch.
Once wealthy political activists, the Finch family has fallen on hard times. Cut adrift from the polite society they were raised to be part of, Hester and her siblings make connections where they can: with the few travellers that pass along the nearby stock route – among them a young artist, Charles – and the Ngarrindjeri people they have dispossessed. Over the years that pass, an Aboriginal boy, Tully, at first a friend, becomes part of the family.
Stanton’s attempts to tame the harsh landscape bring ruin to the Ngarrindjeri people’s homes and livelihoods, and unleash a chain of events that will tear the family asunder. As Hester witnesses the destruction of the Ngarrindjeri’s subtle culture and the ideals that her family once held so close, she begins to wonder what civilization is. Was it for this life and this world that she was educated?
In 2016, Salt Creek, the debut novel by author Lucy Treloar was shortlisted and won a whole host of awards. Salt Creek was a finalist contender for the Miles Franklin award and the recipient of the Matt Richell Award for a New Writer. With all these accolades attached to Salt Creek, I thought it was high time that I read this book.
Salt Creek follows the misfortunes of the Finch family, beginning from the year 1855. This pioneering farming family, headed by Quaker patriarch Stanton, comprises of nine family members. The book is narrated solely by Hester, one of the Finch children, who at the time of the main events of the book is aged fifteen. It quickly becomes apparent through Hester’s intimate style of storytelling that she is a headstrong young lady. Through Hester’s intuitive point of view, we learn how the Finch family have fallen on hard times due to Stanton’s questionable business ventures. It has meant the once wealthy family have had to make the move away from the civilised settlement of Adelaide, to an isolated stretch of coastline called the Coorong. Residing on a simple sheep and cattle station, Salt Creek explores how this family survives in a somewhat inhospitable region of Australia. Intertwined with the forbidden love affairs, deaths and financial difficulties experienced by the Finch clan are their interactions with the local indigenous population, the Ngarrindjeri people. When Tully, a half caste young man enters the Finch’s lives, it brings complications to both Tully and the Finch’s. This story arc forms the solid backbone for this piece of colonial focussed, Australian historical fiction.
Salt Creek is a novel that has been passionately researched and definitely treads important ground. With strong themes of land rights, the disrespect of aboriginal culture, moral divisions, the financial stresses on pioneering families, the sheer isolation of this era, women’s rights and the list could go on. Treloar sets out to achieve a novel grand in scale and issues. I respected many of the issues this novelist set out to explore and Treloar does this with skill.
What I enjoyed about Salt Creek was the main South Australian based setting, the Coorong. It is an area or stretch of coastline I am unfamiliar with. It seemed to come alive in this novel. As I was reading the passages of the pages of this book, I could taste the salt and breathe in the fresh sea air but also sense its danger. I felt the strong sense of desperation and isolation of this region. In a sense, the Coorong could almost be another character is the book, as it comes across as so bold.
There are many characters that fill the pages of Salt Creek. Hester is our chief narrator of the story, who as the story opens, gives us her version of the events from her family when she is fifteen. We later learn Hester has escaped life in Salt Creek and now lives a more comfortable life in England. Hester is a spirited young lady, who struggles with the constraints placed on her gender. Treloar uses the character of Hester to show how women of this era were faced with little choice in the direction of their lives, no matter what their inner aspirations were. For Hester and her sisters, their lives are almost pre determined when their father decides to sell them off, in order to settle his business debts and dealings. Appalling, but quite common at the time, women were possessions, used to pawn lucrative marriage deals and bring all important heirs. The other significant character in Salt Creek is Tully. We learn Tully is a young man stuck between two cultures, shunned by his own indigenous family for the colour of his skin, when he is taken in by the Finch family. But Tully struggles to fit in with the white Finch family too and when a relationship develops between Tully and one of the Finch girls, there are consequences to bear.
The indigenous are a focal point of this novel. In fact, Salt Creek was inspired by the author’s fascination with a family history side story, where a local indigenous boy resided with her ancestor. Treloar was inspired by this tale and considered how this boy grappled with fitting in between two very different cultures. In Tully, we learn about the downfalls experienced by those of mixed race. We also learn about the issues of land rights, the displacement of the indigenous and how European settlement brought disease to the local people. It makes for hard reading at times, but it is an imperative part of Australia’s history, which needs to be brought to our attention.
Added to this ambitious novel of early settlement in South Australia is a thread of mystery, which brought a sense of intrigue and satisfaction, especially when the book came to a close. Salt Creek is an introspective commentary on the harsh life in the teething years, following early settlement in Australia. It also serves to highlight the plight of a particular tribe of indigenous people native to the Coorong, the Ngarrindjeri, whose voices from long ago have arisen by the power of Treloar’s writing. Salt Creek is a recommend piece of work from an author who meshes Australian fact and fiction, into one powerful tale.
Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar was published on August 1st 2015 by Pan Macmillan. Details on how to purchase the book can be found here.
To learn more about the author of Salt Creek, Lucy Treloar, visit here.