The Last of the Bonegilla Girls…
About the Book:
Their friendship transcends nationality and background, but can it overcome the horrors of the past? A post-Second World War story of strong female ties and family, secrets and lies, set in the multicultural Australia of the fifties.
Can the Bonegilla girls defeat their past? Or will it come to claim them?
1954: When sixteen–year–old Hungarian Elizabeta arrives in Australia with her family, she is hoping to escape the hopelessness of life as a refugee in post–war Germany.
Her first stop is the Bonegilla Migrant Camp on the banks of the Murray in rural Victoria, a temporary home for thousands of new arrivals, all looking for work and a better life. There, Elizabeta becomes firm friends with the feisty Greek Vasiliki; quiet Italian Iliana; and the adventurous Frances, the daughter of the camp’s director.
In this vibrant and growing country, the Bonegilla girls rush together towards a life that seems full of promise, even as they cope with the legacy of war, the oppressive nature of family tradition and ever–present sorrow. So when a ghost from the past reaches out for Elizabeta and threatens to pull her back into the shadows, there is nothing that her friends wouldn’t do to keep her safe.
But secrets have a way of making themselves known and lies have a way of changing everything they touch…
Social history is my greatest area of interest, so it stands to reason that any novel that explores this will be an instant hit with me. And so it is with The Last of the Bonegilla Girls, a novel about Australia’s immigration history at the time of the post WWII White Australia Policy of ‘populate or perish’. But as well as being of interest to me from an historical point of view, this story interested me on a personal level. My maternal family migrated to Australia from Belgium in 1961, when my mother was 4. They arrived into Victoria, and while I am uncertain on whether they first lived at Bonegilla (I am still currently undertaking searches on this but the immigration department moves rather slowly), their experiences as new Australians certainly mimicked many aspects of the lives of the young women within this story. I grew up in a bilingual household and attended a migrant catholic primary school. We learnt to speak Italian because it was the next most used language after English in that area. Flemish was spoken at home in a curious mix with English and we ate food that came from Dutch supermarkets in Melbourne and socialised frequently with other Belgian migrants, people who had ‘come over on the same boat’ as my grandfather used to say. My grandparents were new Australians, and being very ‘white’ in appearance and speaking English that was not tainted by a heavy accent, they passed themselves off fairly well, and yet, they still kept themselves Belgian at home; it was important to them, and subsequently, it became important to us. My experiences outlined here are not all that unusual. We are a nation of migrants, and so many of us don’t need to go many generations back to confirm this.
What I really loved about this novel, above all else, was how it is such a conversation starter about racism within this country. “Why can’t they just speak English?” “Job stealing reffos.” For German and Italian migrants, the inference that they were Nazis and Fascists was ever present. Australians like to think of themselves as egalitarian, yet we have an intergenerational culture of casual racism that seems to be hanging around us like a permanent stink – the inference that if a person is ‘other’ then they don’t belong here and should stop taking jobs from the ‘real Australians’ and go back to where they came from if they ‘don’t want to speak English’. Because yes, I’m so certain that the ‘real Australians’ were just busting to do the dirtiest and most dangerous jobs on the Snowy Mountains Hydro Scheme, just as the ‘real Australians’ were lining up two deep to cut cane by hand on the Queensland cane fields. On that note, a couple of years back, I visited the Snowy Mountains Hydro Discovery Centre and it was an absolute treasure trove of migrant history, I highly recommend checking it out if you are ever up that way. I loved reading the sections within this novel about Iliana’s family living and working there as I could picture it all so well.
One in twenty Australians have links to Bonegilla through migration of the post-war era. Between 1945 and 1975, more that three million refugees and migrants came to Australia, almost doubling Australia’s population. – Author notes
A lot of attention is given within this novel to the migrant experience on an individual level. The psychological effects of having lived through the horror of war and then the upheaval of displacement and relocation into a foreign, and sometimes hostile, new country. In particular, Elizabeta’s mother and her struggles with assimilation against a background of depression and anger. I really felt for her, she had endured so much and her situation was an excellent example of the ‘extra baggage’ migrants and refugees were forced to bring with them to their new country. Some migrants fared better than others and I do think that had a lot to so with their country of origin and the support networks they were able to build up around them. As demonstrated within this novel, Iliana and Vasiliki had vast family networks to surround them, being Italian and Greek, as opposed to Elizabeta, whose family was fairly isolated and often ostracised on account of being perceived as German (they were actually German speaking Hungarians). Following these women over such an extensive period of time was enlightening as we were able to see how ‘Australian’ they became and how their experiences influenced the lives of their children and grandchildren. With each generation, the cultural ties loosened.
The friendship element of this story was lovely, really positive and uplifting. These girls formed a relationship with each other based on being fellow human beings, irrespective of cultural origins. They found ways around their communication barriers and worked with what they had to form solid bonds. They are an example of what is possible when we see each other for who we are, not where we come from. Highest praise to Victoria Purman for putting this out there. There’s a lot of sadness within this story, a lot of truth, and a lot to love. I do enjoy novels that dust out the corners and really get you thinking hard about society. This will be one novel I recommend widely for a long time to come.
About the Author:
Victoria Purman is a multi-published, award-nominated, Amazon Kindle-bestselling author. She has worked in and around the Adelaide media for nearly thirty years as an ABC television and radio journalist, a speechwriter to a premier, political adviser, editor, media adviser and private sector communications consultant. She is a vice president of Romance Writers of Australia, and a long-standing member of the Writers SA Board. She is a regular guest at writers’ festivals, has been nominated for a number of readers’ choice awards and was a judge in the fiction category for the 2018 Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature.
Harper Collins Australia
Imprint: HQ Fiction – AU
5 thoughts on “New Release Book Review: The Last of the Bonegilla Girls by Victoria Purman”
Fabulous review for a fabulous book I too loved this one so much 🙂
Thanks Helen. I saw your review on Goodreads and am using in Monday’s AWW round up.
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An enticing review, Theresa:)
I’m not making excuses for casual racism because there are none, but what people often fail to understand at this distance in time was just how isolated Australia was. Before jet air travel, only the wealthy could afford to travel and most people lived and died without ever setting foot out of the country. And really, apart from the soldiers and their skewed experience of the places where they served, all most Australians knew of the war and its aftermath was those heavily censored newsreels. No wonder these people were insular!
The Spouse, for instance, as a small boy had never heard a foreign language of any kind spoken until Russian athletes turned up in his bayside suburb for the Olympics. There’s an ABC radio series about POWs under the Japanese where in an early episode the men talk about never having seen rice and having no idea how to cook or eat it. And teachers, of course, had no cultural training for the variety of source countries or professional development in how to teach English as a Second Language… I’ll bet most of them had no idea where Belgium was or that Flemish was one of its languages, and I had that experience myself when I first encountered refugee children from Afghanistan in the 1990s. (And I had the internet , to help me find out about it!) Yet, judging by the number of migrant children turned tertiary graduates who filled the universities in the 70s when I was there, I think those teachers did a reasonably good job.
So yes, mistakes were made, but I think we should cut that generation a little slack.
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That’s very true, when you look at it within the context of the era and the isolation. It took me so long to write this review, I kept changing so many things because I didn’t want to appear too judgemental, but of course my mind kept drawing comparisons to today, without bearing in mind those points you have mentioned. We really were a small island nation, that’s for sure. It’s still interesting to ponder on the origins of racism. Why is the instinctive response often fear in place of curiosity? Even if you had never encountered foreigners before, what makes a person wary instead of welcoming? I think on this often, for any era.
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