When I began crafting The Cedar Tree, I wanted to explore the idea of what it means to be free; individually, as a community, a society and ultimately, as a country. How far an individual/s is willing to go to obtain their freedom, is matched only by the cost associated with gaining that liberty. And then there is the very real question of what happens afterwards. Can a person ever truly begin their life again?
Selecting two time periods, the 1860s and the 1940s and the distinct locations of the NSW Richmond Valley and the Strzelecki Desert allowed me to follow two generations of the Irish O’Riain family. My background research included discovering the rich history of the cedar-cutting industry. These intrepid axe-men scanned the newspaper reports of the day and followed the journeys of our earliest surveyors and explorers, knowing that the brilliantly coloured red cedar that was coveted by the Royal Navy, furniture-makers, ship and house builders could often be found near waterways. Their fortitude places them as true pioneers in our history. And the timber industry is credited with the establishment of inland towns and the creation of a strong shipping industry. However, the demand for ‘red gold’ and other quality timbers decimated The Big Scrub. This uniquely named forest once located between Byron Bay, Ballina and Lismore, was at 75,000 hectares pre-European settlement, once the largest low land sub-tropical rainforest in Australia. Today only remnants remain.
You can’t write about the Irish in Australia in the 1860s without stumbling across the many accounts of anti-Irish sentiment. At the Lismore Historical Society I was told stories of riots breaking out, eggs being thrown, and at the most petty level, Protestants and Catholics walking on opposite sides of town streets. The Irish famine was fresh in people’s memories and those who suffered at the hands of the Protestant English were not quick to forgive.
Despite these differences NSW was changing. Those who had success in the timber industry or the goldfields or who arrived as emigrants with coin in their pockets were keen to settle down. The NSW Robertson’s Land Act of 1861 was passed to break the squattocracy’s hold in the colony and open up NSW for selection and sale. Some squatters viewed this law as illegal and disputes arose over land ownership with conflict occurring between pastoralists and would-be selectors, whether speculators or honest farmers.
It is into this period of turmoil in The Cedar Tree that Irish Catholic cousins Brandon and Sean arrive from County Tipperary. Brandon eager to start a new life. Sean, unable to let go of the past. Their individual choices during their lives affect their descendants and no more so than Italian raised Stella Moretti who marries into the O’Riain family nearly a century later during World War Two. She unwittingly finds herself living on a sheep property on the barren edges of the Strzelecki Desert in Far West NSW, and slowly her life unravels.
I selected this area specifically for its isolation, so that Stella’s expectations of her new life – one she’d chosen for love and to escape her strict Italian culture, were constrained by more than just her husband’s attitude. The owners of the property I visited northwest of Broken Hill were very welcoming. I’d enquired in advance if I might access the property to study the environment and ended up spending my nights in the main homestead, delving into the station archives, while the days were spent walking deep into the desert, the taste of salt on my tongue.
The Strzelecki Desert is an extraordinary environment made up of quartz rock deposits, gibber plains and rolling red dunes. The light glitters across the landscape. There is a clarity to the air that stuns. Combined with the rich red of the land, the ceaseless dunes and infinite space, the spirituality that whispers of those who dwelt in these areas long before the arrival of white man is tangible. But the desert can be a harsh place and is not for the ill-prepared. While I ensured my day pack contained a compass, map, food and two full water bottles, eons ago the Aboriginal inhabitants of this region existed on sparse vegetation and limited animal life and accessed shallow seepage wells between dunes for drinking water.
My in-the-field research is an essential aspect of writing Australian historical fiction. Apart from the authenticity that in-depth hands-on sleuthing provides, as my novels explore Australia’s history studying the environment where a story is set is also crucially important. Our environment moulds and defines us as individuals, as it can characters in a novel and a strong setting evokes a sense of place that becomes the tapestry that the narrative unfolds upon.
The Cedar Tree is a story of love, faith, destiny and betrayal, of stubborn men and the women who have to try and find the space to survive around them.
About the Book:
Spanning two centuries, Nicole Alexander’s compelling new novel is a story of love and faith, destiny and betrayal, in a land as richly diverse as the secrets it keeps.
In the spring of 1949, Stella O’Riain flees her home – a sheep property on the barren edge of the Strzelecki Desert. She leaves behind the graves of her husband Joe and her baby daughter.
With no money and limited options, Stella accepts her brother-in-law Harry’s offer to live at the O’Riain cane farm in the Richmond Valley. There she hopes to get answers to the questions that plague her about her marriage. However Harry refuses to discuss Joe or the family’s secrets, even forbidding her to speak to the owner of the neighbouring property.
Nearly a century earlier in County Tipperary, Irish cousins Brandon and Sean O’Riain also fled their homes – as wanted criminals. By 1867, they are working as cedar-cutters in New South Wales’s lush green Richmond Valley.
But while Brandon embraces the opportunities this new country offers, Sean refuses to let go of the past. And one cousin is about to make a dangerous choice that will have devastating consequences down the generations . . .
Published by Penguin Random House Australia
Released 3rd March 2020
About the Author:
A fourth-generation grazier, Nicole returned to her family’s property in the early 1990s. She is currently the business manager there.
Nicole has a Master of Letters in creative writing and her novels, poetry, travel and genealogy articles have been published in Australia, Germany, America and Singapore.
She is the author of nine novels: The Bark Cutters, A Changing Land, Absolution Creek, Sunset Ridge, The Great Plains, Wild Lands, River Run, An Uncommon Woman and Stone Country.