A historical novel about a woman who is initially transported to Australia as a convict, but through an advantageous marriage comes to play a legendary role in the development of the new colony. 1954.
I had the strangest sense, while reading Sara Dane, that though I was opening the book at every possible opportunity, the pages were passing very slowly. The sweeping scope of the story, and the quick pace at which it covers all that time, puts it in the 700-page historical fiction category. And yet, my copy only had…380 pages??
This made for an exciting but frustrating reading experience. I read it practically non-stop for two days, I was completely engrossed every time I picked it up, and yet the pages under my left thumb seemed to accumulate so slowly! I was impatient, moreover, to find out what was going to happen in the story. I even flipped forward in search of clues, and I NEVER do that!
And this leads me to another remarkable aspect of this novel. In fiction in general, but especially in historical fiction, the overall plot of the story is fairly easy to guess. You pretty much know where the heroine is going to end up, which man she will choose, and/or whether it will all end happily or in tears. With Sara Dane, however, you can guess, but it’s not with much certainty. This is because there are always so many directions she could move, plot-wise. And for every possible direction she has a pretty compelling reason to choose that direction over another.
Owing to this abundance of possibilities, I was constantly curious about Sara’s story (thus the peeking ahead). But I was also resigned to whatever path it took, in the same way that reality resigns us to the course history has taken. Which is fitting, too, because Sara Dane is loosely based on the story of Mary Reibey, a real-life figure in Australian colonial history.
The story begins in 1792 aboard an English ship bound for the new colony, then called New South Wales. The ship is mostly transporting goods, livestock, and a whole lot of convicts, who are to populate the colony and provide a workforce for the new colonial farmers. Also on board is a genteel couple and their two children. Like a few other brave English families, they are traveling to the colony for the sake of fertile soil and a promise of a new beginning. Early in the voyage, their servant falls ill and dies. Before they left home, they heard about a former servant who was scheduled for transportation. Now that their own servant is dead, they ask, could this girl, this Sara Dane, by any chance be on their very ship?
She is (of course), and so they retrieve her from the filthy prisoner’s hold and she becomes devoted to them. We then learn that Sara has been transported for practically no reason at all—her guilty verdict can at most be attributed to a girlish mistake and an uncaring legal system. She is redeemed, though, first by the family who adopts her as a servant, and second by a young naval officer who falls in love with her during the voyage. In spite of her misgivings that she will be able to overcome the stigma of being an ex-convict—even in a country full of convicts—she agrees to marry him.
Her new husband, Andrew, is clever and resourceful, as we come to realize pretty quickly. He’s incredibly ambitious, too, and with Sara by his side they are the first farmers to settle further from the main port town (present day Sydney). The novel then follows them as they create a family, survive floods, defend themselves against convict rebellions, and build a veritable farming empire. Along the way, Sara becomes known as a shrewd farmer and businesswoman in her own right, gaining a formidable reputation in a colony that gossips like a small town. And then there are the various men who seem unable to avoid falling for this strong, beautiful woman!
What I love, though, that this is truly quality historical fiction. The emphasis is on Australian colonial history and the contributions Sara makes to it. She has a strong survival instinct and ethic. She is sensible and self-reliant. In other words, there’s no smut here—there’s not even any allusions to sex at all. I had a really hard time finding an edition with a cover that conveys this independence of character. Maybe readers are more drawn to the image of a heroine who looks like she needs saving…Yikes!
Another interesting thing about Sara Dane is the way the author uses the third person narration throughout. We are granted access to the thoughts and feelings of pretty much every character, at one point or another, but still they are held at a distance. I even feel like Sara remains a bit of a mystery. To some readers this might be off-putting, but to me it makes the story much more interesting. When I read about history, even in the guise of historical fiction, I don’t want it to feel like I’m reading about my neighbors. Sara Dane is set over two hundred years ago AND on the completely opposite side of the world. To me, that slight narrative distance is more than appropriate—it’s necessary.
In all, this is a truly memorable and engaging read. It actually made me want to go to Australia! But maybe what I’m actually wishing is that I could be a farmer, a pioneer, an explorer of uncharted territories…Instead, I guess I’ll have to settle for Google Earth and my garden.