A train snakes its way across Australia. On board the train are experts in various fields. One person will show you how to care for your baby. Another will show you how to sex chickens. Another will speak of cows, even providing an example of a cow that is more trouble than it’s worth. One will teach you to sew and another will teach you all about the composition of soil. The train is an initiative to teach people life skills.
The teachers on the train develop friendships and even romances. One such romance develops between Jean and Robert. Jean is on the train as a sewing expert and Robert is on the train as a soil expert. They meet here and there, develop a friendship, and then a relationship. A train is an awful close proximity for people to be in for months on end without developing some sort of attachments. The relationship progresses and they decide, as scientific minded individuals, to start their own experiment. They’ll get married. They’ll get a farm. They’ll grow wheat of this variety and that variety, in soil with this added or that added, then Jean will bake up the results and see how the bread turns out.
The marriage is not very eventful and Jean leaves the train with a present of a cow that isn’t good for much. At first, life on the farm seems eventful. Robert does his experiments and Jean does hers. They find time for each other, but it’s not as romantic as it might seem.
Australia is a tough land, which Jean and Robert soon learn. They may be able to add things to the soil to make it richer, but they can’t ignore plagues of mice, pestilences of wheat rust, and inevitable droughts. Experiments begin to offer less and less that is good. Jean tries to make a life for she and Robert, but Robert sees a failed experiment, and then, the war comes.
What I liked
At first, I didn’t know this book was about Australia. Upon beginning to read it, I thought it was about the US, and then about Canada, but eventually realized it was about Australia. This is a good thing. I haven’t read that many books set in Australia and I always enjoy a chance to read a book about a place I haven’t read much about before. It’s horizon broadening.
Australia went through a depression in the 1930s, just like the rest of the world, and this book is a bit of a picture of that. Farmers expected great things in the beginning, but then, reality set in. Nobody had any money and the land was bad. This seemed to be a problem both in the US and Australia.
This book mentions the plagues of mice. It’s a real thing and it’s only happened in Australia and Asia. When people say a plague, they mean, a plague. There will be millions, upon millions, upon millions of mice. They storm the land. They eat all the crops. They try to eat animals. They die everywhere and collectively stink up Australia as their corpses decompose. Look it up, if you don’t believe me.
Jean and Robert have a very difficult life on their farm and I feel it’s a fairly accurate picture of what life would have been like for such a couple during the Depression in Australia.
What I didn’t like
The relationship between Jean and Robert is a sad one and I feel sorry for both of them. They each love each other in their own way, Jean perhaps a little more than Robert, but they also went into their marriage expecting it to be more cut and dry than it actually is. They went into their marriage thinking science, black and white, and numbers, but ignored the love side of it, for the most part.
Look, a marriage built on black and white, science, money, figures, etc., will work for a while, but eventually at least one of the people involved is going to want to be actually loved, and appreciated, and cared for as if their spouse actually does madly love them. We’re not talking rose petals on the bed every night, we’re talking quiet expressions of love–hand holding, holding the door open, small notes, and so forth. Someone who thinks their marriage should be more science, or more money, or more whatever, is not going to change and start writing notes and giving the other party those small expressions of love. They didn’t go into it for love and they don’t expect the other person to either.
Robert sees his marriage as a big science experiment. While it is amazingly refreshing that he treats Jean as his intellectual equal, the fact that he looks upon her as almost nothing but an experiment partner is terribly sad. A woman might give up being treated as an intellectual equal just to be loved instead of being seen as a business partner/experiment partner/maid/whatever. A woman shouldn’t have to do that. A woman should be able to expect being treated as an intellectual equal capable of experiments, finances, and so forth, but also be loved. Robert obviously thinks the whole love side of things is not scientific. It’s not part of his life. If science can’t explain it, he doesn’t want any part of it. In the end, Robert treats his marriage like he would treat any experiment.
I will say that the entire book seems to be written as a big science experiment. It’s as if I’m reading some dry scientific journal. It’s not exciting, but I won’t say that it’s entirely unintentional. I think it very well could have been intentional just to echo how the relationship was between Jean and Robert.
Marry someone who loves you and will also think of you as their equal.
Do you think as intellectually minded as Jean is that she would have found love anywhere else considering the time period?
Will Robert ever be happy with a woman?