The once-wealthy Finch family retreats to the area after falling on hard times and seeks to make connections with the Ngarrindjeri people whose lands they have stolen, even inviting an Aboriginal boy to live with them.
But tensions arise and a chain of events is unleashed that will tear the family apart.
The novel begins in 1874 in England, where Hester Finch – just a teenager when her family arrived at Salt Creek – is now an adult living with her son Joss in her grandmother’s house in Chichester. But a visitor brings back the past.
Chichester, England, November 1874
Mama often talked of this house when I was a child, and of its squirrels with particular fondness. She missed them as she missed all about her life here. They were fastidious, she said, and always prepared for flight. Their plumy tails jerking, they would hold a nut in their tiny hands, turning it and turning it looking for the weak point, angling their heads and tilting the nuts, their tiny teeth flashing, yet could not always penetrate the shell. I watch one now through my drawing room window as it flickers beneath the oak, stopping to pounce, to sample, to bury, before flaming up the trunk. It is cold now; the breeze blows in and I shut the window. The squirrel glares at me from its branch. It has its habits and instincts that it must follow, as most of us do, I suppose. There was no point in my mother preparing for flight. Her sense of duty and her love were together too great.
I am a lady now and have a fine house and garden and a long walk to the gate. I even have a lake, with bulrushes and ducks and swans. I saw such birds constantly, many years ago now, on my family’s property, which stretched as far as a person could ride across in a day, where birds filled the sky and the lagoon by our house; where the swans were black.
About that time I remember a great deal, some parts more clearly than others. There is a trick of the light here, late in the afternoon, late in summer, at the end of a spell of hot days, when looking from a window upstairs to the lake my mind slips and for a moment I am not here. The grasses are silvered and the waning sun lights them up and the damselflies hover and I expect to see Charles striding up the path with Skipper at his heels, to see a slender raft skimming around a corner, and Addie laughing and Mama for a wonder in good spirits. But it is not so.
It is strange to me that I never felt so alive as then, when we had so little and the possibility of death was our constant companion. Here where I want for nothing it is dull, but I have made my choice and must live with it. I imagine myself sometimes like a thwarted squirrel, holding my life, chewing and nibbling with no way to get inside.
I am respectable now, without taint as Grandmama advised, lest people become curious. What choice do I have? There is my boy to consider and no blemish must attach to his name. I have Grandmama to thank, for sending me here and leaving me this house, for saving me. Why she had always been fond of me, I am not sure; perhaps it was only that she liked my way with horses. And now I am a widow, with wealth enough to indulge my whims. I run a school for the town’s orphans and poor. Finally all my learning, like this house, has a purpose. Mama taught me well.
Beecham is grander by far than anything Papa ever dreamed of building on the Coorong or of any that I saw in Adelaide; it is too big for me. Yet I would give it up for a week, a day, an hour in the valley of shells among the sand hills of the peninsula, or for the touch of the first north wind of spring against my face. A part of me will always live at Salt Creek though it is on the far side of the world.
It has been closer to me of late, its outlines growing clear again. Not two weeks ago letters and an old tin trunk crammed with items from the past arrived from South Australia. It was dented, dusty still, and a finger drawn across its skin left a smudge on my fingers. Could it be the grime of the Coorong after such a journey? On a whim I licked it from my fingers – salt – and swallowed to keep it safe. Superstition. I visited Fred in London only last week, and we talked of those years in Salt Creek. Now I can think of little else.
It is a Sunday today, and quiet. I miss the sounds of the young voices. I will ring for tea soon and Ruby will bring it up, then a walk perhaps. Our dear old hound Sal will be slow and Kitty will bound in loops around her. Leaves are falling outside the window. Autumn is here. And there is Joss coming up the drive, hat on and scarf about his neck against the cold. I would know his walk anywhere. Early home from his rambles today. He wishes to become an architect and has many fine ideas; drawing has always been a great love of his. He lifts his head to the windows, searching them, and I see that it is not Joss, but someone taller and older. It is my past come to meet me.
The Coorong, South Australia, March 1855
The journey to that place was like moving knowingly, dutifully, towards death. I have seen beasts as resigned. People say it is not so, that they are ignorant to the end, but this is only what people hope. I knew our purpose in travelling there, how Papa had pinned his last tattered dreams to it, which I imagined visible as a flag slipping listless above the dray. Although Mama was as sad as I ever saw her, yet we knew or thought that our all, our very lives and futures, depended on Papa. It was unthinkable not to go with him.
Extract from Salt Creek, by Lucy Treloar, published by Picador Australia. Republished with permission.
Treloar will speak about her book at Adelaide Writers’ Week on February 28. Writers’ Week will run from February 27 until March 3 at the Pioneer Women’s Memorial Garden.