It clearly announced that this new award, celebrating Australian women writers, was not going to be pigeon-holed by expectation or genre.
The size of The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka initially put me off, but inside was an immensely readable narrative about early Australian life.
Wright freely uses letters, diaries and official records to piece together how a variety of women ended up on the goldfields of Victoria.
Her aim, declared in the Preface, was to challenge the "myth" generated by William Withers in 1870 in his popular History of Ballarat. He claimed that
"the diggers were young and wifeless for the most part, to see a woman was an absolute phenomenon,
the diggings were womanless fields."
The very early gold fever years at Ballarat may have looked like this, but by 1854, the year of the Eureka Stockade, this
"rough and ready outpost of bachelors out for a quick buck (had changed to) a heterogeneous and largely orderly community of 'working families' intent on building a new life of freedom and independence."
Wright has taken it upon herself to remind
"the cultural gatekeepers that women were there too, and that their stories are just as vital, just as valid and just as vibrant as the stories of men."
The first half of the book is a fascinating account of how all these women came to Australia - their reasons for immigrating, who they came with, who they met on the way, the conditions on board ship, their hopes and dreams, what they found in Melbourne on arrival, how they travelled to the goldfields, fears for their safety and well-being, their impressions of the diggings & tent life and how they lived & worked side by side with their husbands, brothers and cousins in the search for that elusive gold nugget that could change their lives forever.
Wright shows us how many of these women added 'civilising' elements to the gold diggings.
They opened shops & became publicans. They wrote newspaper articles, opinion pieces & poems & petitioned govenments for better conditions. They opened theatres to provide entertainment & they offered child-care facilities so everyone could attend. They provided sexual services to lonely diggers, they married, had babies and cared for the ill and injured. They went to dances, balls and public meetings. They loved, they worked and they died alongside their male compatriots.
This is a timely and very worthy effort to put women back into our early colonial history. For any history that excludes or ignores half the population will always be the poorer for it.
Wright has not just written a version of herstory; she has created a platform from which to discuss ourstory.
This post is part of AusReading Month and Non-Fiction November.