September 15, 2014
It’s always a warm feeling to see a friend’s book at the airport, which is probably an appropriate place to buy How to get there, the welcome sequel to When it rains, the first of Maggie Mackellar’s memoirs. The airport was where I bought the earlier title, standing alone in a fairly low brow news agency, and also where I bought the second, four years on. It was a poignant moment. In a previous life, a life that ran the full length of the 1990s before stalling through tragedy in the 2000s, Maggie and her husband Mike were counted among my wife and my closest friends (“thick as thieves, old man” as Mike would say). Fast forward ten years, and here I am, a regular book buyer, re-entering Maggie’s story in the public space, at once a stranger and a friend.
Maggie was always going to be a writer. It was something I knew early on, through Mike’s Jay Gatsby-like updates, often mumbled as an aside through toast and chunks of butter, (“second in the HSC for English, old man”). And also because she read so constantly, grazing across a pile of journalism, history, fiction, memoir, her nose in something interesting whenever we lobbed into West Street or the yurt at Killcare. And also because I had another version of the same orientation, starting my earnest, carefully over-written and unpublishable novel in 1999, and carefully obstructing Maggie’s access to it, since I knew she’d see my training wheels, the crude sticky tape and the half rendered characters.
Maggie’s first two books (Strangers in a foreign land and Core of my heart, My country) serviced her academic work in history, but with a style and depth that marked her as a writer who lectured rather than vice versa. Around the time she was working in this vein, I remember she used to talk a lot about Drusilla Modjeska, who I think was a valued mentor who also identified Maggie’s vocation. I recall having to call Drusilla when I was a publisher at Macmillan, as a favour for Maggie’s now publisher, Nikki Christer, to offer feedback about a more educational work, the area I occupied. She was very humble, considering her status as one of the country’s leading literary writers. A rarity, I think, for having the basis for an ego without the interest in giving it rein, a quality that makes me think of Robbie Mackellar, Maggie’s mother, and now Maggie herself.
In When it rains, Maggie unfolds the quite brutal experience of losing both Mike and Robbie in close succession, having her second child (aka Charlie) and taking him together with her primary aged daughter (aka Lottie) to live on the extended family property in the central west of NSW.
Now, in How to get there, Maggie narrates another big change in her and the family’s life, finding love and a new life and home on a sheep property in Tasmania. It’s wonderful to think that this all happened because of the first book, because it was via Maggie’s, well, fame, and appearance on Australian Story that she and Jim, her current partner, connected. Through facing the storm, the ghosts, and writing on through it, Maggie gets to …well face another storm and more challenges to write through, yes, but also find what reads like redemptive love, and the reformation of true family for her and her children. Maggie’s courage in risking the move from NSW, and Jim’s largesse in risking its facilitation show just what kind of energy and spirit (and planning and horse floats) goes into making a fairy tale ending.
There are lots of highlights, both in the unflinching telling of this very personal story, the painstaking and beautiful language, and also in the equitable distribution of characters possessing four legs rather than two. There are about five horses: Will, Belle, Monty are some. There is a battery of hens, a corgi called Duke who knows how to work sheep and another one called Ethel who doesn’t, and, I’m pleased to note, an anxiety-recovering guinea pig called Rodney.
As with all very good writing, it’s no accident the emotional moments are hard to shake. Lottie wins a horse riding ribbon by an unconventional route (and the celebrations seemed, well quite rural – a special moment with all kinds of deep, shared feeling but let’s not get ahead of ourselves) . Charlie receives a set of home made goal posts as a welcome from Jim, an act of such symbolism and warmth, a bit of masculine genius. Maggie writes how, the ice broken, Charlie throws himself at Jim like a wave against a cliff. The redemptive power of both the relationship and the language seem to merge into the one thing, except that, for me, it’s the language that delivers the whole complex, deep, overwhelming shebang with a clarity and force that makes me so proud to be Maggie’s friend.
More about the book – from Random House.