Dust of the Land by J.H. Fletcher

In brief: Historical fiction, looking at Bella Tucker’s life – from illegitimate child to iron ore magnate.

The good: Always something happening, with twists and turns – not your average historical saga by any means.

The not-so-good: Dates would have been useful for jumping in between past and present.

Why I chose it: Thank you to Harlequin Australia – you’ve reminded me that I read J.H. Fletcher years ago and thoroughly enjoyed it.

Year: 2014

Pages: 492

Publisher: Harlequin Mira

Setting: England, Europe, Australia and Asia

My rating: 8.5 out of 10

Quite a few years ago now, I used to devour books like Dust of the Land – historical sagas set in the Australian Outback with strong characters facing hardship. Then, I started reading more widely and this subgenre fell by the wayside. Reading Dust of the Land reminded me of how cosy I find this type of read and how it celebrates not only the Australian bush (that’s countryside, not anything naughty!) but the Aussie spirit.

Dust of the Land tells the story of Bella, an illegitimate child to a housemaid and an earl. When the earl’s wife cannot have children, Bella is taken from her mother and raised at the family estate in England. It’s not an easy life as the earl’s wife hates the very sight of her, but her grandfather is kind and she falls in love with the boy next door. Sadly, meddlesome events send Bella on a ship to Australia, mourning the loss of Charles in her life. Bella meets Garth Tucker, owner of a station near Wyndham, Western Australia and after a number of events, finds herself at Miranda Downs, ready to work at whatever life throws her way. However, we know from the start of the story that Bella is now a much older widow, who runs one of first iron ore mines in the Pilbara region. How did she get there and can she now prevent her company falling to pieces?

The story is told alternating from the present day Bella (which seems to be around 1980, give or take a few years) and following Bella’s youth from the 1930s onwards. For the majority of the time, it’s easy to tell where Bella is in her life, but a couple of times I was confused for several paragraphs. This is a minor point though and didn’t stop me from enjoying the story. It’s evident from following Bella that she’s one strong lady. Initially, I was about to put her in the same basket as current first lady of iron ore mining, Gina Rinehart, but Bella’s very different. (Not that I know Ms Rinehart personally!) Bella’s also from an era where independence and leadership by women was literally unheard of (she had to take her husband to meetings with bankers and business associates otherwise she wouldn’t be taken seriously). She’s a trailblazer who takes lemons and makes incredibly good lemonade from them.

Aside from Bella’s story, there are other themes explored in Dust of the Land. The customs and traditions of the Australian Aboriginal people are explored, particularly in relation to death. Chinese customs, traditions and the rise of China in industry are also covered through the character of Su-Ying, Bella’s daughter in law, and when Bella does business with the Chinese. Feminism and the roles of women – and how Bella, Su-Ying and Bella’s daughter, Peace, are a common theme. Finally, the love of the Australian Outback is covered and the role mining plays in it is mentioned briefly by Peace, in thinking it’s a pity that the land is torn up to find the ore underneath.

I found this book very enjoyable. It’s easy to read and Bella’s life is full of ups and downs so it’s never boring. There’s always a new problem or an unexpected event just waiting to shake her up. But Bella succeeds through the toughest of times and she’s a pleasant character to follow. If you enjoy a historical saga that deals with practicalities like women in business over who marries who, I suggest you try Dust of the Land.

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