By Ekta R. Garg
March 20, 2019
Genre: Women’s fiction
Release date: Nov. 6, 2018
Rated: Borrow it / 3 stars
A young woman returns to the family farm after a stint in the big city. As she works through the challenges that threaten her family’s livelihood, she learns to trust her instincts and stand up for herself in a male-dominated world. Author Alli Sinclair brings the Australian sugarcane farming community to life in the somewhat uneven but fairly enjoyable book Burning Fields.
In the northern Queensland community of Piri River, Rosie Stanton comes home to regain her composure. After serving the efforts of Australian soldiers in Brisbane during World War II, Rosie thought she could continue life in the big city. An uncomfortable encounter convinces her to go home to the family sugarcane farm. She knows life on the farm; she understands it. No one, she thinks, will try to take advantage of her there.
While the last sentiment may be true, Rosie has forgotten that farm life is still driven by men—the same problem she found in Brisbane. Never mind that her father is having trouble keeping the financial records straight, and Rosie suspects one of the farmhands of fixing the books. Because of her gender, Rosie is told, she needs to keep her opinions to herself.
She’s had enough of cowing in a corner, however, and she practically bullies her father into letting her take over day-to-day operations. When he suffers a health setback and the suspicious farmhand turns out to be just as rotten as Rosie guessed, she steps into the role of leader. Men challenge her along the way, but she holds her ground.
Not all of the men in her life think of her as dimwitted or incapable, however. Tomas Conti, a newly-arrived Italian immigrant, finds Rosie charming. He’s one of the few people in town to call her by her full name—Rosalie—and they share common ground on the fact that their families’ farms sit adjacent to one another. It doesn’t hurt that Tomas is incredibly handsome, and he exudes a mysterious air. Rosie knows he’s hiding something, but the secret only makes her more curious about him.
A strong anti-Italian viewpoint runs through Piri River, however. It’s well-known that for a time the Italians fought with the Axis powers during the war, and many of the families lost loved ones in battle. They eye all Italians with suspicion, Rosie’s father included. As she fights to save her family’s farm from financial ruin and also to protect her growing friendship with Tomas, Rosie learns she’ll have to juggle trials she never imagined possible.
Author Alli Sinclair does an admirable job of highlighting the problem of prejudice in Piri River. While many American readers might see racism through a particular lens, Sinclair reminds readers that hatred exists in other places. It’s not a uniquely North American problem.
Her descriptions of Australian farmland will certainly charm readers. Main character Rosie doesn’t dwell on her time in Brisbane, instead focusing on Piri River. Sinclair’s choice to follow Rosie around the small Queensland town allows readers to focus on the action and the characters.
Unfortunately, the novel lacks in both areas. Early on Rosie’s mother is introduced as struggling with alcoholism due to losing her two sons in the war. Other than the occasional mention of her drunkenness and her stumbling into and out of scenes, however, she doesn’t contribute anything to the story. Other characters, like Rosie’s best friend and even her father at times, don’t do much other than help Rosie bide time from one disaster to the next.
Rosie herself exhibits inconsistencies. At times she seems level-headed, ready to take on her father’s patriarchal views in order to help the family. Other times she’s petulant, faulting Tomas for not opening up to her about personal topics soon after they’ve met. His brooding manner makes it clear he has suffered during the war, but Rosie pesters him about it like a teenager whining about wanting to go out on the weekend. At the end of it all, readers won’t be sure exactly what Rosie thinks because she herself doesn’t know.
The book offers many predictable plot twists, but a few unexpected ones at the end feel forced and unnecessary. Also, at times the characters seem to be begging for attention to social issues. In one scene, Rosie wonders aloud when women will get their due and whether there will ever be a time when they can speak up for their rights. While Sinclair’s intentions should be applauded, the “on-the-nose” treatment of these topics is a little too much to handle.
Readers who want something quick for a weekend and who would like a peek into life in Australia may enjoy this one. Those expecting a more thoughtful, meaty book might want to give the book a pass. I recommend readers Borrow Burning Fields.