Courtney Collins' debut novel is mesmerizing.
The first pages depict the beginning of a life in the most inauspicious manner possible. But the remainder of the novel portrays a woman who lived life to the fullest. The author grew up in the same area of Australia as Jessie, and she conveys the hardship and barbarity and danger of the era perfectly. The Feelings put me in mind of Cold Mountain.
No one knows for sure the true history of Jessie Bell Hunt Payne Hickman, circus performer, horse trainer, thief, convict and outlaw; but since Collins was a girl she had heard the myths and legends and felt compelled to tell her story. It's fictionalized all the way, but I think she got it just right.
it isn't pretty, it's rough and dirty and gritty, but it feels real.
In Collins' version, Jessie has a baby born prematurely and buries the body by the river. In a post-publication book tour, an elderly woman asked the author why she chose to have Jessie bear a baby and bury it by the river; there is no historical record of the fact.
Collins relates the story in her afterword and concludes in this way: (I) responded . . . "a little defensively, 'Well, it is fiction after all.'
The woman had no interest in my fact-versus-fiction debate. She began telling me her own story -- how she'd lived her whole life at the foothills of the Widden Valley ranges where Jessie had roamed, how her father used to take her on long drives looking for lost sheep and cattle. One day he pulled up on the side of the road near a river and said, 'This is where Jessie Hickman lost her child.'
I don't know if the woman's story is true. There is no way to know. It is hearsay, after all. And people do like to tell stories. But what I have learned, or rather, grown into, is a faith in fiction. Because no matter how far you take it, fiction always circles back. Somehow it always wants to tell the truth."
Lucky for us, we have writers like Courtney Collins to tell us those truths. She has another book out already and I will be picking it up also.