Jazz Monkey Publications, $7.99
Historical Fiction, 2018
I haven’t read anything by Kim Kelly before, so I don’t know what to expect from Lady Bird & the Fox. The back cover synopsis suggests some kind of rollicking, feminist tale of a woman carving out a life for herself in the West. No, not the American West – the Australian West in the 19th century. I always have a soft spot for this kind of stories, especially when the heroine Annie Bird (the bird in the title) is half-Aborigine and therefore she is up against a whole lot of prejudice as well as a ton of odds.What I get instead a story of a smaller scope – a road trip adventure, basically – with enough romantic elements to make this one easily qualify as a romance story if you’re in the mood for that kind of thing. Which I always am, lucky me.
When her father dies early in this story, 19-year old Annie and her sister are unceremoniously evicted from their home. The man may had died on the job, but the two ladies receive no compensation. In fact, they only have their father’s final wage – with funeral expenses deducted, naturally. Her sister prefers to shack up with her boyfriend, while Annie decides that the best thing for her now is to head out west to look for her grandfather. So off she goes.
The fox in the title refers to Jeremy Fox, “of SJ Fox & Son Silversmiths & Jewellers, Sydney”. A smooth-talking fellow from a far more privileged background than Annie, he is nonetheless banished from the city after getting into one too many troubles, often involving the fairer sex. So off he goes.
These two meet under far from delightful circumstances, and it’s a road trip party from there. I have to adjust a bit my expectations, as I was initially disappointed by how this story seemed to be another slapstick comedy with a one-note sassy heroine and the smooth charmer who is constantly flummoxed by her. While I won’t get into too much detail as to what kind of adventures these two end up in, as I feel a big part of the charm of reading this one is getting to experience the story firsthand without having any preexisting expectations, I can say that I eventually find myself so emotionally invested by the story that I actually tear up at the last few dozen pages. (Don’t worry, these are happy pages.) I didn’t know how or when, but Annie and Jem have somehow burrowed under the skin and found their way into some corner of my heart.
A big reason for this, I’d wager, is the author’s narrative style. She crafts such lovely prose that balances literary and melodrama very nicely without coming off as mawkish or pretentious, and I devour each word with relish.
‘Jeremy, what are you doing?’
I kiss her on the cheek: ‘I’m saying thank you.’
‘What for?’ She bats me away to look under the lid of another pot.
‘For looking after me. For every kneidl.’ Seventeen different kinds of dumplings in her repertoire.
‘You don’t have to say thank you,’ she says. ‘Please, go away. I have too much to do.’
I leave her for the dining room, to wait for Pa, in this sparkling heart of home. I hear him at the door now: ‘Mmm. That chicken soup smells so good,’ he says, coming down the hall, as though it’s not the same smell every Friday night.
I laugh with something that seems remarkably like happiness, but that also seems strangely like goodbye.
Mind you, as a historical fiction, Lady Bird & the Fox occasionally deviates from the romance novel formula. Folks who may assume that this is a romance novel may be taken aback by some of the motivations and actions of the main characters. Me, I find these out-of-genre stuff, so to speak, organic developments that arise naturally during the progression of the story, so I’m all for them.
Despite my initial reservations, this one soon becomes one of the more entertaining and even heartstrings-tugging stories I’ve read in quite a while. As I’ve said, I’m not sure how that happened, but am I glad that it did.