Léonie Kelsall – The Blue Gum Camp

Allen & Unwin, Australia, 2024
Cover design Nada Bakovic
Cover photos Getty Images; Kim Miller; iStock, Unsplash
Inside back cover photo Taylor Portelli

True to the Trojan Horse approach adopted by so many contemporary Australian rural romance writers, Léonie Kelsall has incorporated a number of significant social and human issues into this novel.

Léonie Kelsall talks to Barbie about The Blue Gum Camp

Essentially, a study of the different ways members of a family process grief, this tale also takes on the slow burn of a love story between the two main protagonists, Charity, and Lachlan.

Both have lost mothers, Charity to a rare type of dementia and Lachlan to cancer. Charity is the oldest of three sisters, Lachlan has one younger brother. Both play the typical role of first born, assuming responsibility and care for the welfare of their younger siblings as well as for their widowed fathers.

For Charity this role is both a burden and a pleasure as she feeds off the need to be needed. This backfires somewhat when her family members make it clear that her nurturing is more like meddling. For Lachlan, there is the responsibility as first born of taking on the family farm, his brother Hamish having studied for a trade as a motor mechanic and thus being freed of the vicissitudes and endless hours of farming life.

The two groups come together at a B and S ball (Bachelor and Spinsters Ball), a peculiarly Australian rural social event originally intended to give young country folk a chance to meet and perhaps form bonds leading to marriage.

Charity and Lachlan are both reluctant to attend an event that has in modern times become something much wilder, but they go along partly to keep an eye on their younger family members and partly also to have the rare opportunity to let their hair down.

During the course of the things we might expect at such an event, an unexpected (for them) deeper connection forms between Charity and Lachlan. From here we are led into those deeper issues the author wishes to share with us – dementia, cancer, grief, loss and the individuality of this process.

There is also a study of dyslexia. And for both of these young people, there is the question of hereditary conditions – are dementia of the sort Charity’s mother suffered and Lachlan’s disability of dyslexia necessarily congenital conditions? This question provides considerable agonising for the two young lovers.

We also consider in this story the nature of marriage and family, the stresses of farming life in Australia, aspects of silence and communication, the Australian expectation that men be stoic and strong and that they not express emotions, the role of social media and the effect of peer pressure on young women, the nature of shame and disability, differences between regional and urban community life and the commonness of family dysfunction.

The intricacies of parent-child relationships are another interesting aspect of this book. The author provides detailed explorations of the differences between each of the father-child interactions and dynamics for both families.

It is only as the story develops that we get to the bottom of some of this. The complexities of the two lead characters are also satisfyingly realistic; the other siblings have minor but not insignificant roles.

And one cannot leave commentary without mentioning the power of the landscape. The richness of Australian rural settings provides wonderful material for novelists. There is so much drama in the country itself with its contrasts and its wild weather variations.

Natural disasters are never far from mind and the vastness of the bush and its flora provide rich literary fodder. Léonie Kelsall knows her home countryside well and loves it with a fervour that shines from her work.

Amidst all this seriousness there are humorous and dramatic turns of plot and gentle digs at human frailty. This is an entertaining book but one with teeth. We can thoroughly enjoy the burgeoning romance, knowing full well it will come, but we are always conscious that the characters will do some serious thinking and talking along the way. And we’ll enjoy that too.

No doubt there will be more from this author about the siblings or fathers, as more novels insist on being written.

Thank you to Allen & Unwin for my review copy and to Leonie for such an interesting conversation about rural fiction and Australian society.