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'Once a jolly swagman camped by a Billabong Under the shade of a Coolibah tree And he sang as he watched and waited till his Billy boiled You'll come a‐waltzing Matilda with me...' In 1894, twelve-year-old Matilda flees the city slums to find her unknown father and his farm.

But drought grips the land, and the shearers are on strike. Her father has turned swaggie and he's wanted by the troopers. In front of his terrified daughter, he makes a stand against them, defiant to the last. 'You'll never catch me alive, said he...'

Set against a backdrop of bushfire, flood, war and jubilation, this is the story of one girl's journey towards independence. It is also the story of others who had no vote and very little but their dreams. Drawing on the well-known poem by A.B. Paterson and from events rooted in actual history, this is the untold story behind Australia's early years as an emerging nation. 


Inspiration for A Waltz For Matilda

This is, perhaps, the best book I have written. It wasn’t quite the book I thought I was going to write, either. Other voices kept intruding, more whispers from the past. Finally the book was twice as long as I had expected, more saga than story.

       With the help of Aboriginal elder Auntie Love, the ladies of the Women’s Temperance and Suffrage League and many others, Matilda confronts the unrelenting harshness of life on the land and the long-standing hostility of local squatter, Mr. Drinkwater. She also discovers that enduring friendship can be the strongest kind of love.

Set against a backdrop of bushfire, flood, war and jubilation, this is the story of one girl’s journey towards independence. It is also the story of others who had no vote and very little but their dreams. Drawing on the well-known poem by A.B. Paterson and from events rooted in actual history, this saga tells the story of how Australia became a nation. It is also a love story – about a girl, and about the land.


Like most of us, I learned the words to ‘Waltzing Matilda as a child. When I took a closer look as an adult, though, suddenly the song seemed to have meanings I’d never looked at before.


 ‘Down came a jumbuck to drink at the billabong, up jumped the swagman and grabbed him with glee. And he sang as he stuffed that jumbuck in his tucker-bag …’


A jumbuck is a fully grown sheep- you can’t stuff one into a tucker-bag single-handed. It’s more likely to be the other way round: I remember vividly being dragged 100 metres along a road by a stroppy ram. Unless the jumbuck was a ‘poddy’, or orphaned sheep brought up by humans, hoping for a scratch and a handout, you’d never get near it.


Banjo Patterson knew this- he’d grown up on a sheep farm. And back in the 1890’s he’d have known his listeners would have known it too.


Or take this line: ‘Down came the squatter, mounted on his thoroughbred, up rode the troopers, one, two, three…’ In the 1890s troopers were pretty thin on the ground in a vast country. How could three of them just happen to be on the scene when the swaggie caught the jumbuck?


I suddenly realised that Waltzing Matilda is really about  about a setup. The poddy sheep was used as bait for the swaggie- and then the troopers pounced.  Banjo Patterson’s song is almost certainly based on a true event: in 1895 a swagman- shearer, ‘Frenchy’ Hoffmeister, was suspected of burning down a shearing shed in a shearer's strike. But there was no proof, so he was set up for another crime, and ‘died trying to escape’.


 I began to write A Waltz for Matilda as a story of the swagman. Instead it became a love song to Australia.


Without the 1885 - 1903 drought we might still be a collection of independent states. The drought led to the shearers’ wages being docked, causing them to go on strike, which was a catalyst for the formation of the Labor party. It was the drought that made men like Parkes so passionately convinced of the need for economic survival as a single country, with unified immigration, and no tariffs between the states.


It wasn’t a romantic basis for a new nation, and many of the ideals of the fathers of our constitution probably aren’t ones we’d agree with today.  The passion to limit immigration to white settlers, and the narrow definition of religious freedom intended for Roman Catholics only, seems far moved from the diversity of religious and political thoughts citizens have today.


Even the more extraordinary events in A Waltz for Matilda are based on people and events I’ve known.  Auntie Love showing Matilda how to become invisible among the trees; the wall of water sweeping across a land baked hard by drought; rounding up sheep in the flames of a bushfire, with burning sheep droppings raining from above … all of these their roots in real history.


A Waltz for Matilda was supposed to be a short book. Instead, it became a saga.  It’s an adventure, a tale of rags to riches. A story of indomitable women and extraordinary men, set against a sweeping background that ranges from factories where children sweated for almost no wages and rarely saw the sun, to the farms of the western plains, the Boer War, Federation, ending as the first letters trickle home from Gallipoli. It is the story of how – and why – we became a nation. And – more than any other book – it’s a story from my heart.  

A Waltz for Matilda by Jackie French

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