Wresting his family from the easy living of nineteenth-century Sydney, Cornelius Laffey takes them to northern Queensland where thousands of hopefuls are digging for gold in the mud. They confront the horror of Aboriginal dispossession, and Cornelius is sacked for reporting the slaughter. This is an unforgettable tale of the other side of Australia's heritage.
Temporal setting: 1860s
Cornelius and Jessica Olive Laffey live in Birchgrove, a Sydney suburb, before moving north to Cooktown and Bowen.
Temporal setting: 1861
Cornelius Laffey had slipped ashore, father told her often enough, from the dinghy of the sailing ship Jeanie Dove, one steamy late March day, onto burning sand in a place that would later be called Bowen.
The nothingness appalled him, quite apart from the heat, the mangroves, the flies. [...]
It was 1861.
That early day in April when the township, cleared of black land-owners, was proclaimed, Cornelius was looking for and expecting a frontier magic he still failed to find a month later. Scowling at the hopeless canvas village that scabbed the bay-line, he resolved his stay would be the shortest.(p. 19)
Temporal setting: 1930s
During the Depression era when an itinerant swaggie visits Harry and Clytie at Swiper's Creek, he travels down from the Atherton Tableland via the Bump Road (p. 96). Later in the novel, and after the war, Harry travels up the Bump Road to Tobaccotown (Mareeba) for supplies and extra-marital liaisons (p. 117).
In the late 19th century, the Bump Road was constructed to connect the Tableland mining towns to Port Douglas and is still in existence.
Temporal setting: 1870s
Astley uses the names "Charco" and "Cooktown" interchangeably to refer to the northern Queensland town of Cooktown. "Charco" is, in fact, an historical name for the Cooktown area. In 1770, Captain James Cook surveyed the area for a number of weeks while the Endeavour was being repaired. Cook named the river after his ship and the harbour at the river mouth "Charco"—his transliteration of what he took to be the Indigenous name for the place.
Cornelius and Jessica Olive Laffey are described as catching the steamship Florence Irving from Sydney to Cooktown. The Florence Irving was in operation between 1864 and 1877. Astley's description of the Laffey family's attempt to disembark while the steamship was being "stormed by longfaced diggers busting to escape failed El Dorados" is strongly suggestive of an incident at Cooktown in 1874, when gold diggers allegedly rushed the Florence Irving.
When they arrive in Cooktown, the Laffeys stay at the Empire Hotel, on Charlotte Street, for a month. See the image gallery for an archival photo of Cooktown's Empire Hotel from the 1870s.
Victorious, he swept his family onto the steamship Florence Irving and watched them vomit their seasickness all the way from Sydney to Cooktown. [...]
It had taken them half an hour to fight their way off the Florence Irving, for it was being stormed by longfaced diggers busting to escape failed El Dorados. Clutching the children, jostled by shoving and tussling bodies in a heat beyond belief, Jessica Olive hoped briefly and disloyally that they might be swept back on board and this nonsense for better, for definitely worse, would be over. The township she had glimpsed from the rocking deck was nothing more than a canvas slum of hundreds of tents packed along the waterfront. Then Cornelius, overhearty with adventure, shouldered George, and there was no escape as he thrust his dressy stomach down the gangplank. For ten placatory yards a seaman trundled their cabin bags along the road and then forgot about them. In all this broiler heat boats jostled for anchorage space, men elbowed and punched through a racket of voices, while at one side of the mud road oppressed coolies were being counted out like parcels by Chinese merchants.
Three thousand diggers were camping in Charlotte Street and along the temporary back roads from the river, and there was Jessica Olive picking her way delicately through slush past makeshift pubs, brothels, stores and rachitic shanties after the worst season of the year.
For more than a month they lodged at the Empire Hotel [...].(p. 23–24)
Temporal setting: 1930s
Connie attends a Catholic boarding school on the Atherton Tablelands in the 1930s. The convent school is not named, but its location and the description of the school is suggestive of Mount St Bernard College, Herberton, the coordinates of which are given here.
Temporal setting: Circa 1891–1983
Soon after the opening of the Reeftown–Mango (Cairns–Kuranda) railway (1891), Jessica Olive's son George buys a parcel of land outside Mango. Later, in the '70s, George's son, Will, takes up residence on the property. The property is described as being on the (Barron) river, next to the railway line, and four miles from a "townlet," itself another five miles from Mango (pp. 73–74).
Taking the distance of nine miles literally does not help us place George's land upon the map, for marking out nine miles along the Barron River from Kuranda leaves us in a no-man's land between Kowrowa and Koah, one that is outside the lush rainforest zone whose border lies a couple of miles to the east. Astley's notebooks and draft plans for the novel do, however, provide some clues as to the geographical inspiration for (if not analogue of) George's plot of land. In one of her notebooks, she writes, "For Will's home use old one behind bamboos at Koorowa [sic] on right side of Barron sand spit" (Thea Astley Collection, Box 11, Fryer Library, University of Queensland). This description tallies with the one in the novel, which references a "giant bamboo windbreak," the railway "a hundred yards from his western fence," and "the sandspit in the river" (pp. 74, 78).
Locating George/Will's property at the sand spit (known locally as "Big Sands") at Kowrowa also makes some sense of the distance, as long as it is read as kilometres rather than miles. Kowrowa is nine kilometres from Kuranda and four kilometres from the intervening township of Myola.
Temporal setting: 1930s
During the Depression era, an itinerant swaggie visits Harry and Clytie at Swiper's Creek looking for work. When Harry tells him Swiper's is "the end of the line," the swaggie says he "won't be turning back" as he remembers "the long hot stretch of the Hop Wah road and the Chinese gardens along the creek" (p. 96).
In the 1930s, what is currently known as Mulgrave Road in Cairns was known as the Hop Wah Road. This road was named after the Hop Wah Company, a Chinese syndicate headed by Andrew Lee On (or Leon), which established the first sugar plantation and mill in Cairns in the early 1880s.
Temporal setting: Circa 1891–1987
George Laffey, son of Cornelius and Jessica Olive, buys a parcel of land some miles outside the township of "Mango." The description of Mango's location and its relationship to "Reeftown" (which Astley acknowledged referred to Cairns) strongly implies Kuranda as its model. When Jessica Olive visits George's property for the first time, she "travel[s] up into the hills on the new railway line" from Reeftown/Cairns (p. 71). This is undoubtedly a reference to the Cairns–Kuranda railway, which was completed in 1891. Near the end of the novel, the Mumbler family suffers terrible racial violence at the pub in Mango (the Kuranda Hotel, est. 1880).
He slapped his savings on an unwanted acreage near Mango, and after the first exultation wondered, as he more closely inspected the dense thickets of rain forest, what he could do with it. Half-a-dozen other settlers were struggling to clear land along that stretch and the near impossibility of it, the difficulty of the tracks in, made him groan in his dreams.
Jessica Olive insisted on an inspection. She went down to Reeftown by boat then travelled up into the hills on the new railway line.
There had been a black frost a few years before that had ruined acres of profitable coffee farms along the river, and cautious growers were turning to dairying. George waved vaguely at a cleared paddock some distance from the shack and a few abject animals browsing on the fringes of the scrub. From farther up the river came a sickly smell of wood burning, and lazy smoke plumes wrote failure messages across the afternoon sky.
Cut off, Jessica Olive thought, peering critically about, sniffing at woodsmoke. But when were we anything but that, she mused, in this dangerously new country? Her pursed lips wanted to scorn the romanticising of settler drudgery, the sort of rubbish that those southern jingoistic papers printed, mush doggerel by scribblers who'd barely come to terms with the day-to-day and failed to understand the tension between landscape and flesh.(p. 72–72)
She looked hard again across the cart-ruts, over the ungrubbed tree stumps at the indifferent cows. What really was desolate? she wondered. Behind them was a busy jungle of rain forest, river clutter and the suspected presence of blacks, no longer very hostile but insufficiently submissive to white greed. Somewhere a dog yelped endlessly. There was the distant crack of an axe, steady, rhythmic, nagging wood. Four miles away up the road was a townlet, and only that, of pubs, settlers and the beginnings of grazier snobbery.(p. 73)
Temporal setting: 1870s
The Laffeys depart Cooktown for Maytown, which, in the late nineteenth century, was the main settlement in the goldfields on the Palmer River. They also stay briefly in Byerstown, another goldfield nearer the mouth of the Palmer River. Both Maytown and Byerstown were abandoned by the mid twentieth century. Further information about the Palmer River settlements of Maytown and Byerstown is available at Queensland Places.
And then the township when they got there was again nothing more than a tent village perched on giddy slopes above the river. The grog shanties were duplicated. A bark lockup guaranteed nothing. Every sand-pit in the river was crowded with men who scooped and shook fanatic cradles. [...]
Cornelius established his family in some sort of bush-pole lean-to and spent day after day wandering along the river diggings, talking with those who could bear to waste a moment, drinking in the shanties at night with the ones who'd struck it lucky. [...]
While Nadine hung uselessly about the shack or wandered Maytown's one street turning a gauzy glance at diggers, George became his father's daytime shadow, and, when the Charco Herald asked Cornelius to report on a new field creating rush hysteria to the east, pestered to go.(p. 29)
Temporal setting: 1930s
During the Depression era, an itinerant swaggie travels down the Bump Road from Molloy (Mount Molloy) to the coast and on to Harry and Clytie's property at Swiper's Creek (Daintree) (p. 96).
Temporal setting: 1880s
After Cornelius leaves for Brisbane and Nadine is washed out to sea from Reeftown, Jessica Olive moves to Port and becomes proprietor of the Port of Call hotel. Port is described as being north of Reeftown (Cairns) (p. 71), which suggests Port Douglas as a likely geographical correlate.
Temporal setting: Circa 1879; 1891; 1930
In an interview with Ray Willbanks published in Australian Voices: Writers and their Work (U of Texas P, 1991), Astley acknowledges that she "always called Cairns 'Reeftown'" in her novels (p. 27). In It's Raining in Mango, Reeftown/Cairns is the location where Nadine floats out to sea in brothel during a cyclone in 1879. When Jessica Olive visits her son George's new plot of land at Mango (Kuranda), she takes a boat from Port (Port Douglas) to Reeftown (Cairns), and travels "into the hills on the new railway line": the Cairns–Kuranda line, which opened to passengers in 1891.
[During the 1930s, from the perspective of an itinerant swaggie looking for work]
He had tried every cane farm on the way in, the dairies, the slaughter-yards, and at the end of the day a man he met on the waterfront took him back to the showground where the unemployed were camped. He hung around there long enough to be driven out by police. [...]
All we had in Reeftown was tent space. A few lousy feet of tent space, less than I had on Gallipoli, somewhere to doss, and they begrudged us that." [...]
"They treated us like blacks in Reeftown." [...] "Most of us were too weak to run. It was a massacre."(p. 96–97)
Temporal setting: 1930s
As a schoolgirl, Connie spends her Saturday mornings in the Reeftown (Cairns) library, housed in the School of Arts building. The Cairns School of Arts building now houses the Cairns Museum and Cairns Historical Society, with the city's library now housed in the former Chamber of Commerce building on Abbott Street.
[...] Connie, the hated uniform dangling crooked in the wardrobe, pulled on her best summer frock and sauntered into town to nose along the musty shelves of the School of Arts; to trail later with unsuitable reading matter to a patch of grass along the front under the figs, still snuffling from library dust but prepared to drown in words and ultramarine.(p. 104)
It was then that Connie turned her back on the sea and, facing the high ranges where the convent hid itself in memory and trees, walked a block to the School of Arts, up the stairs and into the long book-filled room with the deep verandas off it from which, again, the bay, the sizzling blue, the hyphen of an island.(p. 105)
Temporal setting: 1870s
The Laffeys catch the packer's dray from Cooktown's Sovereign Hotel to Maytown in the Palmer River goldfields (pp. 26–27). In the gallery below, a link is provided to an archival image of the Palmer River coach outside the original Sovereign Hotel. The Sovereign hotel was originally built in 1874 and rebuilt following a cyclone in 1949. It was later again demolished and rebuilt as the "Sovereign Resort Hotel."
Temporal setting: 1861
For days the ship's party had been camped offshore on Stone Island, because the mainland natives—foolishly, all the crew agreed—were preventing their landing.
Stone Island was nothing like the tropical nirvana his dreamy Celtic soul had imagined. His hands were pulpy from trapping fish in reef pools, his feet skinned and bleeding from coral. [...] From across the channel came the sound of rifle fire as officious colonisers showed the indigenous people what's what in a ratatat, idiot anticipation of another civil war half a world and half a week away. It was 1861.(p. 19)
Temporal setting: Circa 1898–1987
Jessica Olive's grandson Harry buys a farm outside the township of "Swiper's Creek" (p. 79), which is described as being north of "Reeftown" (Cairns) and "Port" (Port Douglas), and south of "the Cape" (Cape Tribulation).
These geographical references strongly suggest that the reader is meant to identify "Swiper's Creek" township and farm as being in the Mossman–Daintree region. In the novel, Swiper's Creek township is described as having a hospital (the "Canecutters" hospital), suggesting Mossman, a sugar-milling town which is home to the only hospital between Cairns and Cape Tribulation.
Harry's farm, however, appears to be located further north in the Daintree region. In the novel, Harry is described as having to take a ferry across a river that separates his farm from Swiper's township. This suggests Cow Bay as a possible geographical correlate for Harry's Swiper's Creek farm. Cow Bay is north of the Daintree River (via the Daintree ferry), and was named Bailey's Creek earlier in the 20th century.
Temporal setting: Circa 1930–1984
At some point after George Laffey's death in 1928, Harry and Clytie buy a plot of land at the Cape (Cape Tribulation) for a holiday home, but eventually move there permanently. Cape Tribulation was first settled by the Mason family in the early 1930s after a failed farming venture in Cow Bay/Bailey's Creek.
Later in the novel, when Connie is living in the family home at the Cape in the early 1980s, she and her remaining family members are depicted taking part in the 1983–84 Daintree blockade, an attempt to stop the Cape Tribulation – Bloomfield road being constructed.
Temporal setting: 1970s
On his release from gaol for tax evasion, Billy Mumbler travels from Flystrike gaol to The Taws on his way home to Mango. The Taws (based on Charters Towers, which was originally named Charters Tors) is a key location in another of Astley's novels, The Multiple Effects of Rainshadow.
Temporal setting: 1900s
"Tobaccotown" is likely Mareeba, a former tobacco-growing town on the Atherton Tableland. The Cairns–Kuranda railway was extended to Mareeba in 1893.