Written by a 'bit of a character', the novel is a paean to the Howard battler. The author, Harold Arthur Lindsay, is a misogynistic xenophobe whose main interest in life is the getting of filthy lucre. But it's a good read.
Beginning in the early 1920s, just after the end of WWI, we meet Leslie Farrant and his new wife, Doris. They're on their way to the irrigation projects on the Murray River, where thousands of people are labouring to force the land to submit to industry, creating jobs for returned soldiers.
While life in the camps is hard, Leslie turns his hand to carpentry. When he's retrenched due to lack of funding, he moves to the city and finds employment in an auto factory. Leslie and Doris buy a house, but the life of the wage slave is not satisfying, and the young man decides to sell everything and invest in bee hives, a trade he'd dabbled in earlier in his life.
They leave the city and head for the hills, staking a claim on the property of an old, curmudgeonly cocky. They barely survive, and Leslie buys a new truck and starts doing courier work to supplement the income of the bees. When the old landowner dies, the couple - with young daughter Jean in tow - move elsewhere.
Here they meet Peter Menzies, a returned soldier and bee-keeper with a realistic outlook on life, who takes a shine to Les. He helps him set up his hives, and warns him away from the dreaded local rabble-rousers, the Hirosseks.
"Wait a bit -- there'll be a catch in it. You'll stike really bad trouble there. Down here we've got a crowd of toughs who give beekeepers a bad name. On the site I'll show you tomorrow you'll be only two miles from one of their apiaries -- and they'll be down on you in no time."
"What'll they do?"
"Play every damned trick you can think of -- and a few you've never heard of. If anyone puts bees within miles of them, they give him such a hot time he's glad to shift away. Knock holes in his honey tanks; tip his hives over; start a scrub fire to burn him out; put bent nails on the track he uses to puncture his tyres ... "
"Good God," Leslie protested. "I'd have to clear out myself."
"I haven't finished, Les. They've got most of the landowners here bluffed. If a man won't give them permission to put bees on his land, they take out a box of matches and remind him of how dry it's been lately. We dread bushfires down here. When one gets going properly in the scrub, you can't do much except pray for rain or a change of wind."
Leslie sat staring at Menzies as the words sank in. You read about things like this in magazines or saw them in films; you didn't expect to run up against them in real life.
"Only two groups of families are responsible," Menzies went on. "The Barodies and the Hirosseks. The Barodie brothers -- there's six of them -- are just plain crooks. Sneak thieves, sheep stealers and so on. The Hirosseks are the real wild men. Their father -- dead now, and a good job too -- was some sort of Russian. Big, nasty-looking brute with slanty eyes. Their mother -- still alive, worst luck! -- is a mixture of Gipsy and Negress. they raised the four lovely blokes you'll be up against."
Naturally, with Menzies' help, Les catches the Hirossek brothers in the act of poisoning his bees. Les works hard, brings on an enterprising young helper who finds a fruitful run of trees, and goes from strength to strength.
Soon, he's bought a property, Faraway Hill. With the Depression in full swing, the house and land sell cheaply. Nevertheless, it takes all of Les' money to buy in. But Peter Menzies has a trick up his sleeve, introducing a hardy form of clover he'd brought back as seed from the Middle East. The clover turns the poor land fertile, and Menzies and Les reap more gain when the seed sells.
Meanwhile, Bethea Musgrave joins the intrepid crew. Bethea grew up in Faraway Hill but her feckless brothers lost the property by frittering it away on expensive horses and trips to Melbourne. The enterprising woman had run a private school but the bad economic times forced her to shut down.
She asks if she can buy into the property. Doris, smitten by the old-money charm of the tall, competent Bethea, tells Les to take the offer. Musgrave is the keystone to the happiness of Les and Doris. Without the cachet of the ancient regime - the early pioneers who cleared the land of Aborigines and removed the 'scrub' of native forest - our frugal couple could not truly enjoy the fruits of their labours.
The novel ends with the advent of WWII, when Les is 38.
Lindsay's achievement is to write swiftly. But the boy's-own character of the novel flattens out any art, making each character two-dimensional and thin. He's got a world view and will do anything possible to promote it. It's a world view rooted in classical themes of pioneer ingenuity and thrift, married to a love of the Old Country and the greatness of the Anglo-Saxon people.
Some people would get angry at the book. I did, in places. But I found it interesting to read.