The best historical novels on women at the Australian frontier

Why am I passionate about this?

What makes me passionate about this topic is the racism I’ve witnessed, the books I’ve read, and my deep love of landscape. Australia is a nation built on immigration but it’s also a land with an ancient Indigenous culture, and this is reflected in the books on my list. Born in Melbourne, I grew up in Sydney, and then lived for some years in the UK. I hold a PhD from the London School of Economics and I’m a professor at the Australian National University. I do hope you enjoy the books on my list as much as I have.


I wrote...

The Philosopher's Daughters

By Alison Booth,

Book cover of The Philosopher's Daughters

What is my book about?

The Philosopher's Daughters is a tale of two very different sisters whose 1890s voyage from London into remote outback Australia becomes a journey of self-discovery, set against a landscape of wild beauty and savage dispossession.

From London to remote outback Australia, two sisters – pulled apart by love – are brought together by tragedy. When Harriet Cameron follows her sister, Sarah, to the harsh Australian outback – as dangerous as it is beautiful, as mysterious as it is wild – she is alienated by the casual violence and great injustices of outback life. Harriet’s recovery from this alienation begins with her growing friendship with an Aboriginal stockman and her increasing love for the landscape. This fragile happiness is threatened by murders at a nearby cattle station and by a menacing station hand seeking revenge.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray: River of Dreams

Alison Booth Why did I love this book?

Anita Heiss is an Australian academic and author of a number of insightful books on what it’s like being Indigenous in Australia. Her novel Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray begins in 1852 with a catastrophic flood that is a metaphor for the disastrous effects of European colonisation. Told mainly through the eyes of a young Wiradjuri woman, the novel is a powerful exploration of the clash of cultures that followed European settlement and appropriation of the land. It is a vivid and moving depiction of the unbalanced power relations between the races as well as between men and women.

By Anita Heiss,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

‘There are books you encounter as an adult that you wish you could press into the hands of your younger self. Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray is one of those books – a novel that turns Australia’s long-mythologised settler history into a raw and resilient heartsong.' – Guardian

*** WINNER 2022 NSW PREMIER'S LITERARY AWARD INDIGENOUS WRITER'S PRIZE***
***2022 ABIA SHORTLIST***
***2021 ARA HISTORICAL NOVEL PRIZE SHORTLIST*** 
*** 2022 STELLA PRIZE LONGLIST***
***2022 INDIE BOOK AWARDS LONGLIST*** 
***2022 VICTORIAN PREMIER'S LITERARY AWARDS HIGHLY COMMENDED*** 
_______________________________________________
Gundagai, 1852

The powerful Murrumbidgee River surges through town leaving death and destruction in its wake. It is…


Book cover of Voss

Alison Booth Why did I love this book?

Patrick White was an Australian writer who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1973. Voss is one of his best books, and one that I’ve read again and again, as it brings new insights about human psychology and the Australian landscape with each reading. Set in the mid-nineteenth century, Voss is an epic story of a German explorer who leads a doomed expedition across Australia, even while his relationship with Laura in Sydney develops. The novel is a poignant love story written in the most exquisite language, while it subtly draws out cultural differences between the Indigenous inhabitants and the European settlers. It is not a book to be rushed through but is one to savour.

By Patrick White,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Voss as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Voss describes an epic journey, both physical and spiritual. The eponymous hero, Johann Voss, is based on Ludwig Leichhardt, the nineteenth-century German explorer and naturalist who had already conducted several major expeditions into the Australian outback before making an ambitious attempt to cross the entire continent from east to west in 1848. He never returned.
White re-imagines his story with visionary intensity. Voss's last journey across the desert and the waterlogged plains of central Australia is a true 'venture to the interior'. But Voss is also a love story, for the explorer has become inextricably bound up with Laura Trevellyn,…


Book cover of The Territory

Alison Booth Why did I love this book?

Although The Territory was published in the 1940s, the book is as vivid as if it came out last year. Neither a novel nor a history, it is an evocative account of Ernestine Hill’s extensive travels around Northern Australia, the Aboriginal and white people she met, the stories she came across, and the joys and hardships she faced. I view it as essential reading for anyone planning to visit the Top End of Australia. I first read it while I was mapping out the plot of my own book, and was blown away by Ernestine Hill’s evocation of The Territory

By Ernestine Hill,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Territory as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Timeless because it is history, timelessly popular because it is so full of life, colour and adventure. This is the story of the first 100 years of white exploration, pioneering and settlement in Australian tropic north.


Book cover of Salt Creek

Alison Booth Why did I love this book?

I love this novel for its beautiful imagery, its character development, and its deeply sensitive portrayal of the clash of civilisations that was to prove so devastating to the countryside as well as to its original inhabitants. Salt Creek tells the story of the European settlers’ incursion in the mid-1850s into a remote coastal region of South Australia, and it focuses on one particular family’s struggles with establishing themselves in a land that already belonged to others. 

By Lucy Treloar,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Salt Creek as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'A part of me will always live at Salt Creek though it is on the far side of the world...'The comfortable and respectable life Hester Finch now leads in Chichester, England, could not be further from the hardship her family endured on leaving Adelaide for Salt Creek in 1855. Yet she finds her thoughts drawn back to that remote, beautiful and inhospitable outcrop of South Australia and the connections she and her siblings forged there, far from the city society in which they had been raised: encounters with the few travellers passing along the nearby stock route and the local…


Book cover of The Commandant

Alison Booth Why did I love this book?

I love this novel by Jessica Anderson for its subtle psychological insights and its powerful evocation of an Australian colony in its early days. Set in the 1830s, The Commandant tells the story of a young Irish woman arriving in Australia to visit her sister, whose husband runs the Moreton Bay penal settlement, where he is much-hated by the convicts for his fanatical implementation of punishments. Becoming the object of a convict’s obsession, Frances feels responsible for that convict’s brutal lashing and is changed by the experience. The Indigenous people are shadowy figures in the background, for Anderson’s focus is on the brutality of the penal regime and how it affects a young woman’s innocence. 

By Jessica Anderson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Commandant as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The penal colony of Moreton Bay is under the command of Patrick Logan, a man not afraid of brutal discipline. But his rule is being questioned, and the arrival of his sister-in-law Frances will change everything. An unforgettable tale of power, duty, and humanity, from one of Australia's most esteemed writers.



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By K.R. Wilson,

Book cover of Call Me Stan: A Tragedy in Three Millennia

K.R. Wilson Author Of Call Me Stan: A Tragedy in Three Millennia

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Why am I passionate about this?

Author Novelist Reader History enthusiast Occasional composer Sometime chorister

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What is my book about?

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What is this book about?

Long-listed for the 2022 Leacock Medal for Humour

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