Wild Chicory by Kim Kelly is a novella-length celebration of stories, family and migration. Each of its chapters has a theme, indicated by the chapter title: for example, “Good White Bread”, “The Fire Trail” and “The Little Milk Maid”; each presents a snippet of life of the Kennedys, an Irish-Australian family, as they migrate from their ancient rural home in County Kerry in the early part of last century, to the streets of Surry Hills – with scenes reminiscent of Ruth Park’s Harp in the South – and beyond. Threading through the stories is the image of “wild chicory”, a plant that figures in both countrysides, and comes to symbolise both the wildness of the characters and the tales they tell, and the connections between generations over time.
A character who figures prominently in the stories is Nell Kennedy, the only daughter in a family of fourteen children, a feisty redhead who wages a battle with a neighbour and comes a cropper over some stolen forget-me-nots. In the way of children, Nell believes this theft is the reason her family uproots from Ireland and travels with nothing to a new home in Australia.
And after thinking about it for quite some time now, Nell realised that there was only one person in all of her family that could be blamed for what had befallen the Kennedys: and that was her small but wicked self. It was Nell’s fault that they’d had to sell up and leave their farm; it was Nell’s fault that Stanly the stag-pig was killed in his stall with his blood all running out into the med along the edge of the stone path there and reaching towards the back step; it was her fault that they were all here now, tossed on the black sea, bound soon, surely, to hit a subtropical iceberg and plunge to the fathomless depths – just like the Titanic. If only she hadn’t teased and taunted Mrs O’Neill, and squirted her with Maggie’s [the cow’s] milk. (p37)
Nell also figures as “the grandmother”, seen through the eyes of her Australian-born, half-Irish, half-Polish granddaughter Brigid. Like her grandmother, Brigid has a gift for storytelling and knows instinctively the vital role it plays in carrying people through the travails of everyday life. She clamours for her grandmother’s oft-told tales, stories that have taken on the feel of fables, knowing telling them will provide solace for her grandmother as she grieves the loss of her husband and lifelong mate.
Being one of twelve kids from an Irish-French Catholic family, I was primed from the start to enjoy this book. My Irish ancestors came to Australia earlier than these Kennedys, but many of the same values were passed down, including the prayers, the superstitions, the valuing of education, the adventurous spirit, the humour and, above all, the love of tall tales. One aspect that Kelly touches on that I found both interesting and moving is the reason she gives for the loss of language: the shame associated with the use of Gaelic, a marker of poverty and ignorance, which subsequent generations sought to erase. I know I was well into adulthood before I realised that certain idioms and cadences common among my family – especially my cousins in the country – were forms more common to Irish English speakers than speakers of standard English, vestiges of a language no longer spoken.
I always hesitate to say that my mum would love this book, but she will; so will my friend Denise. It’s a well told series of connected tales that vividly recreates a slice of Australian-Irish history.
Author: Kim Kelly
Title: Wild Chicory
Publisher: The Author People
Year of Publication: 2015
This review forms part of my 2016 Australian Woman Writers Challenge. Thanks to the publishers for a review copy.