The Grass Castle
Two remarkable women and their stories of courage, forgiveness and acceptance from the bestselling author of The Lightkeeper's Wife.
The daughter of a pastoralist, Daphne grew up in a remote valley of the Brindabella Ranges where she raised her family with her husband Doug in a world of world of horses, cattle and stockmen. But then the government forced them off their land and years later, Daphne is still trying to come to terms with the grief of her departure from the mountains and its tragic impact on her husband.
It is during a regular visit to her valley that she meets Abby, a lonely young woman shying away from close contact with others, running from a terrible event in her early teens that has shaped her life. But like the grandmother who cared for Abby when her mother was ill, Daphne is a patient mentor, and slowly a gentle friendship develops between Abby and Daphne.
While Abby's family history means she tries to ignore her feelings for journalist Cameron, Daphne struggles with her own past and the long shadow it may have cast over the original inhabitants of their land. Both women must help each other face the truth and release long-buried family secrets before they can be free.
The Grass Castle is a moving and captivating story of displacement and belonging, love and forgiveness. Above all, it is about the strength which resides in us all: the courage to grow and learn from the past.
The Grass Castle was recently selected for an ABC Radio BIG BOOK CLUB which ran on 666ABC Canberra.
Click here to go to an article about "Writing The Grass Castle" that I wrote for the ACT Writers Centre
Click here for a review of The Grass Castle by Anne Hutton (retired owner of Electric Shadows Bookshop) in RiotACT
The Canberra Times, Sun-Herald (Sydney), The Age (Melbourne) (Karen Hardy)
" a story that will return to you time and time again.'
Books & Publishing, (Joanne Shiells)
‘This book really celebrates Australia: the bush, the creatures, its people and its issues. Well written and full of detail, it is quality commercial fiction for which Viggers deserves a strong following.’
Marion Halligan - author
'Have just finished reading The Grass Castle. Terrific. A page turner. And a very nice addition to Canberra literature.
Newcastle Herald, (Ann-Maree Lowrey)
‘Evocative and thought-provoking.’
Yours magazine (Jenny Brockie)
‘Author Karen Viggers weaves her tale against the backdrop of our love of the land.’
R.L Sharpe (blog: Inside my Worlds)
“The Grass Castle was full of surprising plot twists and I loved how everything and everyone was connected in one way or another. It was an engaging, beautifully written story that I highly recommend. Karen Viggers is a very talented woman and it is clear why she is a bestselling author."
Inspiration for the writing The Grass Castle
I first came to Canberra in 1992 to begin a PhD in wildlife health at the Australian National University. At first, I found it very difficult to settle in Canberra, but not far away were the beautiful Brindabella Ranges (where Miles Franklin used to live), and that is where I soon gravitated. There were scabby granite-domed mountains to explore, and valleys full of grazing kangaroos, indigenous rock art hidden away under rock shelters, fantastic old slab huts constructed by settlers and steeped in history. I felt a strong connection with the landscape, and I spent many hours mountain-biking, camping and hiking there with my husband.
After my PhD, I began a research project studying kangaroos, somewhat similar to Abby, the young ecologist in The Grass Castle. Over many months, I worked alone, day and night in the mountains, and often I took my lunch and sat on the veranda of one of the old huts looking out across the valley and its multitude of kangaroos to the rocky granite crags. I couldn’t help wondering about the lives of the people who had lived there in earlier times, when town was a more than a day’s ride away, and the weather was cold and harsh, and facilities were rudimentary – no gas, no electricity, no rapid transport. From this came the seeds that would develop into Daphne’s story in The Grass Castle.
The settlement history of the Brindabellas was very interesting to me, from the cattle herders who first pushed their stock through the mountains with the help of local Aboriginal people, to the stockmen who ran and mustered their cattle in the high mountains each year. I have loved Elyne Mitchell’s Silver Brumby stories since I was a child on our small family property in the Dandenong Ranges near Melbourne, and so it was also exciting for me to discover the local history of brumby running.
I had other experiences I wanted to thread through the story too, including my work as a vet helping wildlife carers to look after young joeys that had been orphaned after car accidents. Such events are not uncommon on Australian roads and they are very traumatic for drivers and passers-by that stop to help. My compassion for people caught up in these uniquely Australian accidents gave rise to the opening scenes of The Grass Castle. I also wanted to show the diligent attention given by wildlife carers to their joeys, and this gave rise to the minor character, Sandy who is old Daphne’s grand-daughter.
Then there were some issues unique to Canberra that I wanted to write about, especially the complexity, emotion and controversy surrounding management of kangaroos in the bush capital. Having studied kangaroos in the wild, and also having assisted in fertility control trials using immuno-contraception with kangaroos, I felt I was well placed to delve into some of the problems within this issue. I wanted to write about kangaroo culling and management from several perspectives, using my characters to tell the story. It was fantastic to have such a rich background of varied personal experience to draw on, and this is reflected in the book.
Finally, in Canberra each year around the beginning of summer, bogong moths migrate through the city on their way to the mountains. Occasionally, there is a pulse year where moths congregate in higher numbers than usual – this year being one of those occasions: we had moths all through our house early this summer, and my little dog spent many mornings chasing them all over the deck. The moths provide a link to the local indigenous history of moth hunting in the high mountains, and I used this to tie the indigenous people with the story of Daphne’s settler family and their contact with the Aborigines who lived on the land when white people first came to the region: a sad story of displacement and disconnection.
(1) ‘I survive by forgetting’ – Abby, (p. 182). ‘I get lost in memory’ – Daphne, (p. 118). Discuss the different ways in which Abby and Daphne deal with their pasts. what do the two women have to learn from each other?
(2) ‘Country lives in you and you live in country’ – (p.400). In what ways is the idea of home and country important to the characters of The Grass Castle? How do the characters cope when they are displaced or disconnected from their homes?
(3) What does Daphne learn from Johnny Button? How does their relationship continue to impact her throughout her life?
(4) Throughout the book, many of the characters are drawn to the bush as a means of escape. Consider the characters of Abby, Matt and Doug. what does the bush have to offer these characters? what are
they escaping from?
(5) What does Cameron mean when he says that the debate surrounding the culling of the kangaroos in Canberra has become a ‘values’ argument? what is your opinion on the issue?
(6) Throughout the book, Abby struggles with the idea of being an ‘objective scientist’. Do you think his notion is possible? In what ways does Abby struggle to remove past and personal life from her work?
(7) Discuss the role of silence in both Daphne and Abby’s pasts. why do you think Daphne’s father conceals his knowledge of previous inhabitants? And why is Abby’s family never been able to speak about her mother’s death?
(8) Despite Cameron’s efforts, why do you think Abby is unable to commit to a relationship? what changes do you think enable her to consider reconciliation with Cameron in the final scene of the book?
(9) In what ways does Daphne struggle with feelings of guilt in coming to terms with her family’s settler history with indigenous Australians? Do you think Daphne should feel guilty? How does she seek forgiveness for her family’s past?
(10) Discuss the importance of apologies in the resolution of Abby and Daphne’s stories. Particularly consider the moment between Abby and her father (p.198-203) and the final moments shared by Daphne and the indigenous elder, Betty (p.397-407). why do you think these apologies are so important to the characters?
(11) Have the personal stories told in The Grass Castle made you reconsider your understandings about Australia's colonial history in any way?