Forefathers, by Nancy Cato

Reviewed by Tash Hughes

At nearly 700 pages long, this epic story takes time to read. It is an interesting concept for a book – the overall central character isn’t born until page 546! The preceding parts are about the ancestors of young Joseph as they dealt with life in white Australia.

The story covers the period from 1824 to 1969, and it moves through the different eras seamlessly. Cato doesn’t waste time describing the differences between times; her characters live their lives, and their world is defined by the story.

Reading this book gives a broad overview of Australian history as it covers convict labour, aborigine extinction in Tasmania, early settlers, gold rushes across the nation, world wars, shearers’ rights, the depression, conscription, the aboriginal referendum, the Vietnam War, land rights, Holt’s disappearance, Collins’ trial and the Granville train disaster. It is an interesting refresher on our history, and often shows both sides of an issue through different characters.

The final part is the most political as much of the story revolves around the conditions of aborigines in the 1960’s and student politics.

Adventures in the story abound, with characters experiencing desert crossings, snowfalls, car crashes, a train accident, snakebite, diseases, a ferry sinking, fishing losses, droughts, floods and infidelities.

In its favour, the movement through generations and branches of Joseph’s ancestral tree ensures that there are characters for every reader to like and dislike. There is also enough overlap that characters in one part of the book may well be mentioned in another part, although it may be in passing.

However, the large time period and many generations covered makes for a vast cast of characters in the book. Although family trees are provided at the beginning of the book, it can still be difficult to keep track of who individuals are and how they interrelate with other characters.

Forefathers, by Nancy Cato New English Library, London, 1983