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Jessica - Bryce Courtenay

Paperback Published: August 2006
ISBN: 9780143004615
Number Of Pages: 688

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Jessica is based on the inspiring true story of a young girl's fight for justice against tremendous odds.

A tomboy, Jessica is the pride of her father, as they work together on the struggling family farm. One quiet day, the peace of the bush is devastated by a terrible murder. Only Jessica is able to save the killer from the lynch mob – but will justice prevail in the courts?

Nine months later, a baby is born . . . with Jessica determined to guard the secret of the father's identity. The rivalry of Jessica and her beautiful sister for the love of the same man will echo throughout their lives – until finally the truth must be told.

Set in the harsh Australian bush against the outbreak of World War I, this novel is heartbreaking in its innocence, and shattering in its brutality.

About the Author

Bryce Courtenay was born in South Africa and has lived in Sydney for the major part of his life. He is the bestselling author of The Power of One, April Fool's Day, The Potato Factory, Tommo & Hawk, Jessica, Smoky Joe's Cafe, Four Fires, Whitethorn and Brother Fish.


Out in the south-west along the banks of the Murrumbidgee the snakes come out at sundown to dance. The mulga, gwardar and the Eastern brown, the clumsy death adder, black-headed python and the harmless carpet snake. They. sway and twist in streaks of twirling ribbon, loops of gunmetal grey and whips of bronze catching the late afternoon sun, reptilian lightning that sends puffs of grey dust into the baking air.

This is country to make hard men whimper and bite their knuckles in their sleep. Old man saltbush tethers the black soil to an endless horizon. By sunrise the day is already grown hazy from the heat. Dark pre-Cambrian rock and mulga scrub tremble in an illusion of moisture. Men see for the most part through squinting eyes plagued by a constant vexation of black flies that suck the moisture from creased skin and feed on the salty sweat stains on their flannel shirts. It is a place where the heat is so severe birds lose their strength to fly and drop like stones from the breathless air.

The women, their hips wide and slack from too many pregnancies, walk with a slow gait. It is as though their shadows contain the weight of their weariness, dark sacks dragging along the ground behind them. Their faces are hidden in the interior of deep bonnets, but it is their hands which first betray them, blunt, calloused fingers and broken nails, skin raw and puffy from the constant use of lye soap and slap of wet flannel against a corrugated washboard.

This is a place to break your heart and leave no sentiment to alleviate a life of bitterness and struggle. Three hundred days a year a hard-faced sky mocks any hope of rain and every miserable dog's day dawn is much the same as the one before it. Monotony and stoicism are constant companions, imagination a bad habit to be quickly stamped out of young children so that they may be made useful and compliant. It is here where, at dusk, the snakes dance on the banks of the Murrumbidgee.

Jessica waits quietly with a shotgun cradled in her arm, her green eyes intent on the scene before her. In the pocket of her pinny are three cartridges, their faded red cases having been used and re-filled half a dozen times with birdshot, and tamped with wadding and cordite with a little black powder added to save money. Joe has shown her how and Jessica can now do it in her sleep: head-wadding, charge, mid-wadding, birdshot, cap and wadding and crimping. The worn cardboard casings with their reseated copper crowns are filled so that the birdshot will effectively spray in a three-foot arc at a distance of twenty feet, well, sometimes, anyway.

At first light when Jessica ventured out of the home­stead to the chookhouse she saw that six chicks had gone missing from under the black hen, all taken by snakes, their serpentine slicks plain to see in patches of yard dust leading to the chicken run.

She'd vowed to get the bastards at sundown. Six of them for six chicks. Now, watching the dancing snakes, Jessica repeats her promise silently, 'Six of you mongrels are gunna pay tonight.' She knows she'd be safe cursing them out loud, warning them of the revenge that's coming to them. Snakes are deaf and can't see too well either, so they're not likely to hear you coming except for the vibrations you make as you walk. They can smell, though – with their trembling forked tongues they pick up tiny particles on the ground and transfer them to the roof of their mouths where they have their smelling organs. 'Like having your nose inside your mouth,' Joe says. Jessica doesn't know how he knows stuff like this, he's not a book reader and claims he's never had any proper learning. He can read all right when he's got a newspaper, but like lots of folk his lips move and sometimes you can hear him whispering, struggling with a word, trying to hear its sound, make sense of it.

Jessica has taken care to stand downwind so the snakes won't smell her and cop her presence. When they've come together to dance like this, on the banks of the river, though, they don't seem to take the same notice of approaching danger.

High up in the dark foliage of the river gums the cockatoos and galahs are carrying on a treat, while the cicadas, ready for nightfall, singe the air with their humming. It's all noise and mayhem at sunset, the bush doves kookarooing, crows cawing, grey herons calling out across the river and the kookas adding a good bit of laughing to the night anthem. Meanwhile, below the gum trees in the dust on the river bank the snakes are lost in silence.

Jessica feels, rather than hears, the smooth metallic click as she breaks the twelve-bore, then reaches into the pocket of her pinny for a cartridge and punches the cardboard cylinder into the left-hand barrel, pushing it firmly home. It feels solid and reassuring, the flat metal detonation cap warm against the pad of her small thumb. She charges the second barrel and then snaps the shot­gun back into place, keeping her thumb well clear. Now she hears the well-oiled click as the breech closes back onto the stock. Two barrels, won't get away with just the one, she thinks, resenting the extra shot.

Ideally Jessica wants one always ready up the spout in case of an emergency. What she's about to do is not good practice and she knows it. But she's only got one chance and is going to need both barrels if she wants six of the bastards. She can almost hear her father's voice: 'Snakes are risky bastards. Browns have a bad temper, come after you soon as sniff, follow you home, hunt you down. They strike high so the poison gets to yer heart sooner. Always keep one up the spout, girlie.

'You're too bloody cocky with that shotgun,' Joe would say when she was ten years old and allowed to use the four-ten. 'One day you'll come undone, girlie. What then, hey?'

The bite from a six-foot mulga can kill a child, paralyse it in twenty minutes, and a healthy-sized Eastern brown will do a grown man in good and proper if the poison has an hour to work its way up to the heart. Jessica is eighteen and a bit over five feet tall, with her best Sunday button-up boots adding a further inch if she's lucky. With her short fair hair, narrow hips and flat chest, she could pass for a small lad if it weren't for her pinny. Last time she went into Narrandera she weighed in at a hundred and two pounds on the chemist's scale. A bite from an Eastern brown and she's dead as a doorknob in less than an hour, no risk.

But she's got pluck. 'If I can't take six of the buggers with two barrels, might as well give the game away,' she mutters.

Jessica knows she shouldn't be down here by the river side. If Joe found out he'd be mad as hell. In his book there's enough trouble out there looking for you, without you going looking for it. Jessica has a third cartridge in her pocket but doubts she'll have time to use it if things go really crook. It doesn't occur to her to try for as many snakes as she can kill with one shot and keep one up the spout for an emergency. Six chicks, six snakes, an eye for an eye, that's how her stubborn mind works. 'Too stubborn for your own good,' Joe always says to her.

Jessica is her father's girl, from her stockman's hat to the tips of her sturdy work boots. A small farm needs a boy and Joe being landed with two girls instead was a big disappointment. Joe brought up Jessica to be that son he'd never had. So it's Jessica's older sister, Meg, who takes the role of the girl — their mother, Hester, says Meg is a born lady.

Jessica has always been different, though half of her difference came about because Joe needed someone to help around the place. The other half, her love of the land, her understanding of it, seems to have been born in her.

That is how it was in the Bergman family, then. Hester and Meg indoors, baking, doing needlework, cooking, putting up preserves, churning butter, separating cream and collecting gossip. Jessica and Joe outdoors, doing all the things needed to keep a farm going.

Joe, who knew nothing about bringing up girls anyway, left Meg to his wife and took Jessica under his wing. He didn't think about what it might mean to Jessica's future; all he knew was that the little brat was always hanging around his knees, clutching at his moleskins, wanting to know things. So he just let her get on with it.

Jessica reckons she's as good on the property as any boy her age. Maybe, now she's eighteen, she can't run as fast as a young bloke, but she can shoot as straight, ride as well as any of the young jackaroos in a muster, slaughter and dress a beast, crutch a sheep, brand a calf, build or fix a fence or plough and sow a paddock with winter oats. She's a fair bushman, too. Since she was seven years old, Jessica has been Joe's right-hand man.

This is fine by Jessica. Joe is a tough bastard but fair and you can't ask for much more than that if you love someone as much as Jessica loves Joe. Joe's not one to show his feelings, even to his daughter. Tough bugger, other blokes said so too.

ISBN: 9780143004615
ISBN-10: 0143004611
Audience: General
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 688
Published: August 2006
Publisher: Penguin Books Australia
Country of Publication: AU
Dimensions (cm): 19.8 x 12.9  x 4.4
Weight (kg): 0.48
Edition Number: 1

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Bryce Courtenay

About the Author

Bryce: in his own words...

I was born illegitimately in 1933 in South Africa and spent my early childhood years in a small town deep in the heart of the Lebombo mountains.

It was a somewhat isolated community and I grew up among farm folk and the African people. At the age of five I was sent to a boarding school which might be better described as a combination orphanage and reform school, where I learned to box - though less as a sport and more as a means to stay alive.

But I survived to return to a small mountain town named Barberton in the North Eastern part of the country.

Here I met Doc, a drunken German music teacher who spent the next few years filling my young mind with the wonders of nature as we roamed the high mountains. His was the best education I was ever to receive, despite the scholarship I won to a prestigious boy's school and thereafter to a university in England where I studied Journalism.

I came to Australia because I was banned from returning to my own country.

This was due to the fact that I had started a weekend school for Africans in the school hall of the prestigious boy's school I attended.

One day the school hall was raided by the police who then branded me a Communist as they considered educating Africans a subversive act.

While studying journalism, I met a wonderful Australian girl.

"Come to my country!" Benita invited.

I did, and soon after arriving in Australia, married her. Benita gave me three splendid sons, Brett, Adam and Damon. Brett, who married Ann has given me three lovely grandsons, Ben now 14, Jake is about to turn 12 and Marcus is almost 6 years old.

I have lived all my Australian life in Sydney (the nicest place on earth) and, until I started writing fiction, made my career in advertising working as a copywriter and creative director.

At the age of 55 I decided to take the plunge. I had been telling stories since the age of five and had always known I would be a writer some day, though life kept getting in the way until I realised that it was either now or never.

Bryce Courtenay died at his home in Canberra, Australia. He was 79. Courtenay is survived by his second wife Christine Gee and his children Adam and Brett.

Visit Bryce Courtenay's Booktopia Author Page

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