Two months ago, I began to re-write a novel I started 13 years ago during a May Gibbs Children’s Literature Trust Fellowship residency in Adelaide. What a frustrating first draft that was too with its jumping between three generations, and even the paleogeology of the magnificent monolith called Ngarrabullgan! I put the manuscript out of sight and mind.
But you know when you can’t give up on a story? This was one of them.
Now, my updated novel begins in a small Welsh valley in 1921, and ends in Mt Mulligan, a small coal mining town that used to sprawl below an impressive sandstone monolith in far north Queensland.
Known to the local Djungan people as Ngarrabullgan, the mountain is sacred to the Djungan community, and is part of a their protected National Park.
Mt Mulligan is also the site of Queensland’s worst land-based tragedy, and Australia’s third worst mining accident.
On Monday, September 19, 1921, the Mt Mulligan coal mine beneath Ngarrabullgan exploded. All 75 miners died that day, including two teenage boys who’d gone underground with their fathers.
A quarter of the town’s citizens were gone in an instant in the lethal coal dust explosion.
Ngarrabullgan and Mt Mulligan are part of me too. My uncle, Patrick O’Neill was the last station master at Mt Mulligan in the late 1950s, before the town shut down forever and the rail line ripped up.
When I was a child, we holidayed in the town with my uncle and aunt. I listened to the stories about that tragic day, and the folk myths that came as well.
Forty years later, I finally returned to the ghost town to research my story. Ngarrabullgan’s awesome presence still sent a shiver up my spine.
Back to my pesky EPIC-like nameless manuscript. It jumped between three different decades and three different protagonists. It even dropped back 400 million years ago to describe the monolith, Ngarrabullgan’s origins in an ancient reef. Can you tell I love geology and paleontology?
I told publisher Lisa Berryman about this manuscript two years ago. She said the plot was too complicated and suggested I focus on Lela May Heron, my most interesting character’s story. And to stay in Lela’s era of 1921, not jump all over the decades.
Lisa was right. I loved writing the 1920s era … and Lela May Heron breathed a sigh of relief. At last, I could let this Romani/Welsh mute girl’s story shine. I swear Lisa Berryman is a genius – a story-diviner! Is that a term? Should be.
Two years later, The Memory Keeper has become a very different story. A much better story! It went through ‘the cleansing fires’ – but all good stories are like that to write.
Now … a truly significant date approaches. SEPTEMBER 19, 2021. The 100th year Commemoration of the Mt Mulligan Mining Disaster.
I’ve been asked to write an article about that tragic day and the aftermath for the Queensland Journal of Labour History. Over the next few posts, I’ll share my article’s words and images.
Meanwhile, Ngarrabullgan continues to enthrall all who are wealthy enough to see it these days – the site where the town used to be was bought by a developer.
It’s now a super-luxury eco-resort for millionaires.
My landscape-gene, and my soul cries for Ngarrabullgan.