I first read this book when I was ten years old. It was the school holidays and we were staying at our family shack. I spent the most of the eight week break with my nose between the pages rejecting any notion of outdoor play.
Jessica was my first ‘adult’ book. Up until this time, I had only read books such as The Babysitter’s Club series and the Enchanted Forest. But reading Jessica started a Bruce Courtenay marathon with subsequent readings of The Power of One and April Fools Day.
As a ten year old, reading Jessica changed my life. Ten year old me had just lost her German Shephard dog to a snake bite, so when Jessica had lost her dog to a snake bike, I cried my little girl heart out. I can remember Mum coming into the room to comfort me – something Jessica ironically had never experienced. But despite the tears, I couldn’t put the book down.
Reading it again almost twenty years later evoked similar emotions. While I breezed past the pages that upset me as a child, this time I found myself crying my big girl heart out over anything related to pregnancy and babies. But again, despite the tears, I couldn’t put it down.
This time I found the adult me could relate to Jessica in more ways than one. Since moving to Canberra, and often travelling from Melbourne, I have often remarked on the beauty of the Murrumbidgee River. I had forgotten that this was where Jessica was based. Perhaps on some unconscious level I hadn’t forgotten.
The book I had read as a child was still touching be as an adult. This time reading it, I spent the large portion of 5 days with my nose between the pages, rejecting any notion wife/motherly responsibilities. A highly recommended book for young adults +.
Written in 1998, Bryce Courtenay's Jessica follows the life of Jessica Bergman growing up on the banks of the Murrumbidgee River in remote New South Wales. Jessica is the daughter of a proud but rough immigrant father and a nepotistic mother who comes from money but married beneath herself. The neglect Jessica is subjected to from her mother and the contempt from her sister, Meg, is profound. It shapes Jessica's life as a child and adult. Being the youngest daughter of the family, Jessica is raised boy-like to help her father run the property and go to work at the sheep shearing sheds. Consequently, Jessica grows up to become a tomboy and she realises very soon that she doesn't quite fit with neither girls or boys. But she can hold her own, and has a mouth that is both witty and problematic.
"This novel is heartbreaking in its innocence, and shattering in its brutality" - Courtenay.
With such an upbringing it is no wonder Jessica finds herself in love with her best friend from the sheds, who just so happens to come from good money and is the boy her mother and sister try to snag for Meg. Jessica unexpectedly falls pregnant when Meg can't, and this defining moment for a woman (in those times) underscores the ongoing rivalry between the sisters. But Jessica is determined to keep secret the name of the father, to her ultimate detriment.
Courtenay highlights typical themes from the era (between the wars) in this historical novel. Firstly, discrimination against the Aboriginal mobs that live by the Murrumbidgee River and support Jessica over her life; judgement towards Jessica for she has a strong sense of right and wrong even if that wrong is against a disabled boy accused of murder; the struggles of living off the land in drought conditions and; the importance of marrying into money.
Like all Courtenay's books, Jessica is well researched and beautifully written. It is descriptive but not boring and the author presents the plot as you need to read it, not giving away too much. This book will pique the interest of young adults and older adults.
Jessica was adapted into a mini-series in 2004 and stared Leeanna Walsman and Sam Neil. The adaption was voted Best Mini Series at the 2004 Chicago International Film Festival. The book twice won the APA Who Weekly Reader's Choice Award in 1999 and 2000.
Highly recommended - 4.5/5 stars