Book Review: A River Rules My Life, by Mona Anderson

Available in bookshops nationwide.

I feel the word iconic is overused and inappropriately attached to lesser events or items than is deserved. However, I am going to use it to describe this book. A River Rules My Life was first published in 1963 and reprinted 9 times. Why? Because it is engaging, entertaining and captures a world within our nation but apart from the normal Kiwi experiences. To add to this, 50 years on, we can include a view of times past, when battling the elements and life without technology was a possibility.

Mona Anderson arrived in the Canterbury High Country as a new bride in 1940. Her husband, Ron was the manager of this 23,000 hectare Mount Algidus Station. Mona knew little about farm life and this book recounts her experiences. Access to the homestead was by horse and dray across the Wilberforce River. The crossing of the river in all conditions is central to this story, and even with the coming of the truck and tractor, it was still a perilous experience. Mona writes about the ordinary aspects of life: cooking on the wood range, planting a garden, earthquake survival, snows, visitors and above all the people. In such an isolated spot there are always unusual people who choose to live and work away from mainstream society: the cooks, the drovers, shearers, rabbiters and trampers. All these and more become characters in this account of life in the back country.

I loved this book when I read it in my teens and re-reading this new edition reminded me why it was such an engaging read. Mona writes in a very honest and matter of fact voice. Her miscarriage is mentioned almost in passing, but her love of children’s so obvious in her care for her nieces that it made me understand how difficult it must have been. There is no self-pity or dwelling on what might have been. Her relationship with husband Ron is stormy. But the love they have is evident in the many kindnesses she is shown by him.

I loved her description of the new pressure cooker which terrified her. After a test drive, it was put away for ever in the cupboard. This is exactly the same as my reaction to this ferocious beast. It made me chuckle. And this is why this book captured the readers of the 1960s. Where earlier accounts of life in NZ focussed on Man Alone, here we see Woman Alone. And what a woman she is.

This edition is in no way upgraded, nor does it include any extra information. The estate have agreed to its republication in the original format including the black and white photographs. I must admit that a foreword might have allowed the new reader a chance to get the bigger picture. I resorted to Google to discover that Mona Anderson lived to be 94 when she died in 2004. The station was sold in 1973 and she moved with Ron to Darfield.

I hope that this reprint might remind a new generation of the spirit of the New Zealand woman. Mona is resourceful, funny, kind and above all persistent in her determination to survive in this harsh but beautiful environment.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

A River Rules My Life
by Mona Anderson
Published by Harper Collins
ISBN 9781775541141

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