True North by Brenda Niall is a joint biography of the writer Mary Durack (Kings in Grass Castles) and the painter and artist Elizabeth Durack. The north that is referred to in the title is the Kimberley region and the Durack cattle stations at Argyle and Ivanhoe carved out by their grandfather Patsy Durack in the 19th century. By the turn of the 20th century their father MPD Durack was running Argyle Downs and Mary and her older brother Reg spent time there when they were very young. However MPD thought his wife shouldn’t live in such rough conditions and he set her and the children up in a grand house in Perth while he remained for most of the year in the Kimberley.
The north, and the family history in the area, was a potent idea for the children, and they loved it when they could stay with their father on the stations (taking a steamer up from Perth to Wyndham). Two sons, Reg and Kim, fell under the spell so much that they tried, with varying degrees of success to make a go of it in the north. The stations, though, were not as lucrative as they once were and the family (once one of the top pastoralists) suffered straitened circumstances.
Mary and Elizabeth longed for the north and were averse to the Perth socialite scene, so when they left school they went to work on the stations as cooks and general help. It was only for two years, and the conditions were very primitive, but this time impressed itself indelibly on both women.
For Mary it would eventually prompt her to write her family’s history in Kings in Grass Castles and to write her children’s books about Aboriginal themes such as The Way of the Whirlwind. Elizabeth collaborated with Mary doing illustrations and covers and when Elizabeth struck out on her own as an artist the royalties from these joint projects kept her going.
The biography shows Mary to be the more considered and sociable of the two, and a ‘soft touch’. She had six children with an older man who chose to live in Broome for most of their married life while Mary remained in Perth, trying to write and raise the children. Elizabeth, by contrast, was more of a free spirit, acting rashly and repenting at leisure (she fell in love in the outback with an attractive but unstable man who’s wealth basically allowed him to drink himself to death). After the death of her first love she then fell for the bohemian writer Frank Clancy but Elizabeth was too much of a free spirit even for him, and the marriage failed leaving Elizabeth broke with two small children. She slowly built up a career as an artist but she was never really financially secure until much later in life.
By entwining the lives of the sisters, Brenda Niall is able to portray a picture of the whole family, and how the bonds of the sisters enriched their respective creative careers (lucky for Niall the sisters wrote prolific letters to each other). Niall also explores how encountering so potent an idea/experience when young can determine the direction of the rest of one’s life.