On a recent trip to the West Coast, on a bleak, drizzly, cold spring day, we drove up the steep and windy hill to the plateau where a hundred years or so ago around 2000 people lived in the mining town of Denniston. It was a busy little community, with churches, shops, pubs, a school, people coming and going. I can't imagine what the place looked like or how thriving it was, as there was nothing about it that was remotely attractive the day we went! We went to the coal museum in Westport, where there is lots of history about Denniston and other early mining communities. The woman there suggested I track this book down, as it gives a very vivid picture of what life was like in this place. And so I did and very glad to have done so.
Places like Denniston, with their inhospitable environment and living conditions, places with difficult or impossible access, places with few women and children to provide those qualities of civilisation, attracted a certain type of person. Generally desperate, broken physically or mentally, impoverished, entrepreneurial, risk takers, but above all tough. One night a young woman with a colourful past and her five-year-old daughter, Rose, ride the crazy journey in a coal wagon up the mountain to the tiny settlement of Denniston. The mother, Eva, is after her man and his supposed stash of gold that she wants a slice of. Young Rose has spent her whole life being on the run with her mother, so Denniston is just another ugly, uncivilised dump that she finds herself in. But being a five-year-old girl with a smile and charm that can melt the toughest miner, she quickly finds her way into the hearts of the locals, and ultimately finds her place in this tough and lonely place.
But a lot of West Coast rain has to fall before things come right for Rose. The coal mine is at the centre of this story: without the mine and the miners there is no Denniston. How the small community deals with accidents, death, fires, industrial action, the rise of the unions were the sorts of things going on in many frontier towns and communities at this time. The West Coast in New Zealand has a reputation for breeding them tough, and this outstanding story, based on real lives and events, deserves to be read and enjoyed simply to gain a greater understanding and appreciation for where many NZers have come from.