Book Review by A. G. Moore
Stella Budrikis’ excellent biography, Susan, takes readers on a journey through the hardscrabble existence of Australia’s early European settlers. The eponymous Susan is Susan Mason, the author’s great–great grandmother. The characters in this book are real people who struggle in the harshest of circumstances. Fortune, will and physical endurance allow some to reach maturity and raise families. Survival is a lottery in which perseverance and serendipity play equal roles.
Nature granted Susan the ability to bear numerous children. Fortune took many of these from her. This was a common occurrence at that time, but more likely to befall those who were crowded into the hull of a ship or crammed into a fetid slum where immigrants congregated.
Susan eventually migrated to England, where she settled with her husband, David Whybrew, a soldier in the British army. David’s income barely supported the growing Whybrew family. Throughout her sojourn in Australia and England, Susan had repeated contact with the police. Indeed much of the record cited in this book is derived from official court records. Budrikis does not shrink from the less attractive aspects of Susan’s life. It is the author’s unflinching treatment of her subject that renders her narrative credible.
One of the several Whybrew children who did reach maturity, Eliza, was destined to be the author’s great grandmother. Eliza’s life followed a very different path from Susan’s. This may have been partly due to temperament and partly to the influence of her husband, William Beales. Beales and his family were active in the Salvation Army. This involvement likely offered Eliza the sort of stable guidance that had not been available to Susan.
In the “Afterword” to Susan, Budrikis wonders if she’s done right by her forbear in telling this story without attempting to conceal blemishes. Budrikis writes, “I hope that by telling her story I have given her, and other women like her, a recognition that they were denied in their lifetime”. Indeed she has. Susan Mason made choices that put her afoul of the law and forged for her a chaotic path through life. But those choices also helped her to survive. Susan Mason and thousands of others had only their wits and their determination to help them prevail over daunting odds. They survived. When life is stripped to its barest essentials, that becomes the ultimate test of character.
Stella Budrikis has written a book about more than family legacy. It is about a time and place in history, about pioneers who were essential to the foundation of Australia. The book is informative and entertaining. I highly recommend it.
Ms. Budrikis maintains a website that traces her family history. It is a fascinating read.