Atale of love, loss, grief and healing wrapped in magical realism and suitable for a wide range of readers. Families in this story have lost loved ones and are either handling their grief, not handling it, or ignoring it. They carry suppressed fears, squashed desires, and unfulfilled dreams but The Emporium of Imagination is here to help. And help it does, in the strangest of ways. I know the town of Boonah (and the camel farm) and felt an affinity as the story unfolded but apart from Story Tree café and Blumbergville Clock in High Street, similarities ended there.
A man, a cat and a key arrive with The Emporium and set up shop in the main street of Boonah, offering special ‘phones’, strange notes on scraps of paper and the ability to hear human grief in all its stages. Although this may sound gloomy, at worst depressing, the characters keep things moving, offering the reader many POVs and scenarios ranging from timidity to teen humour, guilt to anger, regret, and worse case scenarios like replaying the death of a loved one. The narrative often has dreamlike suspension of disbelief but the heartache is real.
The Emporium’s former custodian, Earlatidge Hubert Umbray, gives way to a new curator who decides not to answer the special ‘phone’ but believes the townspeople of Boonah deserve hope ‘I can’t take that away from them’ although cynical me wonders if it would give false hope? Surely a nicely worded pep talk about getting on with your life and following those cherished dreams would work? However, the story is more restrained than that and gently imparts the whys and wherefores of coping with grief.
I felt the inside of The Emporium was a bit Disney-movie. While I tried to put my own emotions into a character, the practicable side of me could not relate to uncertain concepts. Would a final ‘phone call’ to the recently deceased help the person in mourning, or would it tip them over the brink? Items include Ladybird lollipops (nobody pays for goods); special connections to memorabilia; a notebook which turns up in the oddest places for select clientele; and a subtle cat with an unsubtle name.
In the last pages of the book I found the experiences of author Tabitha Bird just as moving as the characters in the book (poor dear Enoch) but that’s just me. There is an end page headed The Owner’s Guide To Grieving in keeping with The Emporium’s roving notebook, offering the opportunity to write in ‘A quiet space to simply be’. I read a new library book so abstained from writing on the page—I bet someone does.
Now I’m off to bake Bedtime Muffins from Isaac’s (Enoch’s dad) recipe!
In her memoir ‘The Only Way Home’ and YouTube video (see below) Liz Byron explains what it meant leaving her roller-coaster marriage, career, family dinners, large library and a comfortable, charming home to trek 2,500 kilometres through rural Queensland on the rugged Bicentennial National Trail.
Liz, mother and semi-retired sociolegal researcher, writes from her New South Wales Northern Rivers home. Her writing is confronting and visceral in its honesty.
Each step on this radical journey of self-discovery helped Liz make sense of grief and trauma, including the tragic loss of one of her four children. Liz’s fierce independence was confronted daily as she tackled details of equipment, food supply, lack of drinking water, thorny grass seeds and the hilarious will of her two devoted donkeys Grace and Charley.
What advice would you give to someone wanting to do a long distance trek?
LIZ : From the various facets involved in a long-distance trek, consider where you might lack experience and spend time acquiring the experience you need. From thirty years of overnight bushwalking, I was experienced at living outdoors, packing light, negotiating difficult terrain and camping, cooking in all weathers. However, I had no experience with large animals and allowed myself four years to get to know my donkeys, learn how to handle them on the road and have them face as many scary situations as I could predict might arise.
What was your most essential piece of equipment?
LIZ : My hoof pick. Everything about trekking depends upon the donkeys’ feet.
You talk about having to learn about adjusting your standards of what to expect, how did the BNT trek compare to what you expected?
LIZ : Adjusting my standards was more about adjusting my expectations of other people and myself. A strong theme in the book is that – because of all my outdoor experience – physical challenges were easily overcome. It was almost as if surviving physically demanding situations was no longer part of the lessons I needed to learn. The challenges were much more about relating to people from whom I needed help – because of the extremely dry conditions and NEVER part of my trek plan – so accepting my limitations, and theirs, changed my standards of what to expect in all sorts of social situations.
What was the most important thing that working with donkeys taught you about yourself?
LIZ : Accepting the way things are, like donkeys do, is far healthier, for both mind and body, than getting lost in thoughts about how things should be.
Several years have passed since you walked the Bicentennial National Trail, have the lessons you learned endured?
LIZ : Yes. Because lessons learned from experience, in other words, from our mistakes, naturally endure.
Thank you, Liz, I enjoyed reading ‘The Only Way Home’. Your unique memoir shows strength of purpose and insights into your remarkable journey.
A memoir of singularity of purpose and a deep determination to overcome all obstacles. Liz Byron challenges herself in every way, mentally, physically and spiritually to start afresh by walking the rugged Bicentennial National Trail towards a new, independent life. The BNT on the Great Dividing Range on the east coast of Australia has some of the most unforgiving landscapes in the world. Her companions on this journey are two donkeys with the wisdom of ages and Liz’s symbol, the wild watchful wedge-tail eagles.
‘The Only Way Home’ is an intimate memoir with a heartbreaking look into family life, the pain Liz suffers and the repercussions for those involved. It also captures the freedom of walking through wide-ranging bushland, fording rivers, and making camp with two charming character-filled donkeys Grace and Charley.
Liz had previously done a lot of bushwalking but without encountering such a harsh and challenging environment. Taking the extremes of drought country in their stride, her donkeys are clever and observant, and prove they can be stubborn for good reason. Humans just have to work out what those reasons are! Liz shows love and respect for her companions, their hardiness and their intuition. Grace and Charley each carried a load, packed and balanced, and it was amusing how they behaved when released to graze.
Interspersed with walking the Queensland section of the BNT, a trail originally intended for horses, Liz writes candidly about her fractured marriage, the love of her children and losing a child, the trauma of her own childhood and soothing meditation. A mixture of grief, courage and sheer willpower drives her forward as she launches herself into a second life in one of the most demanding ways imaginable.
Admittedly I am not an adept hiker but some of the trials and tribulations Liz encountered would have had me stumbling to the nearest township, flagging down a four-wheel drive and heading back to Brisbane. At one stage the soles of Liz’s hiking boots came adrift, not to mention needle-thin grass seeds digging into her skin. Sometimes the track was marked and sometimes it was not; they traversed barren sections, steep topography, waist high grass, slippery rocks and rested at the occasional restorative oasis.
Along the way, Liz kept a journal rather than taking photographs and if she stopped for the night in solid accommodation in lieu of pitching a tent, all she needed was a table and chair to update her journal. Liz often met farmers, cattlemen, country people, who were informative and willing to help with advice on the terrain ahead, plus an overnight paddock for her two stalwart pals.
Memorable lines from Liz ‘Folks in rural, remote, drought-stricken Queensland understood only too well the interdependent nature of being human. I, on the other hand, was trying to resolve an inherent dichotomy: seeking my independence as a woman at the same time as being a homeless wanderer heavily reliant on cattle station people’ – Liz is a vegetarian and food was a source of uneasiness, both getting and eating, and fresh produce was always a joy – ‘My commitment to receive help graciously was Step One.’
I liked the way the chapters and timeline were introduced. Backstory arrives at pertinent intervals with sections of Liz’s life before, during and after she walks the Bicentennial National Trail. Through Liz’s retelling more shocking revelations emerge, putting her quest in sharper focus.
Just reading, without travelling alone for 2,500 kilometres with two Equus asinus companions, this memoir invoked many emotions in me. From an embattled marriage to conquering those kilometres, Liz shares the insights gained on her path to independence and healing.
In her introduction, Liz Byron says ‘It was 2006, when I had been writing academic material for 20 years, before I decided to try writing my story. I had five lecture pads full of journal notes about the 2,500 kilometre trek I’d recently completed with my two donkeys. This seemed like a good place to start. And so I did. I wrote on and off for nearly fifteen years before feeling as if I understood myself and my life well enough to explain why I had done the trek.’ My thanks to Liz Byron for a review copy, the book is available on her website here.
The Bicentennial National Trail - AustraliaThe Bicentennial National Trail (BNT) originally known as the National Horse Trail, is one of the longest multi-use, non-motorised, self-reliant trails in the world, stretching 5,330 kilometres from Cooktown, Queensland, through New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory to Healesville, 60 km north-east of Melbourne, Victoria. This trail runs the length of the rugged Great Dividing Range through national parks, private property and alongside wilderness areas. The BNT follows old coach roads, stock routes, brumby tracks, rivers, fire trails and was originally intended for horses. The Trail would take most of one year to walk.