Man Booker Prize-winning writer Roger McDonald reflects on his mother's legacy and the winner of the essay competition named after her
Man Booker Prize-winning writer Roger McDonald reflects on his mother's legacy and the winner of the essay competition named after her

Extraordinary legacy of Lorna McDonald, historian

Roger McDonald has been visiting Rockhampton since the end of World War II when his father brought the four-year old to meet his grandparents who lived here.

"Where the Red Rooster outlet is on Archer St, that was my grandparents' house," he said.

"This is before it was the highway so it was a quiet little street."

This week, he returned as a judge for the Lorna McDonald Essay Prize, which commemorates his mother's life and work.

 

Lorna McDonald
Lorna McDonald

 

The competition arose out of a friend's suggestion for his mother's 100th birthday.

Mrs McDonald spent the last half of her life travelling around Central Queensland, describing the history of the people who lived on the land with her trademark accuracy and integrity.

But the essay prize was never intended for people to mimic her.

"We told Lorna that this prize was not about her personality, that we wanted people to surprise us with their own views and values," Mr McDonald said.

"She would be happy if somebody wrote an equally monumental history one day from a totally different perspective."

Mrs McDonald came from what her son describes as a "hard struggle farming family which went backwards for three generations".

She left school early to look after her widowed father, and fell in love with a theological student when she was still a young girl in Victoria.

"The first time Dad brought her to meet his parents in Rockhampton, she fell in love with the area," Mr McDonald said.

 

Social historian Dr Lorna McDonald wrote a book based on letters written to and by Joan Archer in 1906 to 1908 while she attended boarding school overseas.
Social historian Dr Lorna McDonald wrote a book based on letters written to and by Joan Archer in 1906 to 1908 while she attended boarding school overseas.

 

"But she didn't live here until Dad got sick and moved back."

Lorna was a dutiful minister's wife but, her son said, she didn't like the role very much.

Instead, she longed for an education.

She enrolled via distance education in an undergraduate history at the University of Queensland, specialising in local history, before undertaking postgraduate studies.

At a time when most women stayed home in the suburbs, Mrs McDonald drove her own little car through flooded creek beds and up dirt roads to meet the people of the Brigalow Belt, several of whom remained her lifelong friends.

"In the late 60s, early 70s when people were still taking up blocks in the scrub, according to government ballots, there was huge resistance to people converting to the introduction of tropical cattle breeds," Mr McDonald said.

"Her doctoral thesis included elements of sociology and economics but she wasn't beating any particular political drum.

"She celebrated the life of the Aboriginal people and the pioneers who lived on the land with a great deal of integrity and accuracy."

Mayor Rex Pilbeam commissioned her to write a history of Rockhampton, during which time Mrs McDonald developed a fascination with the Archer family, travelling to England and Norway in her late 70s to research their roots.

Her legacy is housed in Sydney's Mitchell Library.

In 1995 she was awarded the OAM, in 2000 a D.Litt., Central Queensland University, and in 2007 the John Douglas Kerr Medal of Distinction, Royal Historical Society of Queensland and Professional Historians' Association (Qld).

"Lorna lived an amazingly full life," her son said.

"She outlived her own generation and even some of mine.

"Right up until she died, just over two years ago, she was throwing her knitting needles at the TV in Wandal, at politicians she held in low regard."

When her friends proposed, on her 100th birthday, the idea of an essay competition, Mrs McDonald sat down and wrote three, "just to prove she still could".

This is the third year Roger McDonald, himself an award-winning writer, has represented the family in judging the essay competition named after his mother.

With an increasing number of entrants each year, and more prize money on offer, the goal is to collate entry competitions into a book.

But for the moment, winning entries can be read on the Arts CQ Inc website.

"There are some quite wonderful people in regional areas who feel left out and ignored, who think they might want to live elsewhere," said Roger McDonald.

"For all the hardship my mother encountered, in telling their stories, she always slept really well at night, right up until the end.

"The one thing that would wake her in the middle of the night was to dwell on people's misfortunes.

"Unfeeling politicians and nasty statements they made about people of any kind, that's the only thing that got her down."



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