Book Review

 Professor Clive Moore: University of Queensland.

Davide Cottone’s Canecutter is an evocative account of the life journey of Sicilian immigrants to Babinda in North Queensland. The story revolves around Carmelo, born in 1901 into a typical Sicilian family, who escaped from a poor peasant existence in Italy and from Mussolini’s fascist thugs to begin a new life in Australia. His path was typical of many other European migrants: first the hard life of a canecutter and then, slowly, creating his own farm out of virgin bush. He returned to Italy to find his wife, Elena, who returned with him to what to her was a primitive life on the frontier. Life was always hard, from the travails to Weil’s disease in the cane which killed many canecutters, and the ignominy of internment by his adopted country during the Second World War.

The strength of the book revolves around surviving letters to and from Sicily, which provide the core of the narrative, and the sheer resilience of a family who survived many hardships. Carmelo died in 1985 and Elena in 1987, having created their own dynasty in North Queensland.

While Canecutter is centrally about Sicilian immigrants, it is also the story of many other similar families who carved small cane farms out of the virgin scrub and rainforest of the Queensland coast.  Davide has written this historical novel of his father’s life with literary flare, recording a by-gone era as settlement advanced in early twentieth century Queensland, when success was governed by physical strength to clear the land, and above all perseverance in the face of adversity. Carmelo Cottone was a quiet achiever, capable of confronting misguided authority, whether it be the internment officials or the Premier of Queensland, but essentially, he was a family man who created a new life for both his immediate and extended family. Canecutter is also evocative of life in small North Queensland towns.

Davide Cottone has written a fitting tribute to his family.  He has also advanced our understanding of the evolving sugar industry, from its days of human and horse labour through to mechanization, and of the lives of those who opened the north to agriculture and created a multi-racial society.