I had a physical reaction when I first saw this mug shot of Jessie Hickman (also known as Jessie McIntyre) in a prison logbook from the early 1900s.
Jessie is the unlikely heroine of my novel The Untold. Years ago, when I first set myself on the investigative trail to uncover some evidence of her life and crimes, I took myself out to State Records in western Sydney. The prison logbooks there are ancient-looking things, huge and leather-bound, each page devoted to a single convict, detailing his or her height, weight, distinguishing features, and crimes committed. At the front of the book, the names of the convicts are listed by date in the order of admission, written in swirling copperplate—the male inmates in blue or black ink and the women always in red.
Although I was now deep in research, I nonetheless was formulating elegant arguments in my head about why I didn’t want to write The Untold. I wanted to write fiction, I told myself, and this was a true story, a real flesh-and-blood life. How could I go there?
But then I literally turned a page and found Jessie’s mug shot. The wild woman I had heard about since I was a teenager, growing up near where she roamed, was finally staring back at me.
Old sepia photos have a quality that seems more lifelike than any modern print I have ever seen. And so it was with this image of Jessie Hickman. Her coal-dark eyes spoke worlds. My throat tingled and I felt ill in my gut. Would I be punished for fictionalizing her life?
I photocopied the image at State Records and, I don’t know why, it turned out to be very pink. Not withstanding, I took it home, framed it, and hung it above my desk. For about a year, on and off, I tried to give voice to Jessie Hickman, to tell her story from her point of view. It turns out, though, she was a woman of action, not of words, and despite all my conjuring and extreme willfulness, the words I put into her mouth fell flat at my feet.
Jessie’s mug shot was such an intimidating presence above my desk, I don’t know why I didn’t pull it down and hide it out of sight. But instead she remained there that whole year as I flapped about beneath it. I even began talking to her, saying, “You know, if you don’t want me to do this, there are other things I could do.” But I found no easy release from her story.
By accident, and to my surprise, I did find a way to tell it—through the voice of her buried child. There are no images of the child. In fact, it may not have even existed. But, to me, this child became the most tangible and therefore knowable part of Jessie. It was what made her vulnerable, the small and tender heart she had to forsake in order to survive.
And what is the color of that heart? It is red and pink. And I can’t help but wonder now if while I was on Jessie Hickman’s trail she was beginning to point the way through the red ink and the pink photocopy to say, “Start with my heart. Start there.”
* * *
It is 1921. In a mountain-locked valley, amid squalls of driving rain, Jessie is on the run. Born wild and brave, by 26 she has already lived life as a circus rider, horse and cattle rustler and convict. But on this fateful night she is just a woman wanting to survive though there is barely any life left in her. She mounts her horse and points it towards the highest mountain in sight. Soon bands of men will crash through the bushland desperate to claim the reward on her head. And in their wake will be two more men, one her lover, the other the law, both uncertain if they should save her or themselves. But as it has always been for Jessie, it is death, not a man, who is her closest pursuer and companion. And while all odds are stacked against her, there is one who will never give up on her – her own child, who awaits her. The Untold, both heartbreaking and exhilarating, ultimately sings out for life and then grips onto it, with tooth and broken nail.
* * *
Courtney Collins grew up in the Hunter Valley in New South Wales, Australia. She completed her first novel, THE UNTOLD, in an old postmaster’s cottage on the Goulburn River in regional Victoria. She now lives in a sea-side town in NSW and is working on her second novel.