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Byron Shire
July 18, 2024

Sex, death, cheese and chickens: a rural memoir

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Dirty Chick by Antonia Murphy
Dirty Chick by Antonia Murphy

Dirty Chick: Adventures of an Unlikely Farmer by Antonia Murphy
(Text Publishing, $32.99).

Review by Mandy Nolan

Moving to the country to run a twee little farm is the dream of many a city slicker tired of the meaningless commute to work and a life marked by the lost hours on screens answering endless emails from people you will never meet.

When born and bred San Franciscan Antonia Murphy and her husband flee the city for life as artisanal farmers on the other side of the world, she quickly finds the life where one tends sweet fluffy ducks, gathers fresh eggs from quaint chickens and milk from the darling cow for one’s breakfast to be the stuff of farm porn. It’s not real. Anyone who has spent any time living on the land knows it’s a visceral experience and certainly not one for the faint-hearted.

In her debut memoir Dirty Chick, while Antonia Murphy satirises artisanal farming, ridiculing her naivety and inadequacy, the reader knows from the outset that this woman is no shrinking violet. For a start, she and her husband sail from the US to New Zealand. I figure anyone who can face a raging sea in a tiny boat is going to master sticking their arm deep into a cow.

I read this book with amusement and at times disgust. Not because the book wasn’t enjoyable – Murphy is a very funny woman and her writing style is a perfect blend of self deprecation, raunch and wry wit – but because the reality of country life is brutal. This discovery is key to Murphy’s journey and her eventual initiation into life as a boutique farmer.

…By now I’d learned that country life is not a pastoral painting. Sure, at various times during the year you might see fluffy white lambs prancing in the tall grass, but those moments were rare. Real country life it turns out involves blood, shit and worms. Also goat abortions.

I grew up in the country. I’ve had my arm up a cow and pulled out a calf. I’ve drunk water full of wrigglers, I’ve mustered cattle and eaten a noisy rooster who once had a name. I don’t fantasise about farm life. I know what it smells like. I know how hard it is. It’s dirty work.

Murphy is clearly in love with the dream. She has a toughness that belies her soft middle-class American city-girl breeding.

Her courage for tackling the unknown with a cracking insight and intelligence is perhaps the secret to her eventual success.

Farm life bloods Murphy and her husband quickly. When they move to the small community of Purua to house-sit for friends who own a small farm it’s not long before they experience the joy of animal predators like ‘the duck rapist’, the thrill of goat impregnation, cattle diarrhoea and shaving a sheep arse.

There is something of the pioneer in Murphy, as she and her family not only struggle with navigating farm life, but also the health problems of her son, Silas, who is diagnosed with a developmental delay.

One of the most charming aspects of the book is the way the small community of Purua embrace the family. When she recounts the drunken nights on strawberry wine watching the kids run wild, talking about goats and eating pig on a spit, I feel a kind of warm nostalgia for a life I could have had.

Dirty Chick: Adventures of an Unlikely Farmer is a must-read for any initiate embarking on country life. It’s a rollicking, in-your-face rural-based riot of sex, birth and death where the hero comes to grips with her inadequacies and learns to make a bloody good cheese. Now that’s a happy ending.

• Antonia Murphy is one of the featured writers at this year’s Byron Writers Festival.

BBWF 2015 Articles & Reviews

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