Leah Purcell has a vivid memory of her mother reading Henry Lawson’s classic colonial short story The Drover’s Wife to her. Purcell was only five years old but it made a strong impression, seeming to speak to her about her own life.

Leah Purcell The Drovers Wife the Legend of Molly Johnson

In Lawson’s story, the wife – who he doesn’t name – is looking after her children in an outback hut while her husband is away droving. At sunset one day, a snake slithers under the house. She puts the children to bed and waits with her dog for the snake to reappear, killing it when it emerges at dawn.

“I think it was the first time that I could actually use my imagination in a story,” says Purcell.

“I had no father figure around and Mother, you know, she done everything. She was my mother, my father, my hero, and I saw her as the drover’s wife, and I was just that little boy. And I would actually get up at the...