Mona Anderson, author of A river rules my life (1963) and nine other books, was one of New Zealand’s most popular and successful non-fiction authors of the 1960s and 1970s. Her books gave readers a window into life on a remote high-country station, with self-deprecating humour and an affectionate eye for animals, landscape and country people.
Born in New Brighton, near Christchurch, on 11 March 1909, Amy Mona Holland was the daughter of Alice Maud Holland and William Tarling. She was known by her father’s surname from childhood, though her parents did not marry until after she was born. Mona was raised in South Malvern (Whitecliffs), a village 40 miles from Christchurch where her father worked as a potter. She grew up surrounded by her father’s family, and described herself as an only daughter raised with six boys – two younger brothers and four cousins.
Mona attended South Malvern Primary School, then received her secondary education through private tutoring. She took a strong interest in writing from a young age, and enjoyed writing observational stories about humorous incidents and the pleasures of the natural world around her.
On 25 May 1927, 18-year-old Mona Tarling married Leslie William Tipler at St Paul’s Church in Christchurch. The couple settled in Oxford, North Canterbury, where Leslie worked as a motor mechanic. They were divorced in November 1936.
By 1935 Mona was living in Greymouth, where she worked as a housekeeper for an uncle and aunt. In 1937 a visiting swagman mentioned that Ronald Edward (Ron) Anderson, a high-country farmer, was looking for a wife. After several years of correspondence and occasional meetings, Mona and Ron were married on 15 June 1940 in the Baptist Church in South Malvern.
Shortly after the wedding, Mona Anderson arrived at her new home, Mount Algidus Station, for the first time. Ron managed the 100,000-acre sheep station, which was situated near Lake Coleridge on the Canterbury side of the Southern Alps. Access to the property was across the mile-wide Wilberforce River, which could be crossed only on horseback or by horse-drawn vehicle. In times of flooding, the river was an impassable barrier, making Mount Algidus one of the most isolated and inaccessible properties in the country.
The station was bounded on two sides by rivers and on the third by the spine of the Southern Alps. The property comprised the entirety of the steep Cascade and Rolleston ranges, and included many peaks over 7000 feet high. Sheep grazed over the mountaintops during the warmer months, with musterers staying in huts up to 20 miles from the homestead.
Mona participated in many of the farm’s activities, helping out in the cookhouse, providing basic first aid to farm workers, managing the household and station stores, and on occasion helping with the muster in the backcountry. With no electricity, household chores were laborious and time-consuming. Mona and Ron were unable to have a family of their own, though Mona formed a close maternal bond with her niece Corinne, who visited Mount Algidus regularly.
Mona was a natural storyteller and soon found that people were interested in her stories about backcountry life. A visit by a Weekly News photographer led her to write a series of magazine articles about life on Mount Algidus, which in turn led to her delivering scripted talks on Christchurch radio station 3YA for six years. At the suggestion of an Auckland newspaper editor, she decided to expand her stories into a book during a period of hospitalisation in the mid-to-late 1950s.
A river rules my life, written during Mona’s convalescence, explored the challenges and pleasures of life on Mount Algidus with humour and affection. It described the annual cycle of farm life, negotiating the challenges of snow, isolation and the fickle Wilberforce River. The farm workers provided a cast of comic characters, while Mona’s own stumbles and pitfalls – and salty exchanges with Ron – were recorded in comic detail. The book also traced the station’s gradual modernisation since 1940, including the installation of a radio telephone, an electrical generator and an airstrip.
Publishers A.H. and A.W. Reed agreed to publish the book, at a time when stories about New Zealand’s rural life were selling well. Rural titles were among Reeds’ most popular, and the company hoped to add a woman’s perspective on high-country life to their list (Mona rejected Reeds’ proposed title, ‘High country wife’).
A river rules my life’s first print run of 7500 sold out within three days in July 1963. Mona discovered that the book had broad appeal; she believed that men were drawn to the stories of station life and women to the domestic scenes. She became an overnight celebrity, and Mount Algidus Station an unlikely tourist attraction.
Mona quickly started work on a sequel, The good logs of Algidus (1965), which traced the station’s history from its earliest Pākehā landowners to her own arrival in 1940. It placed particular emphasis on the lives of the women who had lived on the station over the generations, and made comparisons with her own experiences. Over the river (1966) recorded how A river rules my life came to be written, and Mona’s reaction to her sudden fame.
By the mid-1960s, Mona Anderson was a hugely popular chronicler of country life and a bestselling author. A river rules my life had been reprinted nine times by 1967. Her first three books had collectively sold over 100,000 copies by 1971, and been republished in Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States. All her books went through multiple printings, but A river rules my life had the most enduring popularity. New editions continued to appear throughout her lifetime and beyond.
Mona often spoke to schoolchildren about high-country life, and many of her later works were aimed at answering their questions about animals. A wonderful world at my doorstep (1968) lovingly described the birds, pets, livestock and wild animals which roamed Mount Algidus. Three subsequent animal books for children followed: Mary-Lou: the story of a high country lamb (1975), Old Duke: the story of a hard-case horse (1977), and Home is the high country: my animal friends (1979).
Mona also enjoyed writing and researching works of pure history. A letter from James (1972) chronicled the difficult lives of her paternal grandparents. Its sombre third-person narration was a departure from the light-hearted and personalised tone of her Mount Algidus books. Her third history book, The water joey (1976), returned to her usual style, describing the world of nineteenth-century Canterbury wheat mills and the itinerant labourers who were still working on Mount Algidus during her early years there.
Ron Anderson’s health began to fail in the early 1970s, and in 1974 the couple retired to Darfield on the Canterbury Plains. Mona remained a popular public speaker, and continued to publish into her early seventies while working part-time in a friend’s bookshop. She was made an MBE for services to literature in 1980, and her final book appeared the following year. Both sides of the river drew together highlights from her previous Mount Algidus books.
After retiring from writing, Mona focused her energies on nursing Ron and her brother Mick, who died within weeks of each other in 1992. She lived alone in Darfield until 2001, when she moved into a two-bedroom cottage on her niece Corinne’s farm near Kaikohe. Her final public appearance was a reading at the Rawene Public Library shortly afterwards.
Mona Anderson died in her cottage on 3 May 2004, at the age of 95. She directed that her ashes be scattered on Ryton Station (formerly Lake Coleridge Station), near Mount Algidus. Anderson had decided she did not want her ashes scattered on Mount Algidus itself; she had crossed the Wilberforce River for the last time in 1974, and did not wish to cross it again.