The Art Deco Mansion in St Lucia


The third book in The Midnight Sun to Southern Cross trilogy is at the printers! Many have been fascinated by photos of this magnificent mansion since it was built in the early 1950s.

I grew up as ‘a girl whose grandfather built an elevator in his house.’

That’s the Anniversary of WA Back’s death in 1974, just weeks after my wedding on 16 March. I little thought that, as we said our vows at Binna Burra, Granddad relived his own with Christina Hart. That vista across the valleys of the Lamington Plateau and the New South Wales border must have sparked in Grandad flashbacks of his early settler years and courtship just over eighty kilometres away. Just two weeks before, missing his soul mate of sixty–two years, he wrote us a reflective letter–which I quote in the book.

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If we were superstitious, the omens might have halted my marriage.

Read the story: 

The heavens opened, emptying out a deluge worthy of Noah’s time. Cyclone Pam, the third in three months, has crossed the coast at Coolangatta near Binna Burra, just where we planned to marry three days later on a mountain top in the open air—if all the road landslides were cleared. 

A torrent of water buffeted our little red Volkswagen. The windscreen wipers made frantic but futile swipes. Defiant of black skies, we pushed on in a car painted with hippy flowers, nostrils and nose hairs. We plodded north from Sydney to Brisbane, a city already sodden and putrid from its record–breaking floods of late January 1974. 

Brisbane had the stink of debris and mud piled up in battered houses. Mounds of riverweed and flotsam lay engorged on the riverbanks. We could implement Plan B: to hold the ceremony in a small wooden church at Beechmont. 

But joy came on the morning of the wedding. The road up the mountain was clear. Despite threatening skies, the sun sparkled on raindrops and the golden splashes of Regent bowerbirds’ wings. Rainbows shone blessings through mist in the first fine day since the floods. Breezes frolicked around ladies’ dresses—and threatened to steal the marriage certificate, held by a pebble on a table overlooking the cliff. 

We revelled in the surrounding richness for all the senses; beauty displayed in rainforest trees festooned with ferns, staghorns and orchids; the fragrance of rain on volcanic earth. Hopkins’ poetry extolled the grandeur of God. Music flowed from a string quartet, from recorder and tabor. Kookaburras and parrots laughed with us; brilliant kingfishersflashed from trees.

Granddad beamed in delight, encircled by his prolific family. 

(Excerpt from Burn My Letters)

A joyful outdoor wedding at Binna Burra on the first sunny day after the 1974 floods and cyclone.
A patron of the arts and generous philanthropist
As a patron of the arts, WA Back  sponsored the organ in a recently built St Lucia Presbyterian Church (opposite Ironside State School, where I endured culture shock after correspondence lessons in Western Queensland.) He enabled his niece Perry Hart to study violin in Holland soon after World War II. WA bought his wife a piano and lessons, encouraged Giuseppe (‘Charles’) Ive to branch beyond house painting and plastering, to paint murals. On his travels he bought glassware and sculpture, and took his family through galleries and museums, historical sites and landmarks.  

WA Back was thought a ‘soft touch’ to anyone telling a hard-luck story. Executors of his will struggled to cover all the bequests he donated to charity.

Grandad was an inspiration to his many descendants and to all who knew him. Read more of the life of a 16-year-old emigrant from Finland, who embraced the opportunities of his new life under the Southern Cross.
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We launched 'Midnight Sun to Southern Cross' in the St Lucia church where Grandad was an elder. The organ was in full voice.

Where better to launch Midnight Sun to Southern Cross than in this church and to hear again the organ that WA Back donated?


Let’s Celebrate!

Inspiration from forebears

What would my life have been if my grandfather had stayed in Finland? If he had joined his brother and nephew to expel the Russian overlords, been conscripted into their army? If he had married a blue-eyed, blonde Finnish Swede and fathered his dynasty there I would weave between three languages like my northern relatives do.

But on 26 November 1902, Wilhelm Anders Back (‘WA’) embarked on that 15,000 kilometre voyage south to safe haven near the pounding breakers of the Pacific Ocean.

Wilhelm Anders Back aged 16 in 1903

Wilhelm Anders Back aged 16 in 1903

In the Great Southland, enterprising settlers might make a fortune, or they might lose all. Some ventures would be dashed, like breakers that come to grief on rocks. Others would take wings. WA had an eagle eye for opportunities and the talons­—or gnawed fingernails­—to seize them. In tough times he would horse-trade dairy farms, houses, a Barrier Reef island, factories, Italian art.

Granddad journeyed long distances from his hub in the lush New South Wales hinterland to forge his pastoral empire in the arid outback. Where his sons worked the land and raised children, but escaped to the coast to replenish their spirits.

The sea is in our blood.

[Excerpt from “Midnight Sun to Southern Cross“]

This week marked the 45-year anniversary of Granddad’s death

We last saw Granddad when he presided as patriarch at my own wedding. He passed away two weeks later. Out of range, on our honeymoon, we missed his funeral.

Ruth-Toni-Bonetti-Wedding-1974-WA Back

I little thought that, as we said our vows, Granddad relived his own with Christina Hart. But two weeks before, missing his soul-mate of sixty–two years, he wrote us a reflective letter:

“As I look back now on our marriage at Mooball on the 4thNovember 1908, I can remember it as plain as if it were yesterday. The wedding was in our new home that I had finished only a few days before, and the Minister from Byron Bay came by train to perform the ceremony.”WA-Back_wedding-1908-Mooball_NH

His letter described how he surprised his bride with the gift of a piano—her family were musical—and he’d then phoned to engage a teacher. (Aha! Some musical heritage.)

They knelt at the bedside and asked God to protect and guide and bless them through their lives.

“And we certainly asked for some material blessings that in the eyes of the Lord were very small and he blessed us with very much more than ever we contemplated or asked for. If you take God into your partnership I am sure it will be even better than what you anticipate.”

[Excerpt from “Burn My Letters“]

What Granddad taught me

An old-timer from Byron Bay area hinted tactfully that one does not become a self-made millionaire (as Granddad was reputed to be) without cutting some corners. Some families draft ancestors into pens of white or black sheep, with little variegation between. My books attempt an honest perspective, while giving credit where it’s due. Avoiding all conflict makes for dull reading and robs readers of the opportunities to learn from generational patterns. As I have done.

My grandfather passed on his ingenuity, vision and breadth of experience. Often I remember his motto of ‘Just do it.’ He had faith and an ability to turn difficult situations to positives, to innovate and find opportunities at every turn.

Granddad took seriously his role as patriarch and had a genuine care for his flock of descendants, relatives and emigrant Finns. He was concerned to establish his sons and grandsons, while giving women opportunities rare for that era.

He inspired us all with his generosity and enterprise.

I feel blessed and grateful for my forebears, who gave vision how I might forge my own life.