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The Only Living Lady Parachutist by Catherine Clarke


The Only Living Lady Parachutist is the incredible but true story of Lillian, a mother of two young children. To provide for them she joined the Van Tassel balloon act with her sister Ruby and embarked on a daredevil life, performing trapeze acts underneath hot air smoke balloons and parachuting down to earth. She made numerous death- defying jumps around Australia and New Zealand in the 1890’s.


The novel starts towards the end of Lillian’s life. The accidental death of a grandson has brought her family briefly together. Sometimes history has a horrible way of repeating itself and for Lillian it triggered memories of the death of her own brother many years ago.


To distract her two granddaughters, she has brought out her old scrapbooks crammed with newspaper cuttings about her stunts. She feels she owes it to her brother to tell them the whole truth and to reveal a long-kept family secret which she had kept close to her chest. But Lily knows that spinning lies is the best way to keep her listeners spellbound. So, will she tell all?


Lillian was a real person. Catherine Clarke, the author, found doing the genealogical research about her and her sister ‘addictive, frustrating and fascinating’ as Lillian was very adept at hiding their true origins. The stories she told journalists were often exaggerations or lies as the more thrilling she made their lives sound the bigger the box office takings from the gullible audience were likely to be!


Catherine Clarke has used her creative imagination to great effect to bring the elusive Lillian to life. She paints a picture of a strong, feisty unconventional woman, who was willing to risk all for fame and fortune. There were thorny family relationships as well as a complicated love life to contend with. And frequent clashes with charlatans, showmen and disgruntled crowds when the balloon failed to go up.


Living on Auckland’s North Shore as we do, I was intrigued to read about Lily’s first ascent at the Takapuna Racecourse. The balloon developed a split in the canvas and only rose to a pitiful 50 feet. Lily narrowly avoided colliding with a building, it skimmed over the roof, scattering a flock of seagulls before descending into the paddock on the other side.


“Unable to free herself from the ropes Lillian bounced and jolted like a rag doll behind the balloon. It dragged her for nearly 20 yards across rough ground and over two ditches before some spectators finally held and seized the balloon.”


Undeterred Lillian went on to make another flight from Takapuna but a Southerly breeze blew the balloon over the Rangitoto channel, Lillian landed in the water and nearly drowned.


Yet she still carried on with her reckless life. How much more would it take to persuade her to stop?


I found it a racy read, a real page-turner!


Reviewer: Lyn Potter

http://www.nationwidebooks.co.nz/product/the-only-living-lady-parachutist-9780473571474