It was only after his death in 1975 that the public learned that Mr Smith, known for both his skill with horses and highly private nature, had been born Wilhelmina. At the time he competed, women were barred from racing professionally.
Rather than try to pin down the truth of the real-life jockey’s biography, Kerry Taylor gives her imagination free rein in Mr Smith to You, changing dates and names, and drawing inspiration from others with similar stories (her Bill Smith, she acknowledges in her author’s note, is “a composite figure”). In doing so, she weaves a richly entertaining tale – part Dickensian bildungsroman, part Aussie battler adventure story – that sees the parentless Bill escape the cruel Cranbrook Home for Girls to make his way in the world, working on steamships, farms, and finally stables and race tracks.
Darkening this tale of sun-drenched working-class life, however, is the constant threat of discovery and violence, as well as the heartbreaking loneliness of having to eschew close relationships for fear of having his secret exposed. The moments when Bill finds brief solace in human connection, only to become distanced from friends once again, are among the most moving parts of the novel.
Taylor bookends the story of Bill Smith’s career with sections set near the end of his life when a fall lands him in hospital in the care of a group of young nurses. While her protagonist’s inner life is imagined with convincing and compassionate detail, Taylor’s supporting characters and their storylines are, by comparison, thinly drawn. A sparse subplot involving nurse Maureen (with whom Bill develops a grudging friendship) and her own grandfather is eked out over the course of the novel before reaching an anticlimactic resolution.
The scenes of Bill’s time in hospital are nevertheless poignant and compelling. Taylor’s extensive experience as a nurse and health researcher is evident in her descriptions of patient care and nursing routines. She provides particular insight into the anxieties regarding healthcare faced by someone whose identity does not conform to societal norms.
Mr Smith to You is a warm-hearted and respectful ode to Bill Smith, highlighting his passion and boundary-pushing courage without defining him solely as a feminist trailblazer or transgender icon (epithets he never claimed for himself). What is more important than classifying people, Taylor suggests, is listening to them, and being a witness to their stories.
Mr Smith to You, by Kerry Taylor, is published by Affirm Press.
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