Praying for Sunlight, Waiting for Rain: A New Guinea story

When someone offers a post featuring a novel set in New Guinea, you say, “Yes, please.” Or at least I did. Kieran Donaghue is the author and this is his second historical novel. He’s here today to talk about how this small island inspired his newly published novel Praying for Sunlight, Waiting for Rain.


The island of New Guinea lies immediately to the north of Australia. It is politically divided into two parts: the eastern part belongs to the independent country of Papua New Guinea (PNG), the western part to Indonesia, having been a Dutch colony until 1963. Prior to independence in 1975, PNG was under first British and German, then Australian rule.

Why write a novel set in the New Guinea highlands in the 1930s and 1940s? 

Personal experience 

I visited PNG many times between the mid-1990s and the mid-2000s in my capacity as an official of the Australian government’s overseas aid program. Many of my visits were to lowland areas—to the capital Port Moresby in the south, to Wewak on the north coast and its hinterland on the mighty Sepik River, to the harbour towns of Lae and Madang, to Rabaul on the island of New Britain and to Bougainville further east. These are all places of constant heat and humidity, and of malaria and other tropical diseases. The highlands by contrast are characterised by clear air, cool nights, manageable daytime heat and a malaria risk far lower than elsewhere in the country. They were without doubt my favourite part of the country.

The New Guinea highlands as an independent site of settled agriculture

I read Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel: A Short History of Everybody for the Last 13,000 Years shortly after it was published in the late 1990s. I was persuaded by its argument that the differences in development between the earth’s peoples at the beginning of the modern period were largely due to the accumulated results of environmental factors—first and foremost the availability of domesticable plants and animals that made possible the transition from hunting and gathering to settled agriculture. The resulting rapid increases in population led to differentiated social roles that, coupled with exchanges of people and ideas with other agricultural societies, created the conditions that facilitated inventions such as metal tools and writing. Exposure to diseases originating in domesticated animals enabled the development of resistance to such diseases. These developments progressed furthest in Europe, which by the 15th century was ripe for the spur of competition between its various states to encourage exploration and conquest of the globe.  

Guns, Germs and Steel has a lot to say about New Guinea; indeed the question that the book answers in the way summarised in the previous paragraph comes from a Papua New Guinean whom the author met on a local beach while researching bird evolution in the 1970s—‘Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own? (p.14). But it was only when I re-read the book after I was no longer working in overseas aid that its treatment of New Guinea really caught my attention. The reference to the highlands as ‘…an island of dense farming populations thrust up into the sky and surrounded below by a sea of clouds’ (p. 304) seemed particularly apt, and I was intrigued to learn (or to re-learn) that the New Guinea highlands are generally accepted as one of the small number of sites worldwide where agriculture arose indigenously, rather than being imported from elsewhere (p. 303).  

First contact between highlanders and Europeans

The north-eastern part of New Guinea was a German colony from the 1880s until World War One. Signs of this history remain, with place names ending in ‘Hafen’ (harbour), ‘Ort (place) or ‘Berg’ (mountain) and a large stock of Lutheran churches. Although Germany was stripped of its New Guinea colony after WW1 its influence remained, largely through the continuing presence of Lutheran missionaries, many (although not all) of whom were Germans. This influence extended into the 1930s, when Europeans first discovered that a large indigenous population with settled agriculture lived in mountainous country that had previously been considered too wild and rugged for human habitation. For the Germans, Australians and Americans who entered the highlands from 1933— as searchers after gold, as explorers seeking new places to chart and new peoples to study, as missionaries competing for souls, or as patrol officers looking to impose their government’s view of law and order—this region was one of the earth’s last frontiers.

While there is an extensive literature on the early contact between Europeans and highlanders, this is primarily autobiographical or historical (a short Bibliography is included in Praying for Sunlight, Waiting for Rain). I therefore felt there was room for a new fictional account. In particular, I hoped that choosing as the protagonist a young woman, and one who was not enamoured of missionary work, would enable me to present a different perspective on what had been largely a man’s world in which Christian missions had played a pivotal role. How would this woman come to be in the New Guinea highlands in the 1930s, and what would she make of the world she finds there? What would the local people make of her? And what would happen to her when New Guinea becomes a theatre of war with the Japanese invasion of 1942? Praying for Sunlight, Waiting for Rain is one possible version of this woman’s story.

Many thanks, Keiran, for sharing some of your personal history as well as the inspiration for your latest novel. I too am a fan of Jared Diamond’s books. Congratulations on the publication of Praying for Sunlight, Waiting for Rain. Such a great title!

Praying for Sunlight, Waiting for Rain by Kieran Donaghue ~~

Ellen Starck, a young South Australian from a privileged background, shares the prejudices of her society about native peoples. Her initial experience of the newly ‘discovered’ New Guinea highlands, in which she arrives in 1937 as the wife of a Lutheran missionary, does little to change her mind. 

She begins by marking time, hoping her husband will soon tire of his missionary work, but she gradually ventures beyond the meagre European society around her into the highland world-especially the world of women and girls, whom she comes to see as New Guinea’s best hope. 

Providing simple health care in nearby villages gives her a sense of purpose, but then personal tragedy strikes, testing her to her limits. Unexpected new relationships, born in part of the tragedy, help her through her grief and encourage her to stay in the highlands. 

Eventually the prospect of a new life in America presents itself, but the Pacific War intervenes, bringing further isolation and loss. Her response is a decision to return home, but not to the home she originally left.

You can purchase Praying for Sunlight, Waiting for Rain at retailers like Amazon, or through Keiran’s website under GET THE BOOKS.  You can also read about the story behind Kieran’s first novel, German Lessons.


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her new novel, THAT WAS THEN, will release next week. Her latest historical novel is THE ADMIRAL’S WIFE, a dual timeline set in Hong Kong. Mary’s other novels, PARIS IN RUINS, TIME AND REGRET, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website

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