Mona Tracy was one of three Canterbury writers whose children's books, written in the 1920s, have stood the test of time. Unlike her two contemporaries, Esther Glen and Edith Howes, however, she wrote historical novels.
She was born Mona Innis Mackay on 24 January 1892 at Kensington, Adelaide, South Australia. Her father, John William Mackay, was variously described as a land agent, auctioneer and mining engineer; her mother, Catherine (Katrine) Julia Bilston, was a writer of novels and short stories. They had married in 1890. After Mona's birth the family returned to the Mackay family farm at Whangarei, New Zealand, where a son, Ian, was born. They soon moved south to Auckland, and then around 1900 to Paeroa where Mona and Ian attended Paeroa School. They both learnt to speak Maori during childhood and Mona formed friendships with Maori children which were to influence her later writing.
After John Mackay deserted the family, Katrine Mackay supported herself and her children by working as a journalist in Auckland and Wellington, and later by managing a tea kiosk in Parnell, Auckland. Mona attended the Wellesley Street School, leaving at the age of 14, but not before she had become such an outstanding pianist that she was offered a contract by J. C. Williamson to tour theatres in Australia and New Zealand. The offer was declined. Mona was already working at the Auckland Weekly News, where she became a sub-editor. Her journalistic skills were extended when about 1912 she and a cousin went, surprisingly unchaperoned, to Sydney. There she worked as a reporter on a local paper.
After her return to New Zealand about a year later she worked for a time in Auckland and then moved to Christchurch, where her journalistic ability, combined with good looks and personal charm, secured her a position as general reporter on the Christchurch Press in 1917. She was one of the first women journalists to sit in the press gallery at criminal trials and it was probably through legal contacts that she met the young barrister William Francis Tracy, whom she married in St Mary's Church, Manchester Street, on 29 March 1921.
She retired from full-time journalism but her next 10 years were busy. Not only did she produce two children, a daughter and a son, but she wrote poetry, a collection of short stories and three novels. She also wrote articles for the Weekly Press, the Sun (Auckland), the Catholic magazine the Month, and the Australian magazine Aussie, for which, using the pen-name 'Sally Forth', she contributed to 'The Voice of the Enzed Woman' column. This gave her the opportunity to discuss women's political issues from a feminist perspective.
Her first published book, Piriki's princess (1925), was a collection of short stories, one of which explored the difficulties experienced by a young woman of mixed race. Two further stories feature marriages between Maori men and Pakeha women, doomed to failure because they were socially unacceptable. Maori–Pakeha relationships also underpinned her first children's novel, Rifle and tomahawk (1927). The well-researched background was Te Kooti's uprising in Hawke's Bay, but the main characters are fictional.
Mona Tracy clearly enjoyed the challenge of turning historical research into compulsive reading. Lawless days (1928) takes the hero on a journey from Tasmania's convict settlement of Port Jackson to the sealing stations of Doubtful Sound, and then to wars between Maori and Pakeha in the North Island. Her last novel, Martin Thorn – adventurer (1930), ranges from Norfolk Island to Dusky Sound in recounting the swashbuckling adventures of the eponymous hero.
If Mona Tracy's books move at a fast pace, they may reflect her own energies, which appear to have been inexhaustible. She played the piano, cooked, embroidered, went tramping, and researched West Coast history as well as continuing her work as a free-lance journalist. She wrote for the Whitcombe's Historical Story Books series and produced several school history texts. Her encounters with idiosyncratic West Coast characters led to a series of radio broadcasts in the mid 1930s on 3YA; the scripts were later gathered together in West Coast yesterdays, published posthumously in 1960.
During the 1930s she was secretary of a Christchurch refugee committee, which helped professional people to escape the threat of fascism in Europe. She earned the Coronation Medal for her services to the community in 1937 by helping to establish a soup kitchen near her New Brighton home for those affected by the depression. From 1938 to 1948 she was the first woman to serve on the Arthur's Pass National Park Board.
She took leave from these community activities in 1942 when her own sense of adventure prompted her to reduce her age by seven years and join her daughter in the New Zealand Women's Auxiliary Air Force at Wigram. She attained the rank of corporal, while her husband became officer in charge of fortress area for the Home Guard at Lyttelton Harbour.
After the war the family moved to Governors Bay, where Mona served as president of the local branch of the Women's Division Federated Farmers of New Zealand in 1949–50. Rheumatoid arthritis marred her later years and necessitated a return to Christchurch city, where she died on 22 February 1959. She was buried at Ruru Lawn Cemetery, Linwood, and her brother delivered an oration in Maori over her grave.