Voss, Patrick White

Brona’s Books AusReading Month

The 1950s seem to have been a time for introspection about what it means to be an Australian, or rather, how it was that the archetypal Australian had come to be a working man from the bush, independent, resourceful, hard working when necessary, and contemptuous of authority – all attributes which had been freely applied to the soldiers of the Second AIF, now just returned from fighting the Japanese, and before them, to the First AIF, the original ANZACs.

Vance Palmer’s The Legend of the Nineties came out in 1954, Russel Ward’s The Australian Legend in 1958 and, between them, Voss, in 1957. Not directly influenced by either, but part of the same discussion and informed by White’s own war service, in the deserts of North Africa.

You can’t write about White without writing about class. White was of the class of whom the working men in the bush were contemptuous, the squattocracy. His family owned large properties throughout NSW; all his adolesence was spent at boarding school and university in England; and during the war he was an intelligence officer in the (British) Royal Air Force.

Yet, it seems his roots as a writer were in Australia and he returned here permanently in 1948. I said in an earlier post that he wrote Voss from his study in inner Sydney, but in fact he and Manoly Laskaris lived on their hobby farm in Castle Hill, on the outskirts of Sydney until 1963 when they moved to, I think, White’s late mother’s house in Centennial Park.

Patrick White was one of the great writers of High Modernism, so Voss is much more about its eponymous hero’s interior, than it is about Australia’s, which in any case White had barely experienced. But I want to write about some other aspects of the novel.

This novel is White’s great contribution to the dominant myth of Australianness, the lone bushman, but he is cognisant also of its limitations. He posits one man against a hostile interior, but that man is a loner only in that he must be the leader; in Voss, crossing Australia is an upper middle class venture, supported by wealthy merchants, with, of the lower classes, only the ex-convict, small-landowner Judd playing an important role; the Australian legend excludes women, the Bulletin‘s version is openly misogynist, yet White has Laura riding alongside Voss, in spirit if not in fact; the mythical Australian bushman of the 1890s on whom all subsequent iterations of the Australian legend are based is white, Anglo. White subverts this by making his hero German, and by making the attempt to include Aboriginal actors and culture.

The bushman of the Australian legend, of say Such is Life, is a complainer, yes, but he is comfortable in the bush, on his own or with companions (‘mates’). Voss is not comfortable, and the bush – often waterless brigalow scrub and desert – sends him mad.

Voss of course is not Ludwig Leichardt and more often during my reading I felt dissonances rather than resonances. So Voss has walked up the NSW North Coast, from Newcastle to Moreton Bay (Brisbane) but Leichardt had also walked (or ridden) from Brisbane to Port Essington (Darwin) which would have revealed to him the nature of much of the country, and in particular that there were no great rivers in the north east quarter of the continent. Leichardt would have been both better prepared than Voss and more competent.

The other aspect of Voss as historical fiction which played on my mind is that White, in the 1950s, knew that the Australian interior was arid and hostile. Even without ever going further north and west, a year as a jackaroo (gentleman station hand) at Walgett would have made that clear! But Leichardt, in the 1840s, would not have known, and may well have believed that around the next corner he would come upon a Lake Baikal, a Great Lakes, or a Mississippi running in some other direction than North East (sailors mapping the mouths of the Ord or Fitzroy Rivers for instance, in the north west, had no reason to believe that they didn’t extend far into the interior).

What I am saying is that White’s description of the geography Voss faced was as accurate as research could make it, but he gives no hint of the beliefs that motivated Voss to set out on a 5,000 km walk into the unkown with a party of just six men (though in the end it is the two Aboriginal men who attach themselves to Voss at the last point of ‘civilisation’, and especially Jackie, who prove themselves the most valuable members of the party).

I have been chatting with Bron about whether Voss is still my number one Great Australian Novel, and I have come to the conclusion that it is not. It is a brilliant novel of its times, and probably still one of the great works of Modernism. But. Early accounts of Australia have Aboriginal people as shadows between the trees, as servants or stockmen (unpaid except for ‘rations’), as missing. Only from the 1920s do writers attempt to bring them into focus – Ion Idriess first, then Xavier Herbert and Eleanor Dark. White does well to treat the Blacks accompanying Voss, Dugald and Jackie, as real people, though of course they are still servants. You might imagine that Thomas Keneally was following on from White in making Jimmie the protagonist of The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith (1972). White’s accounts of tribal Aboriginal culture are less successful and today wouldn’t be attempted.

Much as I love Kim Scott’s Benang (1999) and the important work of re-imagining first contact in That Deadman Dance (2010), number one must be Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book (2013) which is both brilliantly written, and holds the possibility that our acceptance of its truths might lead us forward to a place where we are partners rather than settlers in this country.

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Patrick White, Voss, first pub. 1957. Audiobook from Bolinda, read by Humphrey Bower. 19 hours

Goodbye from Vanilla, Christine Mathieu

I am putting up a review of Goodbye from Vanilla (2006) a) because Bron was kind enough to add my last review, Cut, to her list of AusReadingMonth reviews; and b) because I may well have the only copy in existence.

There are quite a number of books on my shelves that I didn’t know that I had – and quite I few that I thought I had that I don’t seem to – and in looking for an unchallenging read a couple of weeks ago I came across this one that I had bought six or seven years ago in a job lot from a closing down secondhand bookshop.

The publisher, Littlefox of Fremantle WA has no presence that I can locate on the web; and nor does the book. The author, Christine Mathieu is an academic or teacher who seems to have written no other fiction. Apparently, “while in Spain, at the turn of the millenium, she began writing Goodbye from Vanilla in a fit of nostalgia for the old port of Fremantle where she lived in the 1980s” probably while a grad student in Anthropology at nearby Murdoch Uni.

The novel is set in the Humanities school of the fictitious O’Connor University (named for the engineer who famously built Fremantle Harbour and the water pipeline to the Goldfields); in Fremantle and its suburbs; and, briefly, in the Goldfields north of Kalgoorlie. This is not auto fiction, I don’t think, though the protagonist Doucette Ferré, would seem to have in her a lot of Mathieu, the author. Doucette, incidentally explains her name as derived from Don Quixote’s Dulcinea, though I’d be surprised if it’s not also a French in-joke on ignorant Australians (like me).

Milly’s brother was doing his PhD in Education, and I think lecturing, at Murdoch in the first half of the 1980s so I am sending this on to him to see if he recognises any of the situations or people.

Doucette’s proposed doctoral dissertation has the provisional title, A Feminist Critique of the Origins of the Third Republic: Women, the Economics of Sexuality and the Making of French Democracy. I tell you this because Mathieu comes up with some impressive supporting detail, but don’t worry, the novel is in the main a lighthearted satire of University life, with a wide cast and lots of complicated, not to say ridiculous, plot lines.

And we also know why the brutal treatment of justice that followed the worst massacre of 19th century Western Europe [following the Paris Commune] was brought to bear with such vicious savagery upon the most disadvantaged of all, the proletarian women of Paris. Because revolutionary women had dared strike at the very heart of the bourgeoisie, and the horror of the misogynist bourgeois is nowhere more clearly expressed than in those infamous words of Alexandre Dumas who wrote that the female communards resembled real women, only when they were dead.

from Doucette’s dissertation

It is important to recognise that thirty-something Doucette is chronically short of funds, good-looking, sexy and getting a lot of action and her best friend, school teacher Clara, is not (except sometimes with Doucette’s most recent ex-boyfriend, which Doucette doesn’t know). The male lead is Ricky, an Italian-Australian in his late twenties, not at uni, working in his Uncle Leo’s Italian cafe on The Esplanade, handsome, a player, but whose latest girlfriend, Susie, has just discovered she is pregnant. This could be a play – the whole cast rotate constantly through Leo’s Cafe Vinci.

Doucette has a teenage daughter, from a very young pregancy, who conveniently for the plot, follows her own much older boyfriend offstage to Sydney.

Other characters are head of Humanities, Fay E Payne, who it seems gives good marks to girl students for sex, and later in the novel has an ongoing rort whereby grad student grants are not paid out but instead go to fund her lifestyle; Dr David Finch, a lecturer in Humanities hanging out for tenure, American, gay, and it turns out, the writer of a bawdy, unpublished memoir. He is stuck in Perth because he is insanely in love with “a Cottesloe boy, a sous-chef at Paul’s”. (Cottesloe is the next but one beach suburb to the north of Freo); Alex Smith-Moreski, a short, lame, indie film-maker who is hopelessly in love with Doucette; Paul, an older anthropologist who is actually a secret agent with ASIO or the Federal Police; Professor David Hobbes, retirement age and the owner of a fine old house; and lots of others, in and out of each other’s beds like a French farce – I wonder if it actually is, and I missed it.

Doucette falls for an “extraordinarily handsome” student, Akito Foot (an Australian whose mother named him after a Japanese dog breed), 39, ex band member, ex-rich, who is aiming for an MBA so he can be rich again, and who keeps rejecting Doucette because she has no money, until he doesn’t.

Alex makes a movie in Prof Hobbes’ big house starring Doucette and Ricky; Paul gets Akito a job as a cleaner in a mine 600 km in a straight line north of Kalgoorlie – a road which I was on yesterday (Saturday) and regard as hilly and windy, but which I can see why a Frenchwoman might not; Doucette gets a grant to follow up her dissertation in Paris; Paul solves the smuggling case which he has been sure all along Akito holds the clue to; various people end up with other people, some happily. It’s a romp. I’m sure you’d all like it, if only I didn’t have the last remaining copy.

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Christine Mathieu, Goodbye from Vanilla, Littlefox, Fremantle, 2006. 372pp

The title relates to the sorry fact that if you want to sample all the flavours in the ice cream parlour then you might have to say goodbye to the one constant, vanilla.

Cut, Susan White

Carla di Pietta is a thirty-something surgeon at a major Melbourne hospital, called here Prince Charles (PCH) which I guess from it’s location is based on Royal Melbourne. Her lover is also her main rival for the next consultant position. PCH is notoriously old school tie, old boys club and Carla struggles to keep her place at the front of the pack, while even junior (male) registrars get to play golf with the senior surgeons.

Cut is a 2022 release which I listened to last week. I enjoyed it, especially all the Melbourne stuff, though I remember absolutely none of the names. You would imagine from all the detail that White is an actual surgeon – and also an actual Italian Australian – but it doesn’t say so, or anything about her at all, on the cover.

Research time: “Susan is a doctor who writes fiction for adults and young adults.” She’s a clinical geneticist and Honorary Clinical Professor in the Department of Paediatrics at the University of Melbourne (just across the road from Royal Melbourne). Her first novel was the YA Take the Shot (2019), this is her second.

Carla lives in her grandparent’s old terrace house in (the northern end of) Rathdowne St, Carlton and walks to work via the zoo and Royal Park, 3 – 4 kms probably (Google Maps concurs). This has nothing to do with the plot, I just enjoy visualising it.

We begin with Carla having adventurous sex with lover boy and confident of her ability to stay ahead in what is basically an all-guy working environment. Except for the experienced and dedicated matron of course who must take orders from inexperienced boy registrars. But then her boss, ‘the Prof’, asks her to fill in for him on a mastectomy with lover boy assisting – did I say lover boy wants to keep their relationship secret? Lover boy doesn’t do his homework and is too intent on getting Carla into the ‘quiet room’ and into her knickers (before the operation) to respond to urgent calls on his pager, and inevitably the operation goes wrong.

The patient doesn’t die, but nearly does, and the patient’s lawyer girlfriend gets worked up at being continually fobbed off with excuses. At an open meeting of all surgeons to discuss what went wrong, lover boy’s excuses are accepted and Carla effectively cops the blame.

It took me a while to notice that chapters are being headed ‘Before’, ‘During’ and ‘After’. The ‘During’ appears to be a work event where Carla gets drunk and then something goes awfully wrong. Each time a ‘During’ comes up we learn a little more.

Meanwhile, Carla comes clean to the mastectomy patient and her partner and becomes friends with them. A very attractive female registrar – ie. a newish doctor who is junior to Carla – begins organizing a women doctor’s support group. Carla is surprised to find that the fearsome matron is also on her side (I know, they aren’t called matrons any more. Why not? And what are they called?). Carla twists lover boy’s arm until he takes her home to meet his parents, well his mother and sister, she knows his father already as he is head of plastic surgery.

True love of course does not run smooth. Another guy enters the picture. A creepy older consultant progresses from stealing kisses from all his women colleagues, to touching breasts, to putting his hands in Carla’s pants while “tucking in” her scrubs. The Prof thinks it would be better for her chances of promotion if a complaint was not pursued. All the usual stuff.

I won’t tell you any more. The events of ‘During’ are both traumatic and believable. The good-looking registrar leads a revolution of sorts. Carla, her Italian family, her friends and lovers, and above all Melbourne – well the leafy inner suburbs of Parkville and Carlton anyway – are all engaging characters. Lots of graphically described surgery. Various believable resolutions are achieved. Not Literature maybe, but well worth the read.

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Susan White, Cut, Affirm Press, Melbourne, 2022. 336 pp. Audiobook from Wave Sound, read by Jacqui Duncan. 10 hours

[The top line of my editor has changed. There are fewer icons and now there’s no button to push to see how many words I’ve written – not many today, I know, but it’s not a wordy sort of book.]

The Bond of Wedlock, Rosa Praed

As I write it is Sunday 13 Nov. in Perth. Tomorrow I set out on a trip that will take me away from home for a few weeks. If it works as planned, which is never a given with trucking. I am thinking I will post this on Weds (16th) which is when my post on Rosa Praed’s The Bond Wedlock is scheduled on the AWWC site. By then I will be in Port Hedland and, hopefully, unloaded.

From there I will run empty to Kununurra, in the far north of WA, load two 14m x 3m wide portable huts, road train to Port Augusta and then run the two huts singly to Bendigo (or actually, Elmore) in central Victoria.

When that is done, it is planned that we – there are a number of trucks involved – will return empty to Port Augusta, load two huts each, and road train by the same route in reverse back to Port Hedland. Standard truck width is 2.5m, so we are 0.5m overwidth which is not allowed for road trains on the Nullarbor or south of Port Augusta in SA, hence the single running to Bendigo, and the long way home.

Wednesday: It was a good plan, but as I was driving out the gate Monday afternoon, I got a text saying that Central Victoria was under water and the trip was cancelled. Today I unloaded in Port Hedland, which was pretty non-dry itself, and tomorrow I will go home to Perth with a road train load of oversize tyres.

Running oversize means I get to pull up each evening at sunset, but it also means I usually don’t get to choose a stopover with good phone coverage, so blogging will be limited.


We have covered Rosa Praed (1851-1935) a few times in these pages, not least because our colleague Jess White’s hybrid memoir, Hearing Maud (2019) is at least partly an exploration of Praed’s relationship with her daughter.

My interest in Praed arises from my M.Litt thesis, some years ago, The Independent Woman in Australian Literature. Praed, like a number of Australian women authors of the time – coinciding with suffragism and first wave feminism – wrote heroines who chose to live without marrying, or who, if married, were willing to walk away.

Read on ….

Note that AWWC From the Archives on Friday (18/11) will be “Is marriage a handicap to woman’s ambition?” by M Preston Stanley Vaughan.

Atwood, Le Guin & SF

Australian Women Writers Gen 5-SFF Week 15-22 Jan. 2023

One book has captured the spirit of present and near-future USA like no other, and that is Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale (1985). On writing ‘1985’ I am astonished that it is so old, obviously America has been growing into Atwood’s predictions for some time. The TV series of the book premiered in 2016, and the sequel, The Testaments, was published in 2019.

A Handmaid’s Tale sits over us, over all discussions of the rise of the Right in the US in particular, as Animal Farm, 1984 and Brave New World did over discussions of Communism and totalitarian government – not always accurately – when I was a young man (in the 1960s and 70s).

Ursula Le Guin (1929-2018) and Margaret Atwood (1939- ) were friends, east coast gals with a university – Radcliffe “in the pre-Second Wave years” – in common.

Seated on little divans in front of over 2,000 people [in Portland, 2010], they seemed like two old school chums swapping gossip even when they were deconstructing modern realism and debating whether or not the human race is doomed.

Claire L. Evans — Space Canon, Gizmodo, September 28, 2010

Le Guin, the queen of SF, however is forced to tiptoe round Atwood’s refusal to acknowledge that she writes Science Fiction. Atwood argues science fiction is for space travel and things we can’t yet do, while what she does is speculative fiction, stuff that we have the means to do right now, right here on Earth (Moving Targets).

That is to say, she – and these days any number of writers of “dystopian” fiction – choose to write within one strand of SF, which has a history going back more than a century, while disclaiming all their antecedents and preserving, in their own minds anyway, their literary purity.

In her summary of the two writers’ discussion, Evans offers this breakdown: “could happen (speculative fiction), couldn’t happen yet (science fiction), could never happen at all (fantasy).”

If you’re still one of those who cling to the myth that there is ‘literary’ fiction and there is genre fiction, Le Guin was fierce that “realism is a genre like any other, and that all writing is by definition literary“. Further, “realism is limited in terms of what it can actually discuss. The modern realistic novel, she lamented, has devolved into tales of well-off East Coast people with problems” which might come as a shock to writers in the rest of the world. Atwood and Le Guin did agree that “speculative and not-quite-real fictions have more freedom to tackle sweeping subjects unavailable to the realist.”

Le Guin’s strongest critique of Atwood was a year earlier, in a review of Atwood’s The Year of the Flood (2009).

To my mind, The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake and now The Year of the Flood all exemplify one of the things science fiction does, which is to extrapolate imaginatively from current trends and events to a near-future that’s half prediction, half satire. But Margaret Atwood doesn’t want any of her books to be called science fiction.

Le Guin, Guardian, 29 Aug., 2009

Le Guin makes the point that in ‘realistic’ fiction we expect characters of some complexity, while in genre fiction we expect ‘types’, though “the supposed distinction is so often violated in both directions as to be nearly meaningless”. She then goes on to explain why all Atwood’s characters are ‘types’, “these were figures in the service of a morality play”. Le Guin does not say, but it’s true, that one of the great strengths of her own Science Fiction is the complexity of her central characters.

A year after Portland Arts & Lectures 2010 Atwood defends herself at some length:

Though sometimes I am not asked, but told: I am a silly nit or a snob or a genre traitor for dodging the term because these books are as much “science fiction” as Nineteen Eighty-Four is, whatever I might say. But is Nineteen Eighty-Four as much “science fiction” as The Martian Chronicles? I might reply. I would answer not, and therein lies the distinction.

Atwood, Guardian, 15 Oct., 2011

There she goes again, distinguishing one branch of SF from another, and then attempting to claim the branch she likes as anything but SF. In one hundred years time when Earth’s remnant population is living on Mars will she move The Martian Chronicles over to her side of the ledger? At what stage does The Postman change sides, or Neuromancer, or The Matrix? If the US somehow doesn’t become a fascist theocracy after these midterms or 2024, does A Handmaid’s Tale then become SF in Atwood’s mind?

Basically, she says I write in the tradition that extends forward from Jules Verne. I just don’t wish it to be called SF. Sorry, MA, you don’t get to choose.

And because I am a Le Guin fan, let me end with something Atwood wrote on Le Guin’s death in 2018

Not only was she one of the literary greats of the 20th century – her books are many and widely read and beloved, her awards are many and deserved – but her sane, committed, annoyed, humorous, wise and always intelligent voice is much needed now…

Isn’t it, just? And, Atwood goes on ..

In all her work, Le Guin was always asking the same urgent question: what sort of world do you want to live in? Her own choice would have been gender equal, racially equal, economically fair and self-governing ..

Atwood writes from a different angle, but in her ‘speculative’ works she is clearly asking the same question. Atwood and Le Guin, two greats of SF.

This post is both a lead in to the problems of defining ‘dystopian’ (no, no, no, not SF) fiction in AWW Gen 5, and my contribution to Marcie/Buried in Print’s MARM 2022.

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Image:
Portland Arts & Lectures 2010: Margaret Atwood & Ursula K Le Guin, reported in Cultural SF and Movie Learnings, 30.09.2010 (here). Literary Arts recording (here)

Essays referenced:
Claire L. Evans, ‘Space Canon’, Gizmodo, 28 Sept., 2010 (here)
Ursula K Le Guin, The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood, Guardian, 29 Aug., 2009 (here)
Margaret Atwood, Ursula K. Le Guin bring off-the-wall humor to Portland Arts & Lectures, the Oregonian (here)
Margaret Atwood, ‘The Road to Ustopia’, Guardian, 15 Oct., 2011 (here)
Margaret Atwood, ‘Ursula K. Le Guin’, Guardian, 25 Jan., 2018 (here)

I will cross Australia

Journal: 093

November is Brona’s AusReading Month. Also Non-Fiction November, Novellas in November and MARM, but one thing at a time (I hope I get to MARM). Not to mention I am a month behind with my North America Project, for which this month I am reading … I’m not sure I even have anything suitable downloaded, though I did buy Light from an Uncommon Star by Ryka Aoki to feed my SF addiction.

So, AusReading Month. Bron is having a Voss readalong. Week 1 was meant to be Voss in Sydney, meeting Laura and getting ready to depart, but I listened on to his two farmstays – at Rhine Towers in the Hunter (north of Sydney) and then Boyle’s in the Darling Downs (south east Queensland) which is to be the stepping off point of his expedition inland.

In my head I bookmarked Voss saying, “I will cross Australia from top to bottom, I will know it with my heart”. I have at hand the Penguin Modern Classics copy I inscribed to Milly nearly 40 years ago, but I can’t find those words, which are the perfect expression of how I feel about crossing and re-crossing Australia.

Patrick White (1912-1990) is an interesting/unlikely person to be writing the perfect Australian novel. He was born into Australia’s ‘landed gentry’, the squattocracy, with grazing properties throughout NSW, but particularly in the Hunter Valley. He was sent away to boarding school in England then returned home for some years jackarooing on family properties. Especially Walgett in 1931 (David Marr p. 109) which feeds into Voss (1957), and which, along with his service in North Africa during WWII, are his only experiences of desert life. I attempted to cheat by checking Wikipedia but parts of White’s entry appear to be wrong or incomplete.

On his return home – and Australia had hardly been that, up till then – from WWII with his life partner, Greek/Egyptian Manoly Lascaris, they took up a hobby farm on the outskirts of Sydney which is ridiculously blown up into the pair being the Adam and Eve of Australian bush pioneering in The Tree of Man (1955).

Voss is supposedly based on the story of Ludwig Leichardt, of his final, failed attempt to cross the continent from the Darling Downs to the Swan River (basically, from Brisbane to Perth) in 1848. White, inspired by the desert paintings of Sidney Nolan, researched Leichardt from the safety of Sydney. Marr writes:

White came to the Australian desert through Nolan’s eyes… In his magpie fashion White searched for the historical details he needed for the book. He found accounts of Aboriginal painting and ritual in the Mitchell Library. For life in early Sydney he drew on M Barnard Eldershaw’s A House is Built [itself an historical fiction written only 20 years earlier] and Ruth Bedford’s Think of Stephen, an account of the family of Sir Alfred Stephen… Chief Justice of NSW in the 1840s when Voss made his journey into the hinterland.

Marr p. 316

My initial impression is that we are seeing Voss’s actions but Laura’s mind. Here she’s speaking to Voss:

‘You are so vast and ugly,’ Laura Trevelyan was repeating the words; ‘I can imagine some desert, with rocks, rocks of prejudice, and, yes, even hatred. You are so isolated. That is why you are fascinated by the prospect of desert places, in which you will find your own situation taken for granted, or more than that, exalted …’

‘Do you hate me, perhaps?’ asked Voss, in darkness.

‘I am fascinated by you,’ laughed Laura Trevelyan, with such candour that her admission did not seem immodest. ‘You are my desert!’

With Voss we, Australians, asked our greatest writer to write our central story, one man alone against the vast interior, not one that he knows from experience but which he knows from all the Australian writing that preceded him. We had a shot at it once before, asking the outsider, DH Lawrence to write The Boy in the Bush. Both are fine marriages of Bush Realism and High Modernism, but it is Patrick White’s which has stuck.

What else?

The photo above, sunset at Pardoo, is of me (of course) heading home from Darwin after four weeks getting an engine rebuild. Most of which time was spent – by the truck – sitting, waiting for its turn to be worked on, which is standard in these post-Lockdown, labour shortage days. It ran nicely, which is the main thing, and maybe uses less fuel, it will take me a while to tell.

I left Psyche in that medical cliche – stable – which is a good thing, except when you (she) feel the urge to jump up on a table and dance. She doesn’t read me regularly, though her main carer does (Hi, Sienna) but she doesn’t like me to underplay how much mobility she’s lost, or how much energy even simple actions now take.

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Recent audiobooks 

Eden Robinson (F, Can), Son of a Trickster (2017)
Patrick White (M, Aus/NSW), Voss (1957)
Robert B Parker (M, USA), Now & Then (2007) – Crime
Sally Hepworth (F, Aus/Vic), The Mother-in-Law (2019) – Crime
Adele Parks (F, Eng), Lies Lies Lies (2020) – Crime

Currently Reading 

Dorothy Hewett (F, Aus/NSW), The Toucher (1993)
Corey J White (F,USA), Killing Gravity (2017) – SF
Tricia Sullivan (F,Eng), Dreaming in Smoke (1998) – SF

AWWC Oct. 2022

DateContributorTitle
Wed 05Elizabeth LhuedeWriter, teacher, farmer’s daughter: Jessie Maria Goldney
Fri 07Stories FTAJessie Maria Goldney, A Daisy Crushed (short story)
Wed 12Jonathan ShawLesbia Harford
Fri 14Stories FTALesbia Keogh, “Angel” (short story)
Wed 19Bill HollowayMiles Franklin in America
Fri 21Stories FTAMiles Franklin, The Old Post (short story)
Wed 26Whispering GumsCapel Boake: Three short stories, and more
Fri 28Stories FTACapel Boake, The Necessary Third (short story)

Son of a Trickster, Eden Robinson

North America Project 2022

This is my North America read for September, which is running a bit late as I didn’t do much driving and therefore book listening, for a few weeks. But a trip to the Northern Territory has fixed that, and I’ve even made time to write it up.

[I must have written the para above before I loaded for Darwin four or five weeks ago. But four weeks broken down sees me struggling to get something down yet another month later.

I finally got my truck back on Fri 28/10, loaded Sat and unloaded Sun at Banjo Station again. Today, Mon, I am 1,000 km west, in a motel in Derby (in WA that rhymes with Kirby) hopeful of securing a load home in the morning. And yes, I’ve been listening to Son of a Trickster, at last]

Eden Robinson (1968- ) is a Haisla and Heiltsuk First Nations woman from British Columbia (on Canada’s west coast). Son of a Trickster (2017) is her third novel, and the first of a trilogy, and the novel is presumably set in country she knows, though I didn’t get the same sense of place that I did from, for instance, Life among the Qallunaat.

What I did get was the excitement I get reading the best Australian Indigenous Lit.

Son of a Trickster is a fast-paced, edgy, coming of age, with a side of Native American magic – Jared is sixteen years old, in year 10 at high school. His mother is a young, sexy, foul mouthed party girl and drug dealer. We see Jared aged 5 with loving parents, but it is soon clear that the father has left, has another family, and that the mother makes some poor choices replacing him.

When the story settles down, at the beginning of year 10, Jared’s mother has lived with and discarded ‘nice’ white guy David, and has taken up with the scary Ritchie. Jared has been adopted by Ritchie’s bull terrier cross, Baby Killer, but now it is old and must be put down.

Jared is living in the basement of his mother’s house, while the bedrooms have been let to tenants to cover the house payments. He does jobs for the old couple next door in return for small amounts of money and big home cooked meals. We discover that the old woman, Mrs Jax, took him in after David attacked Jared, and Jared’s mum nailed David to the floor with a nail gun and had to spend some time ‘dealing with anger management’ in jail.

Because this is year 10, there is a lot of angst over who is popular and who is not. Jared is an outsider, but has some cool as the baker of cookies using medicinal grade marijuana, and as a notable drunk (whose mother holds the best parties). He is also very smart-mouthed which mostly gets him into trouble rather than out of it.

Life for Jared picks up a notch when Mrs Jax’s granddaughter, Sara comes to stay. She is good looking, weird, has her own problems, likes sleeping with Jared, and might be a witch.

As the story progresses, who is and isn’t a witch becomes a serious problem. Jared’s father’s mother is a senior, and very wealthy witch. Jared’s father who lives in the next town over, loses his job. Jared’s step-sister has a baby. Jared sells cookies to help his father pay the rent. Jared’s mother hates Jared’s father and her ex-mother in law. But is Jared’s father Jared’s father?

Sara takes magic mushrooms, though Jared doesn’t, which sets off stuff which results in Jared having a toe eaten off by sea otters.

Another, older, maybe very much older, witch gets Jared to start attending AA, and, consequently, to resume paying attention to his schoolwork. Jared’s mum stops using meth. Sara cuts herself more seriously than usual, and her mother, whom everyone hates, comes to take her home.

The year comes to an end. A lot of this is very YA, but it has undertones both of grunge and of Indigenous.Lit cum Magical Realism which give the novel more heft. I’m expecting the next part of the trilogy to be Normal People meets Gabriel García Márquez. Of course if you’ve read Trickster Drift you’ll know whether or not I’m right, but that’s the direction, by the end, it felt like Robinson was heading.

I loved Son of a Trickster. Up till now the North American Indigenous authors I tried all had a very documentary style. Robinson doesn’t pretend that ‘Indians’ aren’t oppressed by settlers but, if you accept the spirit element, she has written here a sparkling work of normal everyday dysfunctional life.

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Eden Robinson, Son of a Trickster, Knopf Canada, 2017. 336pp. Audible version read by Jason Ryll. 9 hrs

Another Day in the Colony 3

If you think we are not settlers in a colony run by the white man for the white man then just consider this past week (and I think/hope I am being true to the spirit of Dr Watego’s book here):

1. A 15 year old Noongar school boy, Cassius Turvey, died in hospital on Sunday, 10 days after being beaten by a lynch mob. He was walking home from school with a group of friends in Midland, a working class suburb of Perth, when a group of men, suspecting him, someone, anyone, of having been involved in the breaking of a car window chased after the school kids in a car, leapt out, and began beating them with bars.

The WA police commissioner’s tone deaf response was that it was a “tragic case of him being in the wrong place at the wrong time” and that it would be wrong to assume that the motive for the attack was racial.

One man has been arrested and charged with murder. The other men, the woman driver of the car which chased after the kids, have not.

And let us not forget 14 year old Elijah Doughty, who died after being chased and run down in Kalgoorlie by a 56 year old white man in a 4wd, on an allegedly stolen motor bike, in 2016 (Guardian).

2. A 20 year old Aboriginal man was arrested by police in Hobart over the weekend, on a minor breach of bail, was strip searched by having his clothes cut off, and left naked on the floor of his cell in a pool of blood for 12 hours without medical assistance or legal representation. (SBS)

3. ABC Four Corners ran a report ‘How Many More?’ into the deaths/disappearance of Aboriginal women, at up to 12 times the national murder rate, and the failure of police in every state to take this seriously:

“Four Corners can reveal at least 315 First Nations women have either gone missing or been murdered or killed in suspicious circumstances since 2000.

But this is an incomplete picture. We will likely never know the true scale of how many First Nations women have been lost over the decades.

This is because there is no agency in Australia keeping count ..”

The lead story was that of Constance May Watcho who went missing in Brisbane in 2017. Queensland Police failed to instigate a search. Her dismembered remains were found 10 months later in a sports bag a few hundred metres from her apartment. No one has been charged. Police will not even confirm she was murdered.

4. The inquest continues in Alice Springs into the death of 19 year old Walpiri man Kumanjayi Walker, shot by police constable Zachary Rolfe during a botched arrest in the remote NT community of Yundemu, where Walker had breached bail conditions to attend his grandfather’s funeral. Rolfe was tried for and acquitted of Walker’s murder after evidence of his previous racism and violence was suppressed. (ABC).

NT Police have not explained why the Alice Springs-based Immediate Response Team was called in for the arrest of a man who would have handed himself in anyway to local community-based police at the end of the funeral.

5. The inquest has begun into the death of 27 year old Aboriginal man, Michael Peachey, of heart failure after he was tasered and pepper sprayed by police in Gunnedah, NSW. Peachey had known mental health issues and the police were called by family (ABC).

6. Billionaire mining heiress, Gina Reinhardt withdrew $15mil sponsorship from the national, state (WA) and Perth netball teams, at the beginning of this week, after the national squad refused to wear Reinhardt’s ‘Hancock Prospecting’ logo in support of Indigenous squad member Donnell Wallam (she’s from WA but none of the stories name her Country).

Lang Hancock, Reinhardt’s father, famously proposed in 1984:

“The ones that are no good to themselves and can’t accept things, the half-castes — and this is where most of the trouble comes — I would dope the water up so that they were sterile and would breed themselves out in future and that would solve the problem.”

Reinhardt, who was in her 30s and working for her father at the time of the statement, refuses to apologise or even to distance herself or her business from her father’s views.

Wallam had the last word on Weds night, shooting the winning goal in the dying seconds of her first game representing Australia (ABC).

7. WA houses children as young as 10 and most of them Indigenous in Banksia prison, which is to use a technical term, a shithole (Independent Australia). Western Australia’s Inspector of Custodial Services said children in the facility were subject to “cruel, inhuman and degrading” treatment (here).

Riots at Banksia have led to the (hugely popular) WA Labor government imprisoning older boys in the maximum security adult prison, Casuarina, where they are held in solitary for their own ‘protection’. (ABC: “[Premier] McGowan at loggerheads with Children’s Court”)

8. Wednesday’s Commonwealth Budget, by the incoming Labor government, contained hundreds of millions of dollars for the ongoing – ten years now – offshore detention of non-white ‘illegal’ immigrants, which is the name we give to refugees who arrive at our border seeking assistance (Yahoo). We are all complicit in these concentration camps.

9. To top it all off, out shopping today (Thu. 27/10) in Darwin, the NT News is headed “Teen Girl Dies in Care: Second death within the past three months”. Both children, a girl 17 and a boy 15, were under the care of Territory Families, which is to say they had been removed from Aboriginal families. The girl died in a Katherine “intensive therapeutic residential care home” on Oct 2 and the boy after a car crash (the paper uses the word stolen without bothering with “allegedly”) on July 3.

As it happens, the next story begins, “Lawyers for an NT Police sergeant who sent “racist” text messages to Zach Rolfe [no need to explain who Zach is] will appeal a decision to compel him to answer questions about them at an inquest into the death of Kumanjayi Walker.” Further on we learn the sergeant’s text to Rolfe referred to Aboriginal people as “bush c**ns”. Neither Constable Rolfe nor Sergeant Lee Bauwens has lost his job.

What can we do?

Listen when Black people talk
Vigils for Cassius (Lifehacker)
Read this book!
Defund the Police

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Images:
Cassius Turvey, Marie Claire
Constance Watcho, Qld Police missing persons photo
Donnell Wallam, (ABC) Mark Evans Getty Images


If you’d like to go on reading, here’s some (mainly WA) history –

Australian Genocide, Sydney NSW, 1779 (here)
The ‘Battle’ of Pinjarra, Pinjarra WA, 1834 (here)
Wardandi Massacre, Wonnerup/Lake Mininup WA, 1841 (here)
Cocanarup (Kukenarup) Massacre, Cocanarup Station, Ravensthorpe WA, 1880s (here)
Kimberley Massacres, 1886-1924 (here)
Flying Foam Massacre, in the Pilbara, 1868 (here)
Forrest River massacres, 1926 (Wiki here)

The Toucher, Dorothy Hewett

Dorothy Hewett (1923-2002) “was an Australian playwright, poet and author, and a romantic feminist icon. In writing and in her life, Hewett was an experimenter. As her circumstances and beliefs changed, she progressed through different literary styles: modernism, socialist realism, expressionism and avant garde.” I liked that description from wiki, but I must say I would have had ‘Communist’ in between Australian and playwright, and I imagine she would have too.

It’s interesting how many writers of Hewett’s generation (AWW Gen 3, of course) were confirmed Communists, at least for a while, and how many since are just wishy-washy liberals.

Hewett was born in WA, on a prosperous wheat farm. Wiki doesn’t say where, but that it was “cleared by 15 year old Albert Facey” (for non-Australians, author of the hugely popular memoir A Fortunate Life) which I think puts it in the Narrogin region, south east of Perth. When she was 12 her parents moved to the city and Hewett went to PLC (Perth) and on to UWA.

In adulthood Hewett joined the CPA and with them went to the USSR, then under Stalin, and to early Communist China. The protagonist of The Toucher recalls being in a parade in Moscow, with Stalin waving from a balcony.

Hewett had a number of marriages and lived mostly in Perth – on attempting a return to education, she was expelled from Graylands Teachers College for having been married and divorced – till, when she was 50, she moved permanently to Sydney. While she was better known as a playwright and poet, she wrote three novels –
Bobbin’ Up (1959)
The Toucher (1993)
Neap Tide (1999)
and the first volume of her autobiography –
Wild Card: an autobiography, 1923–1958 (1990)

In The Toucher the protagonist, Esther, like Hewett in her later years, is overweight and wheelchair bound, but she has retired to a large house on the ‘French’ River in south-west WA. This fictional location seems to be based on the Frankland River which enters the sea at Walpole, on the south coast, west of Albany (mentioned only obliquely, as “the safest harbour in Australia”).

She sat quite still in her wheelchair in the very centre of the house, the coastline spun out around her, the estuary with its great body of water sliding past to the sea. She had come back three years ago, pulling house, garden and river around her like a cocoon, imagining that one day she could emerge, remade into the outer air. But there had been no healing …

Opening lines

Esther had grown up in this part of the south west, in a hut in the karri (very tall eucalypts) forests where her father painted. Now she has returned, initially with a husband, but is soon a widow; finding herself and her father remembered; the same old fishing families still in their cottages; Maxie Crowe, the bad-boy love of her school days now a decrepit grandfather.

Her carers/housekeeper/handyman are (oldish) husband and wife Clarrie and Fred. Clarrie goes off to another country town to stay with her daughter, initially for the birth of a grandchild, but soon, it appears, indefinitely. Esther’s own children are variously ignoring her and living in other parts of the world.

Into the picture come, first the very young Iris, filling in for Clarrie, then Iris’s boyfriend: “‘Hello’, he said, ‘I’m Billy Crowe.’ They breed like flies, she thought.” Yes, he’s Maxie’s grandson, and just as much a bad boy, skilled at fishing and bushcraft and entirely uneducated.

‘I used to sit next to your grandfather in primary school. You’re a lot like him.’
‘All us Crowes look alike. Can I borrow one of y’ books to take home, one y’ wrote y’self?’
‘I don’t think you’d like them’
He bristled. ‘Why not?’
‘I don’t think they’d be quite your cup of tea.’
‘Because I’m too dumb. That’s what y’ think, isn’t it?’
‘No, it’s not that.’
‘Yes it is, but I’m not stupid. I can learn quick. I could find out a lot from y’ if you’d teach me.’
‘What could I teach you?’ she said wearily.
‘Oh, I dunno, about books an’ life an’ that, but you’re too much of a snob, aren’t y’?’

She gives in, gives him some hours of work; lets him drive the Merc; employs him to type the ms of her latest novel, an autofiction of past loves and adulteries; lets him put her in the bath, as Iris watches on helplessly; and so begins a strange love affair, and eventually a murder mystery. Well written, in no style at all really, certainly no hint of the socialist realism of Bobbin’ Up, and some hints that Hewett, or her protagonist at least, is past all that.

For all you who loved Charlotte Wood’s The Weekend, a wildly different look at one older woman’s desires and motivations.

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Dorothy Hewett, The Toucher, McPhee Gribble, Melbourne, 1993. 300pp

Miles Franklin in America

Miles Franklin lived and worked in the US from 1906 to 1915, from ages 27 to 36. If she was ever going to get married this was the time. When she left Australia she was probably engaged to her cousin Edwin Bridle – going by his letters he certainly believed so – and her feeling of being trapped is probably one of her motivations for going.

On the ship over to San Francisco and on her travels through California, Nevada, Colorado, until finally coming to a stop in Chicago, she no doubt flirted furiously, she always flirted furiously, and received a number of proposals of marriage, not least from a circus strongman who wanted her to run away with him.

In Chicago, Franklin was employed by and mixed in the society of upper class women supporting suffragism and working women’s sometimes violent struggle against their employers. But she found time for night school, opera and dining out. For a while she was dating two playboy brothers, one of them married, plus another man, inevitably called ‘Fred’, all three apparently willing to marry her.

She wrote one time that if she married it would only be “to satisfy curiosity”; and another time that virtuous women could behave outrageously because they knew in their hearts they were pure. In the one novel of hers we have from the US years, On Dearborn Street, Franklin concludes that marriage, for her anyway, can only be with a man whom she is sure is also ‘pure’. Inevitably she remained single.

At some level, all of the books Franklin wrote up until she was about 40 are about the tension between “satisfying curiosity” and retaining her independence.

My post this month in the AWWC is more about Franklin’s work than her love life, but I hope you read on anyway …

AWWC: Miles Franklin in America
AWWC: Miles Franklin, The Old Post (short story)