No Roads Go By, Myrtle Rose White

Australian Women Writers Gen 3 Week 12-18 Jan. 2020

No Roads Go By

Twenty years ago this week, Gee had finished year 12, done a very good IB as it turned out and was with me in the truck. We went up to Moree and Brisbane then back to Sydney. My next load was to Moomba in northern South Australia and she had to finalize her university preferences, so I dropped her off to catch the bus to Melbourne from outside Central Station, and went off to load.

My diary for 12 Jan 2000 says that we booked her on Greyhound for $48; I dropped my front trailer at a transport yard in Strathfield; and most concerningly, that when I fuelled up I topped up my radiator which was “leaking from tap – lower RH side”. The following morning a 20 ft container was craned on and I was on my way, over the Blue Mountains – I stopped at Lawson PO to pay some bills – and out through Dubbo.

Slept at Emmadale, got fuel at Little Topar, roadhouses in the desert either side of Wilcannia, topped up my radiator again, found the alternator belt was broken. Got one in Broken Hill.

The customer, Keith Thompson, a famous trucking operator from Castlemaine, Vic, told me I was running late, which was true, and that I would have to go “the short way” on dirt roads via Tibooburra, instead of the long way round on bitumen to Port Augusta and up the Strezlecki Track (map).

The road to Tibooburra was mostly gravel, just the tops of the hills bitumenized. There I turned west onto a dirt road out to Cameron’s Corner – where the borders of NSW, Qld and SA meet, “walked around corner marker to all 3 states. Much evidence of Millenium celebrations”. Slept.

The only map I had was a map of Australia. I was following a faint dotted line which should take me past Merty Merty Station. The ‘road’ itself on the SA side was just wheel tracks in the sand through the scrub. Up I would go, veering left up each sandhill, turn back to the right at the top, and down onto a claypan baked hard in summer, look for the opening on the other side, occasional mobs of cattle to keep me on my toes. For three hours. You can only imagine my relief when I came on a very old sign post pointing to Merty Merty, a few miles on my left and Innaminka 110 on the right. I pressed on, guessed that I should turn right onto the Strezlecki, towards the columns of thick black smoke, was soon at Moomba – where I waited 8 hours due to the crane being broken down. Then, back south, towards the distant Flinders Ranges and civilization, “9.00 pm. Tea, Elsewhere Pub, Lyndhurst. 2 stubbies!”

This is the country of No Roads Go By (1932), the fictionalised memoir of a young woman whose husband took her and their young child from Adelaide to manage a cattle property in remotest outback South Australia in the years leading up to WWI. Myrtle White’s “Mrs Brown” is a city girl like the more famous Mrs Aeneas Gunn of We of the Never Never (1908) though White’s ADB entry says she was born in a tent near Broken Hill and brought up in rural Barossa Valley. White quotes Boake’s famous poem to push the connection: Out on the wastes of the Never Never/That’s where the dead men lie!

I have written elsewhere that Gen 3 had two new streams – (urban) Social Realism and Modernism – and also that many authors, particularly men, continued with the Gen 2 themes of nationalism and bush realism verging on romanticism. But during the Gen 3 period women writers, and indeed rural women generally, made a concerted effort to carve out for themselves a place in men’s bush myths. And they did this by promoting a new myth (in the original sense of archetype rather than falsehood) of the equal partnership of women with men as settler/farmers.

In the 1970s [historians such as] John Hirst [and] Judith Godden recognized that the myth of the independent bushman had been ameliorated by the general adoption of a Pioneer myth, where men tame a hostile environment to carve productive farmland out of unwelcoming bush; a myth which incidentally validates their right to be seen as the creators, and therefore the valid owners, of this land. Although it is sometimes argued that women are absent here also, Jemima Mowbray shows that during the Centenary and Sesqui-centenary celebrations of the 1930s women actively asserted their place in the opening up of the Australian bush to settlement. While Mowbray agrees with Godden that ‘the middle-class virtue of domesticity is the primary virtue celebrated within the Pioneer Woman myth’ (2006, p.4 of 20) she also emphasizes that popular representations of pioneer women show that they, as much as the men, were forced to overcome the loneliness and hardships of pioneering. (That’s me quoting from my thesis The Independent Woman in Australian Literature, 2011)

One (literary) outcome of this movement was the satirical Pioneers on Parade (1939), by Miles Franklin and Dymphna Cusack (Miles believed she, as Brent of Bin Bin, and Steele Rudd had invented the genre of Pioneering Lit.). But I’m afraid I’m yet to read it.

This Australian myth, or story, of women sharing the hardships and responsibilities of farming equally with men continues to need to be asserted right up to today – and was for instance, part of Michelle Scott Tucker’s stated motivation for reevaluating the role of Elizabeth Macarthur in the opening up the Australian wool industry.

So No Roads Go By plays, or played, an important part not just in selling the romance of the outback, in which all Australians like to believe, but in asserting women’s role in what is often pictured as an almost totally male domain. Although, like Gunn, she mostly plays the frail little wifey.

There is not much to the story, but it’s competently written, and White had a few other books published on the back of it. Interestingly no people or places are named, so her husband is The Boss and her daughter, Little’un. If the station itself is not Merty Merty, then it’s pretty close. One ‘lost’ stockman is clearly drinking at the Tibooburra pub.

She endures shocking heat in primitive houses, with dust storms, rolling sand dunes, a rabbit plague, and seven years of nothing to eat but beef and dried vegetables. Is pregnant two times, more than a days travel from the next house let alone the next doctor, and so must must spend months in ‘the city’ (Adelaide).

Little’un is quickly at home in the bush, but the two sons born during the course of the book are sickly. The author herself never seems comfortable, not surprisingly, with the help unreliable and The Boss away mustering for weeks at a time. The stockmen seem to be mostly white, and the local Indigenous people* are barely mentioned. Late in the book White says that there is very little evidence there ever were any.


Myrtle Rose White, No Roads Go By, first pub. 1932, illustrated by Elizabeth Durack 1954, this edition (pictured above) Angus & Robertson, reprinted 1956

see also:
Jemima Mowbray, Examining the Myth of the Pioneer Woman (pdf here)

I was motivated to find this among my father’s books after Sue/Whispering Gum’s recent post, Random thoughts from the mid-1930s (here). Sue is also contributing two Monday Musings on Christina Stead to AWW Gen 3 Week. The first is (here).

*The people of this area are probably Wadikali (or Evelyn Creek mob) of the wider Yarli language group, but I can’t find websites for them under these names.


21 thoughts on “No Roads Go By, Myrtle Rose White

  1. Re primitive housing: this gets a mention in Devanny’s Sugar Heaven. Dulcie is shocked to see the tin shack she is expected to live in, and blurts out that surely they should be made of brick to keep out the heat.
    The other aspect of housing that’s mentioned is that when the scabs come in to take the strikers’ jobs, the single men get turfed out of the barracks, and the families including wives and children are out on the street.
    It was a different world back then…


    • It’s my impression that housing for farm workers stayed primitive till relatively modern times. When I was a kid, my grandfather had a one room fibro hut for his farm worker who, as far as I remember, cooked, ate and slept there. Myrtle White’s first ‘home’ was little more than a shepherds hut while her husband constructed a permanent ‘house’ near a distant water hole. It too was pretty basic and during dust storms everything in their sleeping and eating quarters would be covered in fine red dust.


  2. Why do you think authors want to sell readers on the romance of the outback? Are they inventing this romance, or is there something to it? I know that some Americans have this dream of living off the grid (which is funny because they never mean actually off a grid, they mean no Wi-Fi) and end up in Alaska, where teams of people are dedicated to finding the corpses of frozen and/or starved idiot Americans who thought Alaskan wilderness would be “romantic.”


  3. Thoroughly enjoyed this post Bill, from your truck story to your discussion of th women’s bush myth strand of AWW (including Michelle’s book), to discussion of the book itself. I love White’s floral name, Myrtle Rose, btw. And what a great cover. So glad you were able to find the first edition image. It’s not always easy.

    As for romanticisation of the bush, I think people often romanticise lives different to their own, particularly if those lives “seem” simpler than theirs, though the reality of course is that life in the bush, on farms, is rarely simple or romantic but darned hard yakka. I think, for example, that the British romanticise lives in quaint villages (hence shows like Doc Martins etc of today). But, there’s probably also, with the bush myth here, a sense of wanting to prove ourselves resourceful and tough, upstanding and admirable.


    • That’s my photograph I think, of Dad’s book, so hard to get them square. As Melanie says too, what you romanticize is rarely as you imagine. I romanticize inner city living, cafe strips, late night art house movies, but whether I’d enjoy it is another thing altogether.


      • Well, you did a good job Bill. And yes, Mr Gums and I are a bit the same about inner city living but I wonder too. Currently we have a bit of it when we go to Melbourne… We don’t stay near arthouse cinema but always near choices of cafes and a block from trams.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I listened to a talk given by her daughter, Doris Chambers, in 1987, where Doris reflected back on her life in the bush. Mytle’s daughter loved the bush for the horse riding she loved and the freedom – and the rare times the rains came. she describes how excited they all got when an animal – goat or bullock was killed. They attacked the meat ‘like savages’. two days later they were back to salted meat and dried veggies. They had dogs which she loved but they often took the dingo baits and died. Lots of dingos – mostly in poor condition. Doris recounts how Kidman was not generous to them. Fascinating times.


    • Thanks for commenting. I wonder if the talk is archived. Right now I’m reading Joseph Furphy’s Such is Life, set in 1884. Tom Collins (the central character’s) kangaroo dog wears a wire mask as a matter of course to stop him taking poisoned baits.

      Liked by 1 person

      • The talk is in the Mortlock Library in Adelaide.

        This is the summary of Dori’s life: ‘Chambers, Doris

        Doris Chambers grew up on Noonameera which was an isolated cattle station and stores arrived via camel teams every six months. She moved with her family to Wannaminta which was owned by the Morden Pastoral Company and covered a million and a quarter acres. Chambers boarded at Woodlands school for three years from 1927. She married Jim Chambers in 1943 whose family dated back to 1836 when James Chambers jumped ship from the Coromandel. Her mother Myrtle White, who was born in 1888 in a tent on Acacia station, wrote several books about the outback and her friends included Dame Mary Gilmore and Miles Franklin. Doris and Jim stayed on at Wannaminta for 25 years, Jim having won the property in a ballot of land leases. Doris was responsible for publishing and sorting all the unpublished writings of her mother.’

        Liked by 1 person

    • That’s ok thanks. I see I can get it from the SA State Library. I’ll put it on a memory stick and listen to it one day at work. I still occasionally run up to Roxby Downs but I don’t imagine I’ll ever be up the Strezlecki Track again, let alone across to Cameron’s Corner.


  5. My late father was Mick the stock boy JDD is my grand father Noonamena is Lake Elder and Mirrabooka is Tindara My family introduced Con and Myrtle to the far outback.


    • Thanks for leaving a comment Rod, it’s great to hear from someone who knows. I take it I’m wrong about Merty Merty.
      White doesn’t introduce JDD, just plonks him down on page 5 (her husband is telling her about the new job) –
      “There is an old homestead at Mirrabooka where you can live for a time … It’s about 50 miles from there to Noonameena, where we are going to build, but I’ll be in fairly often, and JDD tells me there is a very capable couple at Mirrabooka.”

      Google Maps has Lake Elder 300 km south of Merty Merty


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