Extinctions, Josephine Wilson

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Extinctions (2016), the 2017 Miles Franklin Award winner is an exemplar of that award’s recent preference for safe, middle-brow novels that touch all the liberal bases. Author, Josephine Wilson is a fiftyish writer and academic “who lives in Perth, Western Australia with her partner and two children” – one of whom is adopted according to her interview with the Guardian.

She has written the story of a week in the life – with lots of backstory – of a 69 year old retired Engineering professor, Frederick Lothian and his largely estranged daughter, Caroline. The point of view is mainly that of Frederick, though sometimes of Caroline and once (I think), of Jan, Frederick’s next-door neighbour in the retirement village; and so is limited by Frederick’s almost total lack of self awareness.

Frederick is a widower; his wife, Martha has died of cancer a couple of years earlier; and he also has a son, Callum. Caroline, it turns out, is adopted and Indigenous, too young to be of the Stolen Generation, but pointing in that direction, removed from a disappointingly stereotypical Indigenous druggie mother who eventually dies due to domestic violence.

This is a story that connects to me in all sorts of ways but which, in the end, mostly fails to connect. Most reviewers have seen this as Frederick’s story, but it is not. This is a woman’s story, a woman attempting to understand her father’s generation. And just as Wilson is probably a decade older than Caroline, so Frederick is clearly a decade older than his given age. I will be 68 in a couple of months, will work for at least the next five years, I get around on my bike, and, until recently, competed in long distance ocean swims. Frederick is in a retirement village, his body is failing, and he refuses ongoing academic work.

The villa was a bridge between his real life, which had ended, and death, which waited behind a wall of paperbarks on the other side of the quadrangle. He had finished accumulating experiences, and now he was shuffling around in the past, peeking inside boxes and then closing them quickly. Moving to St Sylvan’s had cemented his fate.

Wilson touches lightly on Perth, her and my home town, and I appreciate that. Later as Frederick remembers dragging his family out into the Wheatbelt to stargaze, the locations become more specific; and in the final act Caroline is in Menzies, north of Kalgoorlie, getting in touch with her indigenous family – which, as you might expect of me, is a story I believe Wilson should not have attempted – Wilson, away from home territory, makes a small mistake and has Caroline advised to watch out for kangaroos while driving at night when the real danger in that area is unfenced cattle. And, if you want my advice, don’t drive in the outback at night, at all.

The other connections? I still think of myself as an ‘engineer’, despite never getting beyond first year. It was the only profession ever considered for me during all my school years, and by the time I arrived at Melbourne I was a natural fit for its boys-own culture – 240 boys in first year and one woman who left at the end of the year to study science. And my professors might be pleased to learn, the one lesson I remember, turning moments, has been of use to me throughout my working life.

Frederick is distant and controlling, he chooses to live in Perth to put distance between himself and a bullying father in England. He meets Martha in the US and she gives up her studies and the chance of career to follow him to Australia.

When he met Martha he knew nothing of families, and very little of love. A family was something to fear, like a long, dark tunnel cutting through a mountain. Who knew if you would come out the other side alive?

Frederick reports to us what Martha has said to him, without comprehension. Milly (ex Mrs Legend) would understand that! His unit, and before that his home, is full of collectibles, which the children are NOT TO TOUCH. Been there! I hope I was less anal, though I still don’t let anything go.

I have both a daughter who was adopted out and a daughter whose biological father I helped her find. Near the end, we discover that Martha had refused to let Caroline as a teenager have her birth mother’s details, which I didn’t find consistent with all the other ways Martha opposed Frederick.

When Frederick finally gains some insight in his old age, he is too willing to forgive himself. That was my father’s position, and mine too I think.

In the retirement village, Frederick holds himself aloof, regarding the other residents with scorn. The week or so of the story begins with him watching, allowing, another resident to die; Jan, his gregarious neighbour, insists on him talking; her scorn at his self-serving answers causing him to begin coming to terms with all he has suppressed; we discover he has a son who has been in care, incommunicative for years with brain damage, Frederick unable to make himself visit, even after Martha’s death; Frederick the cause of his son’s accident, Martha and Caroline both despising him for it, though it’s clear he doesn’t realise.

The backstory element is busy – Frederick’s relationship as a boy with his domineering father; his and his father’s involvement in the death of his younger brother; his ‘best friend’ Ralph; Martha’s increasing dissatisfaction and independence; her affair (which we learn only from Caroline); Jan’s story as she becomes more involved in Frederick’s life, becomes the catalyst for some very sudden changes.

But in the end, the novel has three weaknesses, the last of which is IMO fatal. Frederick’s agedness, already discussed; it is never clear why Martha stayed married to him; and we are meant to believe at the end that Frederick has seen the light and been redeemed. He is of course too like me (and my father) for me to find him likeable, but I did not even find him believable.

 

Josephine Wilson, Extinctions, UWA Publishing, Perth, 2016. Audiobook: Brilliance Audio, read by William McInnes (sounding in places very like Jack Thompson, the voice of Australia)

Other reviews:

Roslyn Jolly, Sydney Review of Books (here)
Lisa, ANZLitLovers (here)
Janine, The Resident Judge (here)

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Australia Writes, T. Inglis Moore ed.

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My late father’s books are an endless resource, more than I’ll ever read, not before I retire at least and by then I’ll be too tired. I’ve shelved them with mine, not so ordered as Lisa’s, so I come upon them at odd times. The bookcase on my left as I write – jarrah shelves roughly knocked together by an old family friend of Milly’s late mother, years ago when she was a widow with six school age children – contains mostly stuff from when I was studying, Miles Franklin, her contemporaries, Lit. theory, but I found` there today Australia Writes (1953), a compilation of short stories and poetry “written or published since 1950” and which Dad must have got second hand (for $6.00, compared with the original price of 19/6 – 19 shillings and 6d for all you youngsters, or just under $2.00).

The title page says “Edited for the Canberra Fellowship of Australian Writers by T. Inglis Moore”. Moore (bio here) writes in the Foreword –

Within its diversity the fiction … holds characteristics common to contemporary Australian writing. It turns frequently to the countryside – perhaps because writers feel that the true traditions of Australia lie in “The Bush”. It is marked by vigour and sincerity. The feeling for social justice is pervasive. The outlook is upon a workaday world; over it we could hang the roadside sign: “Men at Work”.

Men at work indeed, of the 30 short stories, six are by women – Flora Eldershaw, Dorothy Harrison, Ethel Anderson, Kylie Tennant, Elyne Mitchell, Henrietta Drake Brockman. I didn’t count the poets, but it’s more or less the same, Judith Wright, 5 or 6 other women and 30 men.

Eve Langley’s there:

A youth, kicking the self-starter of a
motor-bike sends
A vast vibration out to the sun, and it
returns his shadow in rain.
Out from the sun startles the line of
things, and the flying cars
Set their undertones in a dark and
silver note upon the line.
(This year before it ends)

Drake Brockman’s is a puff piece about Miles Franklin; and Tennant’s is a funny, queer, all right – strange story, a slice of many lives during a flood in Narbethong (not the Narbethong NE of Melbourne I don’t think, but one on a river with a dam upstream).

The story I’ve chosen to review is The National Game by T.A.G. Hungerford, a West Australian writer about whom I wrote earlier this year (here). His ‘national game’ is not Australian football as I expected but a two-up game in the national capital.

WG do you recognise this landscape?

Eastside Camp squats on the top of a red gravel hill and droops in untidy folds of unpainted wooden buildings down the slope to where a road skirts the willow-lined river… Behind it is the sky, and in front of it the road and river, and the lush greenness of the lucerne flats. Dotted with red and white cows, they stretch almost unbroken to Duntroon and the aerodrome.

Map (here): The camp may have been near Mt Pleasant, in the centre of the map. Lake Burley Griffin was not filled for another decade. I can remember visiting Nana and Pop, Dad’s parents when the lake was just paddocks as Hungerford describes.

Two men, Ransome and Kernow, an Old Australian and a New Australian, a Pole, called a ‘Balt’ by the Aussies, are workers on a project, maybe Civic (Canberra Centre), which was completed in 1961. Hungerford imagines what it might be like to be in Kernow’s head, dealing with the vagaries of slang and the latent hostility of ‘Old’ Aussies, who complain about foreigners taking their jobs, despite, as Kernow points out, there being a chronic shortage of labour.

Ransome offers to take Kernow to play two-up:

“I’m going up the game – up to Ainslie.”
“Game?”
“Yeah, the game. Swy – two-up, you know, with the pennies? At Limestone Hostel. They run a big one there in the scrub, behind.”

They play, Kernow wins, wins big, and they are chased home by some sore losers. Hungerford’s point is not the outcome of the game but to discuss aspects of Australianness by shining a ‘New Australian’ light on it. Kernow offers Ransome half his winnings, but Ransome demurs: “No Paul … we don’t do things like that here – you won it and it’s yours. Whack it in the kick.”

Kernow (note that Hungerford makes no attempt to give him a typical Polish name. Too hard.) is unhappy that he is not accepted by Old Australians even after two or three years and proposes using the money to return to Germany (Not to communist Poland!) but Ransome persuades him he has enough with his savings to buy some land.

To buy some land! His hands clenched hard about the the wads of notes they held; not the rich black soil of Poland, farmed and loved for hundreds of years by his father and his father’s father, but the wild soil of this wild, wide country that would have to be tamed, and coerced, and then, with love, brought to yield.

It’s an interesting book of our white picket fence past, those last few years before the ‘sixties’, womens lib, the anti-war movement, multiculturalism. Aborigines are, and would remain invisible for many more years. They get one poem, Nomads by Roland Robinson, and maybe a second, The Ancestors by Judith Wright of which I could make not head nor tail: “in each notched trunk shaggy as an ape/crouches the ancestor, the dark bent foetus …”

I should give it to B2, to mark his birth year.

 

T Inglis Moore (ed.), Australia Writes, FW Cheshire, Melbourne, 1953

Draganned again

Journal: 024

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It’s time to imagine Dragan in a dress.

If I thought I had been Draganned last week, it only got worse! I upset a customer, Dragan got angry. I loaded my trailers on Thursday, he held me over (in Sydney) till Friday. We argued. He harangued me about how ungrateful I was. I spent all Friday stacking freight for one customer around the freight of another customer, on another driver’s trailers, and took off for Perth the minute we were finished. An hour out … it goes on and on. In the next 24 hours I was diverted around the countryside and swapped the combination I was towing twice, as other drivers had problems. And still we’re fighting.

I’ve had my truck serviced – the oil alone costs $600 – on the basis that the company will want me to do one more trip before Christmas, but that is looking increasingly problematic. Last night I picked Milly up from her Tuesday meeting and we went for a late meal at Neho, a Korean fusion restaurant in Vic Park. Very popular. Great food. And happy to squeeze us in before they closed the kitchen. Anyway, Milly: it’s time I stopped living the Legend and spent some time in Perth doing family stuff. So one way or another, no more Dragan in 2019.

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On the way here I listened to Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London (1933). I thought I had a copy at home and could write a proper review. As it turns out I have lots of Orwell, but not that one, not on the shelf where it should be anyway. What I do have is a biography, The Unknown Orwell (1974) by Peter Stansky & William Abrahams. They write:

It can be argued that of all the books he discovered while at Eton, the one that was most to affect him was Jack London’s The People of the Abyss. Years later it would have a direct influence upon the writing of the first book he was to publish, Down and Out in Paris and London. As an Etonian, [he] read of the ‘abyss’ and incorporated it into his fantasies and life. Written in 1903, the book was (and still is) a vivid,  powerful and appalling first-hand account of poverty in the East End of London in the summer of 1902 …

I was a big Jack London fan years ago, but that was one book I could never find. Orwell, born Eric Blair (1903-1950) was at Eton from 1917-21. From there he went directly into the Imperial Police in Burma, from which he resigned to become a writer in March, 1928. He began almost straight away to get essays accepted, including, in 1929, The Spike, an account of his experiences living as a tramp in England [And also the name of chapter in London’s book]. I say “living as” because it was clear he always had options available to him, to borrow or earn money, which real tramps didn’t, and his account was actually the conflation of a series of experiences separated in time. Interestingly, he says he never attempted to modify his Etonian accent, and in fact was sometimes offered, and accepted, better treatment on the basis of his obvious gentleman-ness. A ‘spike’ if you’re wondering was a dormitory for the homeless. Tramping was mandated by the law that specified a man (or woman) could only stay in a given spike once in any month. Amazingly, it was an imprisonable offence to enter a spike with more than a few pence in one’s pocket.

Although Paris precedes London in the book, he was actually in Paris after this, in the Latin Quarter, and became a scullion – my son says “dish pig”, a job he often turned to as he scraped through his seven year Bachelors degree – after having all his money stolen by a prostitute he brought back to his room. In the book, not to offend his mother’s sensibilities, he says it was a young Italian.

He put the two stories together and eventually found a publisher in Victor Gollancz, who also came up with the title. (I looked, unsuccessfully for a Gollancz cover, but don’t you love the one I did come up with). It was at this stage that he adopted the pen name George Orwell. Down and Out is journalism/memoir with the names changed, a form I think he used again in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), but I’m pretty sure Homage to Catalonia (1938) which I reviewed here, is straight memoir.

Orwell, like London, was confirmed in his socialism by his experience of the actual living conditions of the underclass. But he had a strong libertarian streak which made it impossible for him to be a Party member, and which enables the Right to present him, wrongly, as on their side. He doesn’t judge his fellows, neither the fact that they have fallen so low, nor their behaviour, and is scathing of government policies which forced men willing to work to spend all their time and energy tramping between spikes and cheap lodging houses. He even suggests an alternative, accommodation with land attached which the homeless could use to grow their own vegetables. As it is, their principal sustenance was cups of tea, bread and margarine. I think that what he finds saddest is the loneliness, the impossibility of these men even meeting women, let alone being in the position to marry. He is also scathing about the cleanliness – or lack of – of French hotel kitchens, so you’ve been warned!

Orwell doesn’t mention the Depression. I have a very clear conception of the Depression years (1929-39) from Australian and American literature, but not so much from British and European lit. and perhaps anyway the bulk of his experiences predate the Wall Street Crash of September 1929 from which the Great Depression is usually dated. Stansky & Abrahams say extreme poverty (in Britain) was very similar in London’s and Orwell’s works, which are a generation apart, and no doubt right up to and beyond the War (as we see in Cotter’s England for example).

Last but not least, he relates some shockingly anti-semitic stories for no discernable reason, and I think it is more than “just the times”. Orwell is a writer I admire, and I need to follow this up.

 

George Orwell (M, Eng), Down and Out in Paris and London, first pub. Gollancz, London, 1933. Blackstone Audio, read by Frederick Davidson

Peter Stansky & William Abrahams, The Unknown Orwell, Paladin, London, 1974

More Orwell: Homage to Catalonia (here). 1984 (here)

Recent audiobooks

Ken Bruen & Jason Starr (M, USA/Ire), Slide (2015)
Terry Brooks (M, USA), A Princess of Landover (2009)
Irena Gut Opdyke (F, Poland), In My Hands (1999) – Holocaust memoir
CJ Box (M, USA), The Disappeared (2018)

Currently reading

Dale Spender, Mothers of the Novel
Alexis Wright, Tracker (2017)

 

Today it rained

Journal: 023

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MST’s book launch. Photo by Lisa Hill

Today (Wednesday) it rained. If you’re a Sydneysider you’ll know what I mean. Though it wasn’t just Sydney, grain harvest and carting was suspended all the way across South Australia as I came over at the weekend, to Melbourne, arriving early enough to have coffee with MST and her wonderful children and then tea with Lou (teacher son) in non-rainy, post Dan-slide Victoria.

MST gave me a copy of this year’s Stella winner, Alexis Wright’s Tracker which I hadn’t intended reading, but which having started I can’t put down. A review is coming, though it may take me till the xmas hols.

I’m sure I’m not the only reader who misses Michelle’s blog since she started working at Stella. She says she has 160 books to read for next year’s prize (or some such number). Even if there’re half a dozen judges, that’s still a lot of reading. But she has undertaken to review the Billabong series, of which she has long been a fan, for AWW Gen 2 week. That’s 13-19 Jan. Michelle.

Lou had a book for me too, on an episode in Australian working class history, which has long been absent from my library, but I told him to wrap it and give it to me when he comes over for Christmas. Psyche has phoned just in the last hour to say that she has booked her flight from Darwin, Milly and I have booked time off, Gee and the grandkids won’t go on holidays till the new year, so that’s all of us, in Perth, on the actual Christmas Day, and Milly is planning a feast (my jobs are transport and grog, purchase of).

My deliveries in Melbourne were quite straightforward, though way down in Dandenong (an outer south-eastern suburb), but after that I got thoroughly Draganned. I had a pickup in the outer west, then a second in Frankston, back past Dandenong (we’re talking two 100 km round trips, in traffic), and a third in Cowra – yes that Cowra, 500 kms north in NSW. That was this morning, which means the rain had come. I’m not used to rain. And it got worse. With three quarters of a load I came on into Sydney. Unloaded it all at a depot for transport at a later date. And now I sit at the Eastern Creek truckstop. The rain still falls. I await further instructions.

Sitting around in Melbourne – there was a 24 hour break somewhere in those cross-city back and forths – I started sorting through the newspapers that populate my passenger seat. I know I said I’ve given up paper newspapers, and I have, but Milly and I bond over cryptics, so when I think of it I buy a weekend paper. The West, which has the cryptic we’re used to, or the SMH/Age which we find harder. I keep the motoring sections ‘for later’, and then there’s Owner-Driver which is free in truckstops, and in amongst all these I found the last six Australian Book Review, which subscription I will not renew but which I must have paid a couple of years ahead – and still the reviews are mostly not Australian and if they are, are mostly not fiction.

But I found a few interesting Indigenous stories. In Wright’s wonderful biography Tracker Tilmouth seems to identify various groups within his community by the matriarch, so ‘Geraldine mob’ or ‘Ursula mob’. This is not a usage I’ve run into before but it comes up again in ABR May 2018, “The Paradox of Recognition” by Richard Martin, about native title in the Ceduna area. I wrote in Crossing the Nullarbor, “… from Yalata to Ceduna, were the Wirangu whose language was subsumed by the related Kokatha, another member of the Western Desert family of languages to their north.” Ceduna’s Aunty Sue Mob are identified as Kokatha and are initially excluded from the Wirangu native title claim. The article – a review of two books – discusses how legalistic views of native title are breaking up communities.

Two other articles on Indigenous issues are Kim Mahood on archeology (April 2018). Indigenous occupation has been extended back 65,000 years and the book she reviews, Deep Time Dreaming by Billy Griffiths studies the question ‘Who owns the past?’; and Alan Atkinson on The Sydney Wars by Stephen Gapps (August 2018). “In response to invasion, various Indigenous groups on the Cumberland Plain were drawn together from time to time, apparently in innovative ways …” to fight back.

On a different subject altogether, Beejay Silcox writes ‘We are all MFAs now!’ (August 2018). Over a number of pages she argues that MFA programmes make no difference to what we read, but have merely taken the space formerly offered by cafes as forums for budding writers to meet and criticize each other’s writing. Studying in America she discovers, quelle surprise!, that American courses teach only American writing. My own opinion is that Masters degrees have taken the space formerly occupied by tech college diplomas.

 

Recent audiobooks

Mary Burton (F, USA), The Hang Man (2017) – More dead young women, their deaths described in loving detail. Do the authors get off on writing this stuff?
Blake Crouch (M, USA), Dark Matter (2016)
Andrea Camilleri (M, Ita), Angelica’s Smile (2014)
Eve Chase (F, Eng), Black Rabbit Hall (2016)
Kate Atkinson (F, Eng), When Will There be Good News (2008)

Currently reading

Dale Spender, Mothers of the Novel
Alexis Wright, Tracker (2017)

Stuff on the Internet

The NY Times flies out to Australia, to Goroke in western Victoria to meet the next Nobel Laureate in Literature (thanks to my brother in law who sent me this) and finds him behind the bar at the local golf club (here).

 

At Parramatta, Ethel Anderson

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Ethel Campbell Louise Anderson (1883-1958) was born into the Australian squattocracy, in England to Australian-born parents, was brought up in Sydney and on her grandfather’s station, Rangamatty, near Picton, and went to school at Sydney CEGGS. Her name reminded me of Annabella Boswell (here), also a Campbell, and the Scots community she moved in half a century earlier. But “Rangamati” was a place name from Bengal and it’s likely she moved in Anglo-Indian circles. In any case she married a major in Bombay in 1904, whom she “accompanied … (usually riding)—whether he was shooting bears or marching with his battery”. (ADB)

She spent the war years in England and didn’t return to Sydney until 1924. Anderson, who retired with the rank of Brigadier, was private secretary to a number of NSW Governors, including Philip Game who dismissed Jack Lang. Ethel mixed in art circles with modernists like Grace Cossington-Smith but seems to have been decidedly old fashioned in her writing – which is why I am happy to deal with her in Gen 2. Another site (here) says “A well-travelled mural painter and writer, Ethel Anderson was considered one the most important supporters of modern art and its painters in the early part of the 20th century, thanks largely to the exhibitions she organised and the writing she did about it for numerous publications including Art in Australia and the Sydney Morning Herald.”

Anderson had short stories published in various magazines. At Parramatta appeared in the Bulletin in 1956, and is variously described as a novella and, to use a term coined by Frank Moorhouse, a collection of ‘discontinuous narratives’. The two stories from At Parramatta I review below are included in Australian Short Stories, ‘selected by Kerryn Goldsworthy’. The text itself doesn’t say when they are set but I would guess around 1880 or earlier. The coachman is a ‘murderer’, and by implication a convict. Transportation to NSW ceased in the 1840s but I don’t know for how long after that trusted convicts were let out as servants and labourers.

Miss Aminta Wirraway and the Sin of Lust

Here’s something for my fellow 60-ish bloggers to consider –

A picnic was to celebrate Miss Aminta Wirraway’s seventeenth birthday, chiefly because it was the one form of entertainment likely to be eschewed by the ‘agéd’. “Though I do not call people really old till they take their baths with the door open,” Victoria McMurthie had observed, “people begin to be elderly when they look thoughtful after eating apple dumplings – “.

Half a dozen girls go down to the beach in the vicarage buckboard, down the sandy track with its little creek crossings from Mallow’s Marsh to Lanterloo Bay.

“Across the harbour Sydney begins to look like a real city, doesn’t it? There’s St. James’ spire – such an elegant candle snuffer.”

But the subject of the moment is Dr Phantom, the most eligible bachelor from Mallow’s Marsh to Hornsby Junction, who apparently wishes to stay free to “go to Burragorang or to cross the Wollondilly, or to explore the Nepean, or the Diamantina … or to the Snowy River, to fish for trout …” The girls chatter on, about the advantageous marriages made by their friends, and that they might make themselves, Aminta confesses to being in love, leaves a pagan offering on the shore, and then it’s time: “Juliet, you slip your clothes on and run and harness Ruby.”

Juliet McCree is accused of Gluttony

Dr Phantom is making his way in his dashing “Hyde Park”, ‘a canopied and curtained vehicle, its four wheels rimmed with iron, drawn by a piebald Waler, and driven by a white-gloved, personable murderer.’ It’s a fine early autumn day, he’s laden with baskets of peaches, plums, grapes and pears, and making his way to the home of his friend and partner, Dr Boisragon “(pronounced Borrygan)”.

There he finds seven children, various shades of green, holding black papier-mâché basins to whom Boisragon has administered a strong emetic in order to discover which one of them has stolen and eaten the nectarine he had been awaiting with some eagerness to achieve perfect ripeness.

Juliet is discovered – by the nectarine peel in her vomit – to be the criminal. She argues forcefully that fruit is often taken without asking, that the doctors both receive and indeed have in their possession at this moment, fruit which they neither grew nor paid for, that Dr Phantom has in his pocket a lace hanky which is not his (it’s Aminta’s!), and that she was unaware she was committing a crime. Boisragon has no mercy, and she is sent home in the care of Phantom’s murderer.

I enjoyed these stories, grew up on tales of English school children, mostly boys of course, never read Little Women or Anne of Green Gables (I can’t think of any English examples), love Tom Brown’s Schooldays, though my favourite was and remains Kenneth Grahame’s The Golden Age.

Researching for Gen 2 Week has left me with a surfeit of C19th school-girl stories. I’m also reading Louise Mack’s Teens (a pdf accessible from the Gen 2 page). Mack’s ADB entry says she was friends with Ethel Turner at Sydney Girls High School and that the two published rival papers. Turner is 9 years older, so that is unlikely. But it is possible Mack’s Teens (1897) was influenced by Turner’s Seven Little Australians (1894). Hopefully one of you will review one or both of these books for AWW Gen 2 Week, 13-19 Jan. 2019.

 

Ethel Anderson, At Paramatta, Cheshire, Melbourne, 1956

The cover above is from the Penguin, 1985 reprint. It looks familiar but I can’t see it anywhere amongst my unread books, or dad’s. Abe Books has 3 copies in fine condition for £6.85.

The Drover’s Wife, Frank Moorehouse (ed.)

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The cover painting above is Russell Drysdale’s The Drover’s Wife (1945) from a trip he made the previous year and his drawing A Drover’s Camp near Deniliquin (1944). Deniliquin is in NSW, 80 km north of the Victorian border at Echuca. I have often been through that way, heading east to Conargo, Jerilderee, Wagga or north to Hay, Hillston, Bourke and on into outback Queensland, and drovers and their mobs of sheep are still a common sight. Twenty years ago, destitute, I seriously considered the merits of getting an old truck and a plywood caravan and travelling at walking pace as the sheep in my care grazed the back roads and byways of the Riverina. As it happens Milly saved me, for the time being anyway, and that’s a story for another day.

Drysdale always claimed the naming of his painting was unconnected with the title of Australia’s most famous story, but many have sought to connect the two, not least Murray Bail, who in his own The Drover’s Wife (1975) claims that the big bodied woman is his (or more strictly, his dentist narrator’s) missing wife.

In this book Frank Moorehouse brings together a whole collection of this, his own and other writers’ stories and essays – on some of which I have already written (Louisa Lawson vs Kaye Schaffer, The Drover’s De Facto) – to make a fascinating whole.

Let me attempt a brief chronological overview (Moorehouse’s book is arranged thematically). The undoubted source of Henry Lawson’s The Drover’s Wife (read it here) is his mother, Louisa’s early married life in the bush near Mudgee, NSW, her husband often away droving and prospecting. Louisa chucked it in in 1886 when Henry was about 19, moved to Sydney, bought a newspaper, and became a passionate advocate for women’s rights. She was a loud forceful woman, Henry was not, and a great story teller.

Moorhouse includes an essay by Louisa, The Australian Bush-Woman (1889), see above, which discusses many of the elements of hardship and isolation which Henry includes in his story. Henry’s The Drover’s Wife first appeared in the Bulletin in 1892. Two years later Louisa used her presses to publish “a poorly printed collection” of Henry’s stories entitled Short Stories in Prose and Verse. Then in 1896 Angus & Robertson brought out a more comprehensive collection, While the Billy Boils.

Academic Ryan O’Neill demonstrates how the Bulletin‘s house style moulded Lawson into one of world’s great short story writers. He argues that the influence of the Bulletin‘s and Lawson’s “Bush Realism” was to be hugely influential in Australian short fiction into the 1960s. Moorhouse looks at iterations in the text to interrogate Lawson’s attitude to race. So, the B in Blacks is capitalised for the first time in the version the Lawson’s printed, but is subsequently discarded, while the comic King Billy intercedes between the drover’s wife and the Black midwife, Mary only in later versions and, according to Moorhouse, only after Lawson got feedback from his cronies down the pub. In a separate essay Matthews argues that Lawson was gay.

Lawson’s genius was to both write within the Bulletin format and to rise above it, subtly – and not so subtly in The Drover’s Wife – spreading his mother’s first wave feminism, while all the time being upheld by men as the messiah of mateship. Men sought to emulate his laconic style, from Vance Palmer to Roger McDonald, but he was also influential with women, not least Miles Franklin and Eve Langley.

In lieu of interrogating this influence Moorhouse has included ten or so short stories which reference Lawson’s story. I have already reviewed The Drover’s De Facto; others include The Drover’s Wife’s Dog by SF writer Damien Broderick; a long story of a young woman’s coming of age, Afraid of Waking It by Madeleine Watts, good but barely relevant; Murray Bail’s story about the woman in the painting; and Moorhouse’s own mock account of an Italian student’s misreading of the Lawson and Bail stories and Drysdale’s painting, which allocates to Australians the extreme affection for sheep usually ascribed to Kiwis.

There are some excellent photos of Drover’s Wifes paintings, images from stage works, notably Leah Purcell’s play (and also stage notes), and a wonderful pair of images titled the Drover’s Wife, Urisino Bore (1958) of drover Ronald Kerr and his sixteen year old wife Mavis, married 39 weeks pregnant (by Jeff Carter (1928-2010)), and again in 2011 after more than 50 years together (and quite often apart, as is the case for all drovers’ wives).

Sue/Whispering Gums has recently re-brought Barabara Jefferis (1917-2004) to our attention and her The Drover’s Wife (1980) is a fitting story to end this review.

It ought to be set straight. All very well for them to spin yarns and make jokes but nobody has written any sense about me. nobody has even given me a name except one and he got it wrong and said I was called Hazel. The drover’s wife, the doctor’s wife, the butcher’s wife. You wouldn’t think of all the countries the one where women are the fewest would be the one where they don’t exist, where men’ll say ‘the missus’ sooner than give a name.

In a chronology I couldn’t quite keep up with Jeffris’ DW is first a kid from the backclocks of NSW who runs off with a dentist [the Murray Bail story]; runs into Henry Lawson – “so I told him a lot. Talked too much – must’ve – because some of it he took and turned into that story about the snake …”, and the story about Mary, the Aboriginal midwife, and the story about the baby she lost – “That was the story I told Mr Lawson a long time afterwards, or at least the parts of it that were alright to tell a man.” Meets and is painted by Mr Drysdale, and then there was Murray Bail “who must have known the dentist”.

What I meant was to tell not so much about me and the drover and the dentist and the rest of them but about how women have a history, too, and about how the Bushman’s Bible and the other papers only tell how half the world lives… We’re not sheep or shadows, or silly saints the way Mr Lawson would have. There’s more to us. More to me than any of them have written, if it comes to that.

But she still doesn’t tell us her name.

Frank Moorhouse (ed.), The Drover’s Wife, Knopf, Sydney, 2017


AWW Gen 2 Week, 13-19 Jan. 2019

I’ve put up the first iteration of the AWW Gen 2 page (here) with links to reviews and posts by me, Lisa/ANZLL, Sue/Whispering Gums, Kim/Reading Matters and Brona’s Books – check them out and see what else I can add – and links also to stories and novels readable as pdfs or downloadable to e-readers.


see also:

Brian Matthews, Louisa (review)
Bertha Lawson, My Henry Lawson (review)

Nancy Elin’s review of Leah Purcell’s play The Drover’s Wife (here)

All the Birds, Singing, Evie Wyld

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Yet another woman farmer novel! Just a coincidence. Maybe. I listen to lots of indifferent fiction while I’m driving but the cover of this with its “Winner of the 2013 Encore Prize”, and “From one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists” at least looked promising, even if it gave no hint that it might also be ‘Australian’.

Here are the facts. The audiobook is read by a woman with an Australian accent. The story is of a woman sheep farmer on an island off the coast of England who we gradually come to learn has escaped a traumatic past in Western Australia. She is a strong, tall woman with terrible scars on her back. Some of the WA bits are clearly researched rather than lived. Evie Wyld was born in and lives in England, and this is her second novel.

I listened on the way home from Sydney over the weekend and on my first day off thought I would do some googling. Evie Wyld was born in 1980 in London. Her mother was/is Australian and the family spent some time on Evie’s grandparents’ property on the NSW north coast. And …

All the Birds, Singing was the winner of the 2014 Miles Franklin. Who knew!

The shortlist for that year included, Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Tim Winton’s Eyrie and Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book – which may well be the book of the century let alone the year, what were the judges thinking! (My reviews here, here, here). Still, Wyld’s is a strong novel and a refreshing take on the Independent Woman, most reminiscent probably of Nikki Gemmell’s Alice Springs.

The story begins with Jake Whyte – an Australian woman – discovering a gutted sheep on her little farm on an isolated English island. For a long time she suspects the local kids but there is a ‘shape’ that moves in and out of the woods. The novel alternates backwards and forwards between England and Jake’s past in Western Australia. In the West she is a rouseabout in a shearing team out from Kambalda. I don’t think Wyld has ever seen shearing or been to the West, but if you haven’t either then you won’t notice. I can’t help myself saying though that Kambalda is a very ‘suburban’ mining town, built in the 1960s and doesn’t have any tin shed pubs.

Just as we are getting to know the shearers, the Australian chapters start moving backwards in time, first by hints, then by descriptions of her earlier life, held as a sex slave maybe by an old man on a remote property between Port Hedland and Marble Bar. And yes, that’s tropical cattle country, not sheep country. The boundary between cattle and sheep was always south of the Tropic of Capricorn and with the decline in the wool industry and the depredations of wild dogs has moved maybe 400 kms further south in the 20 years I’ve been back in the West. But anyway, the old man teaches her a bit about sheep farming which she uses to get her rouseabout job.

It’s too hot, but I like the way my arms feel like they’re full of warm oil, and sweat runs down them in sheets soaking the sides of my singlet. There’s an ache in the bottom of my spine from bending and lifting, but it beats lying on my bed at Otto’s waiting for the day to be over. I catch myself smiling as I throw another fleece onto the table and Denis nods to me, impressed.

It would unwind the narrative tension to say more about the situation she gets herself into with the old man, Otto, but it’s well done.

We go back further. School days in country Wyld has lived in, the NSW north coast. An Aboriginal boyfriend. A bushfire.

Back in the ‘present’, we meet the man she bought the farm off, who has retired nearby but helps her out from time to time, or provides commentary if she’s not in immediate danger; his delinquent son and the son’s girlfriend; and a well-spoken alcoholic she discovers sleeping in the barn and who never quite gets round to leaving. The ‘shadow’ keeps taking sheep. And throughout, the birds sing out or cry warnings. (Evie, there are no kookaburras in Western Australia).

A good book, very good even, but not in the same league as The Swan Book.

 

Evie Wyld,  All the Birds, Singing, 2013. Audiobook: Blackstone, Read by Cat Gould.

Sue, Whispering Gum’s review (here), but she seems also to have mentioned Wyld quite often in the context of awards and women’s writing. If you put Wyld in her search box it brings up ten or so listings. Check them out.

Lisa ANZLL has reviewed Wyld’s earlier After the Fire, A Still Small Voice (here) but All the Birds, Singing must still be on the MF TBR.

Recent audiobooks

Stuart Woods (M, USA), Quick and Dirty (2017)
Helen Sedgwick (F, Sco), The Comet Seekers (2016)
Yrsa Sigurdardóttir (F, Fin), Last Rituals (2007)
Rio Youers (M, USA), The Forgotten Girl (2017)

Currently reading

Dale Spender, Mothers of the Novel.
Frank Moorhouse, The Drover’s Wife (2017)
I’ve been carrying around Peggy Frew’s Hope Farm, but woman farmer! so will start on Mary Grant Bruce, Billabong’s Daughter for AWW Gen 2 Week.