There is always too much to read. That hasn't changed ... in fact, the older I get, the more I learn of what I haven't read ... yet.
On the trip over, I needed something to read. Picking a book
for a flight, especially a long flight, requires something
of a different spirit than one's usual pick. I sure felt like
I was on the verge of an adventure ... so I guess my eye gravitated
to a section on fictional explorations. I quickly picked up,
"The Voyage of the Narwhal (1855-1856)"
by Andrea Barrett (W.W. Norton, 1998). From the backcover
I knew I had found what I wanted: fiction, but fiction done
well, which to me means "with historical backing."
I wasn't disappointed. I was rivoted from the start, loving
the main characters Erasmus, Alexandria, and Zeke. The story
chronicles a fateful mid-nineteenth-century Artic voyage written
through the eyes of the unassuming ship's naturalist. With
an especially nice touch, Barrett prefaces each chapter with
quotes from historical explorers, naturalists, and scientists
of old, including: William Scoresby, "The Polar Ice"
(1815), Henry David Thoreau, "A Week on the Concord and
Merrimack Rivers" (1849), and Louis Agassiz and A.A.
Gould, "Principles of Zoology" (1851). I won't spoil
the fun by sharing even part of the story line, but I will
say that I enjoyed the book so much that I refused to finish
it for three days. I mulled over various ways I might end
such a story, including a scene where the Esquimaux native
Annie plunges a bone knife into the ambitious and heartless
explorer Zeke. Finally, frustrated over another read that
I won't bore you with, I finished "The Voyage of the
Narhwal". (sigh) .... It is always bitter sweet to finish
a good read. During your next plane ride or before your next
adventure, I highly recommend this book.
"Nothing in the short history of white men in Australia can
match those physical changes. The recent clearing of extensive
forest, the building
of a million miles of fences, the making of railways and roads
and artificial lakes -- none of these changes which dominate
the modern history of Australia can be compared with the ancient
rising of the seas, the shaping of thousands of new harbours,
the swamping of scores of tribal territories and the wiping
out of the evidence of the aboriginal life once lived on those
drowned lands." (p14) Triumph of The Nomads - A History
of Ancient Australia (revised edition) by Geoffrey
Blainey, Macmillan Co. of Australia (1975, 1982). "The first
Australians came across the stepping stones from south-east
Asia during an epoch when the level of the ocean was lower.
The sea-straits were narrow but the voyages were courageous.
The slow eastward movement of these peoples was one of the
great events in the history of man" (p15) "often seen Australia
through the British telescope" Cook 1770, first settlement
1788, some evidence that Chinese were in Austalia a half century
before Columbus reached North America, 15th century the Ming
Admiral, Cheng Ho, made a series of long voyages, Timor was
known to Chinese in 15th century for its white sandalwood,
by 16th century, Portuguese and Dutch fought for control of
the trade of sandelwood and beeswax; by 17th century and probably
much earlier, Indonesian fishermen came to fish for the "sea-slug
known as trepang or beche-de-mer" (p248)" "But on the east
coast the white sails of he English ships (the sails of doom)
were a symbol of a gale which in the following hundred years
would slowly cross the continent, blowing out the flames of
countless camp-fires, covering with drift-sand the grinding
stones and fishing nets, silencing the sounds of hundreds
of langugages, and stripping the ancient aboriginal names
from nearly every valley and headland." (p254)
The Australian author Sally Morgan has written a wonderful
story, "My Place" (Henry Holt &
Co, 1988) ) of her journey of discovering her Aboriginal roots,
of discovering "her place" as an Aboriginal woman.
Based on her own life and the life of her mother and full-blood
Aboriginal grandmother, Morgan provides an insider's view
of her grandmother's experiences and fears of living in an
anti-Aboriginal culture. Unable to put away the fear of her
treatment from her early life while a servant for a rich white
Australian family in north-western Australia, Morgan's grandmother
hides the fact that her daughter is a half-caste, a child
of the white landowner. Instead, she tells them, "You
are Indian". The grandmother's only daughter and grandchildren
are raised through the mid- and late-20th century believing
their "dark complexion" comes from Indian (India)
family roots. In her quest to "find the truth",
Sally Morgan wrenches your heart with her story of all that
she learns and all that she uncovers that she will never learn.
This is a sad read in many ways, but Morgan does a wonderful
job sharing life's complex issues with the lighter side of
a life well-lived. Her grandmother is the hero ... even if
very few really understand that is so. In many ways, I sense
the story could have been written by a granddaughter of a
North American Native American from the northeastern United
States. Perhaps that story is for another day....? I recommend
this book for those looking for an insider's view of one journey
to discover what it meant to be Aboriginal in the Australia
of yesterday and what it means even today.
local Wollongong City Library recently featured and introduced
me to Miles Franklin, a classic Australian woman writer from
the early 20th century. I've just finished her first work:
My Brilliant Career? (1901). (The publisher
took off the question mark in the title, but Miles always
wished it had remained). My Brilliant Career is a first person
account of Mile's early life as the young Stella Maria Sarah
Miles Franklin from the grazing property at Talbingo to her
early twenties where she finds herself back working on the
family farm. The work is a vivid portrayal of the hardship
of life in Australia at the turn of the century but a stirring
yarn of the "Aussie spirit". The writing is filled
with the spirit of a woman who refused her grandmother's definition
of a "woman" and as one to be damned to be caught
in the life of her own mother who was married to her alcoholic
father as they struggled to keep a scraggling dairy farm running
in the drought-striken, dust-laden land. The themes are many
and rich in this work and I'll leave it to the interested
reader to discover the honest, almost tragic, but strong truth
that flows throughout this work. Franklin is also known for
her work in the early Australian feminist movement and she
later published under the pseudonym of "Brent of Bin
Bin" to avoid the discrimination against woman writer's
of this time.
Kings in Grass Castles by Mary Durak (1959).
Following the penetration of the Great Dividing Range in the early 1820s Australia had a rapid westward push.
This book describes the dreams, struggle, successes, and failures of Patsy Durak (grandfather of the author) and his
Durak represents the classic stockman or drover. Undeterred by the extremes of the bush, dangerous give and take with
local aboriginals, drought, and financial uncertainty, Durak sets up a "station" in central Queensland at Thylungra, raising
and moving cattle to and fro, searching for water and attempting to keep "the mob" (of cattle)
alive until the final drive to market. Following near complete financial ruin during the Australian depression near
the turn of the century, Durak heads west, across the Northern Territory and across the border into Western Australia where he
and his sons set up a new station. The story is captivating, almost too hard to believe that folks could carry on
in such conditions. But they all loved the land and outdoors and being together. It ends sadly as
Mary Durak clearly describes the dejection of her grandfather as his sons no longer seek or listen to
his advice. Like most places on earth, in the Australian bush, life moves on, generations change, and our elders
shake their heads.
"'Cattle Kings' ye call us, then we are Kings in grass castles that may be blown away
upon a puff of wind …"
Patrick Durack 1878 in
response to a newspaper correspondent complaining of the big landholders.
The Drover’s Song
Cherrily sings the drover
With his stock so fat and sleek,
Up to the border and over
His fortune for to seek.
Merrily sings the drover,
For with luck upon his side,
There’ll be Mitchell grass and clover
And creeks ten miles wide.
Dismally sings the drover
For himself and his luck fell out
But still he rides on like a lover
Into the arms of the drought.
Mournfully sings the drover
As his stock die one by one,
Wild dogs and eagles hover
And bones turn white in the sun.
Wearily sighs the drover
As he lies him down on the plain
To sleep with his swag for a cover
Til the grass springs green again.
Eerily wails the drover
When the drought wind sweeps the sky
And men say ‘Hear the plover!’
As he moves the ghost mob by.
Patsy Durak ca. 1860
Inspired by the ill-fated expedition from Goulburn to the Barcoo.
This is a long read. I strongly recommend the illustrated version as it contains wonderful prints
of the Australian bush and outback. As I mentioned above, it is a sad ending, but still this wonderfully researched
account of early life in the colonization and settlement of Australia is on my highly recommended list. (Thanks
to my new Irish-Aussi friend, Les, for his recommendation).