Category Archives: Book reviews

Bill Bryson ‘The Life and Times of The Thunderbolt Kid’

bryson_thunderbolt

2006, 375 p.

When feeling that I need to justify being in a CAE bookgroup when, heaven knows I surely have enough reading that I should be doing, I often say “Well, you read books that you wouldn’t normally choose”. This is very much the case with this book. As it happened I didn’t really mind sinking into its fairy-floss peaks, aware that I had only two days to read it before our bookclub meeting. I’d just finished reading N and was feeling exhilarated and supremely sated, and I would have found it difficult to turn straight away to a challenging or complex book. Fortunately, in this case then, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid is neither of these things.

I’ve read a couple of Bill Bryson’s travel books, and find them wryly amusing. Although this is a memoir, he approaches it in much the same way: it is a travelogue around his childhood memories. The book moves chronologically towards his adolescence, but is structured thematically with chapters titled (among others) ‘Hometown’, ‘Welcome to Kid World’ ‘Birth of a Superhero’ ‘Boom!’,’What, Me Worry?’ and ‘The Pubic Year’.

Bryson was born and raised in Des Moines Iowa in 1951. Unusually for the time, both his parents worked at the Des Moines Register, his father as sports writer and his mother in the women’s section. Bryson’s viewpoint is unashamedly child-centred, with his parents benign but almost peripheral characters, and his sibling almost invisible. Bryson is much attracted to lists, and they pepper the book- a rather lazy way, I think, of leaving the reader to recognize and make the connections. There are one-liners on every page, and it’s the voice of the raconteur that you hear.

One of the things that struck me was how self-containedly American his life was. He lists his favourite television programs (all American), films (all American), comic books (all American) and school readers (all American). It reinforced for me how much an Australian childhood (albeit five years later than his) was a mixture of British, American and Australian influences.

This is not to say that there’s not some social commentary in here as well. He points out the disjunction between the fears of the time (polio, Communists, nuclear war) and the sunny abundance and self-confidence of affluent, middle class White America.   He deals with racism in a couple of pages because it was not on his horizon at all.

All in all, it’s an affectionate, humourous wallow in nostalgia. It reminded me a bit of the television show ‘The Wonder Years’.  I enjoyed it in half-hour episodes but I know I would have drowned in schmaltz had it gone on for an hour.

Like a sit-com or a travel book, this book could have stopped ¾ of the way through, or gone on for another 100 pages, although at nearly 400 pages I think that it was plenty long enough.

I’ll leave the last words with him:

What a wonderful world it was. We won’t see its like again, I’m afraid.

‘N’ by John A. Scott

N

2014, 597 p

I remember that when I finished reading War and Peace, I didn’t really want to read anything else for a while because of the sheer big-ness of Tolstoy. I felt somewhat the same way after finishing John A. Scott’s big 600 page book N. It’s not War and Peace to be sure (although that certainly sums up the content), but both books are large in their scope, long in their pages, and peopled with memorable characters. And for me, I just wanted to luxuriate in their big vision for a while, before turning again to the small-canvas books that seem to fill the shelves today.

N. opens in war-time, amongst a bohemian group of artists and writers who gather in the coffee shops and studios of inner-city Melbourne. There are multiple narrators and at first I found myself wondering how I was going to keep them all straight, having forgotten completely that there was a Dramatis Personae at the front! But the book settles into the stories of four or five main characters who each bring in a constellation of smaller characters. One of these is Missy Cunningham, disillusioned and unhappy wife of Roy Cunningham the Social Realist painter; there is Reginald Thomas, clairvoyant writer and latter-day Tiresias who writes up his visions into radio plays; Albie Henningson, a writer of far-right political persuasion; another is Robin Telford, public servant in the Parliamentary Secretary’s office.

War-time politics are on a knife-edge. The balance of power is held by two independents, and when one of them is found dead in a public toilet-block, Sir Warren Mahony, already a member of Fadden’s War Council, takes up his position as Prime Minister of the Emergency Cabinet. The widow of the murdered independent politicial, Norman Cole, approaches the public servant Robin Telford, asking him to dig deeper into the death of her husband. Britain and the United States withdraw their attention and military support to the northern hemisphere; the AIF returns home but is no match for the Japanese, who quickly spread down from the north. The Mahony government sues for a truce with the Japanese, and becomes a Vichy-like government operating out of a large house at Mount Macedon. Critics of the government, activists and members of the intelligentsia are silenced or disappear completely, and out of the direct sight of the Mahony government, the Japanese inflict cruelties on soldiers and citizens alike.

The book combines real life characters with fictional ones. The writer Frank Clune is there, but his ghost writer, the real-life P. R. ‘Inky’ Stephenson is rendered through the fictional Albie Henningsen. There are real artists combined with fictional ones, and the Social Realist art show that brings the wrath of the Mahony Government to bear against the artists has resonances with the activities of the real-life Anti-Fascist Art Exhibition in Melbourne. Even the whole political scenario of two independents in a war-time cabinet echoes the real-life Arthur Coles (of G.J.Coles fame- and a name very similar to Scott’s fictional Norman Cole) and Alexander Wilson who voted in 1941 to bring down Fadden’s government.

The narrative voices and genres that mark the different characters are playful and well-rendered. Missy Cunningham’s sections evoked for me the writing of M. Barnard Eldershaw and even reminded me a little of Neville Shute’s On the Beach.   Robin Telford, the public servant, speaks in careful bureaucratese, while Albie Henningsen is fervent, passionate and driven. The whole thing is a pastiche, and a baggy pastiche at that, but I loved it for its sweep and noisiness.

It is appallingly violent in places, and I recognized situations from Iris Chang’s horrific Rape of Nanking. At times the disappearances and conspiracies stretched credulity, but they shouldn’t in these days of disappeared boats and the ‘you don’t need to know about that’ of our refugee policy.   It was no surprise to me at all when Scott breaks out of historical fiction mode at the end of the book to comment on such things and remind us that this ‘what-if’ scenario is not so absolutely far-fetched.

I’m a fan of John Scott, and I’ve read most of his books over the years: the erotic narrative trickiness of What I Have Written; the bleak flatness of The Architect; the carefully rendered setting of Warra Warra. I can’t say that I’ve always felt that I understood the book at the end, and must admit to sometimes being bemused by the digressions and spin-offs.   But I don’t know why he’s not numbered up there with the Flanagans and Careys, because, like them, he writes across a number of genres and takes risks. And like them, he keeps me coming back for more.

Other reviews:

T.W. in The Saturday Paper didn’t think much of it;  Susan Lever in the Sydney Review of Books had some reservations; as did Peter Pierce at the Australian But Lisa at ANZLitLovers loved it and it was her enthusiastic review that launched me into reading it.

‘Dark Emu’ by Bruce Pascoe

darkemu

Bruce Pascoe: Dark Emu, Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident?

156 p. 2014, Magabala books

On July 3rd, just 3 days before NAIDOC week, my Prime Minister (who had dubbed himself the first ‘Prime Minister for Aboriginal Affairs’) made a presentation to the Australian-Melbourne Institute.  In extolling the benefits of foreign investment for Australia he said

As a general principle we support foreign investment. Always have and always will. Our country is unimaginable without foreign investment.  I guess our country owes its existence to a form of foreign investment by the British government in the then unsettled or, um, scarcely settled, Great South Land.

There is a particular argument that could be posed about the word ‘settled’ in relation to the law of colonies, but Abbott here was talking economies, not law. You can almost hear the wheels turning in his brain as he thinks “oops- not ‘unsettled’ because I suppose that they were there, I guess-‘ scarcely settled’- that’ll do”.

Bruce Pascoe’s book Dark Emu argues directly against the idea that Australia was ‘scarcely settled’. It was, he argues, very much settled in a way that forces us to reconsider the ‘hunter-gatherer’ label that is often used to describe pre-colonial Aboriginal Australians.

The start of [the] journey is to allow the knowledge that Aboriginal people did build houses, cultivate and irrigate crops, did sew clothes and were not hapless wanderers across the soil, mere hunter-gatherers. Aboriginals were intervening in the productivity of the country and what they learnt during that process over many thousands of years will be useful to us today. To deny Aboriginal agricultural and spiritual achievement is the single greatest impediment to inter-cultural understanding and, perhaps, Australian moral and economic prosperity. P. 156

Bruce Pascoe has a Bunurong/Tasmanian indigenous heritage, and if you watched First Footprints, (my review here) you will recognize him as one of the talking heads on that wonderful, paradigm-rattling documentary. He is not an academic historian as such, and described himself in his earlier book Convincing Ground (2007) as a “mug historian with no training” (p. 200). His interweaving of personal, current day narrative with historical analysis, in both this and his earlier book, places his work in that uneasy space between local history and academic material.

In his preface, Pascoe says that he conceived the theme for this book in the wake of writing Convincing Ground, when he was inundated with letters and information from fourth-generation farmers and Aboriginal people. These responses, along with material that he had tucked away unused from his earlier book, suggested to him that not only had the Frontier War been mis-represented, but that the whole economy and culture of Aboriginal people had been undervalued. (p. 11)

His methodology was to return to the diaries of the early white explorers, surveyors, pastoralists and protectors. These men (for they were overwhelmingly male) espoused the racial superiority of white settlement, decried the primitivism of Aboriginal culture and predicted the inevitable extinction of Aboriginal ‘nomads’. Yet at the same time, they described large structures capable of sheltering thirty or forty people, stockpiles of ground seed and grain, dams and redirections of water courses, fish traps, and storehouses. They were unconscious wreckers (or at least one hopes they were unconscious): eating the grain that had been carefully piled up waiting for consumption at a later date, gladly taking advantage of a clay-daubed shelter, or rather more ominously, testing the strength of the roof of a shelter by riding over it. It strikes me as deeply ironic that explorers, starving, blinded and maddened by bites and sun, could look at aboriginal people serenely co-existing with the environment, and then write about them as ‘primitive’.   He finds example after example in the words of explorers Major Mitchell, Sturt and Howitt, early colonists Isaac Batey, James Dawson, and protectors and missionaries George Augustus Robinson and Joseph Orton .   He reproduces some of their sketches that, when you extract them out from the scrawled text that surrounds them,  demonstrate much more deliberation and ingenuity on the part of the constructors, than the 19th century authors’ commentaries convey.

Major Mitchell is one of Pascoe’s most heavily used informants, and Pascoe captures well the contradictions within Mitchell’s work, and the ambivalence with which he views him:

Mitchell talked in sorrow about the demise of Aboriginal Australia… but despite this compassion Mitchell writes, a mere two paragraphs later, ‘We again (on the Hunter) find some soil fit for cultivation, and the whole of it taken up by farms’… At one moment he expresses sorrow for the losses of the Aboriginal population but within a page he’s extolling the value of the lands forcibly taken from them.

On his previous explorations Mitchell has seen the use Aboriginal people made of their lands, although some of the food production techniques were too discreet to capture his attention or understanding, but then opines mildly about the future of Australian farming as if Aboriginal food production had never existed. He looks down the valley at the sheds and houses of the settlers where smoke dwindles from the chimney and squares of amber light glow at windows and revels in the domesticity. Only a year before he was envying the warmth and domesticity of the Aboriginal village, but now he prides himself on opening up this land to to his own race.

He’s a good man, Mitchell, but he shares the ambition of every British man in the colony: land… The confidence of Mitchell to assume that the land had been waiting for Europeans and their animals is at the heart of European intellectual arrogance. (p. 141-2)

Pascoe draws also from the work of anthropologists, well known ones like Stanner and Rhys Jones, but also some maverick ones who are challenging established understandings. There are a number of places in the book where you sense Pascoe sitting in on conversations, listening carefully to the debates, and weaving in their work into his argument.  Some of the texts he draws upon are small productions, well outside the mainstream, like a small saddlestitched 70 page book produced by Peter Dargin for the Brewarrina Historical Society, or a similar book by Rupert Gerritsen, published in London for want of Australian interest, and No. 35 on a Google search into ‘Australian Aboriginal Grain Crops.’ He does his own work no favours by including (albeit with misgivings) wild estimates of Aboriginal occupation of Australia going back 120,000, alongside other figures of between 40,00 -65,000 years. Nor does he burnish his own reputation by citing Gavin Menzies’ 1421: The Year China Discovered the World, a book largely dismissed by academic historians.

The book has eight chapters. In the first, ‘Agriculture’, he focuses on the yam and grain harvesting, irrigation, and the harvesting of emu and kangaroo. Chapter 2, ‘Aquaculture’ examines fishing operations, particularly in Brewarrina and Lake Condah, and watercraft on the rivers and seaboard. Chapter 3 is titled ‘Population and Housing’, where he argues that villages marked the movement towards agricultural reliance, most particularly where there were stone constructions. Chapter 4 ‘Storage and Preservation’ explores the use of pottery and stockpiling , while Chapter 5 examines ‘Fire’ in the creation of grasslands. Chapter 6 is a divergence into ‘The Heavens, Language and the Law’ where he explores the theories that posit a qualitative shift in the ‘intensification’ of food production and technology about 4000-5000 years ago. This chapter is largely the representation of other people’s theories, which he views rather sceptically. I found this chapter rather hard to follow, although it seemed to resolve into an examination of concepts of land ownership, and what he called “jigsawed mutualism” whereby people had responsibilities for particular parts of the jigsaw, but could only operate that part so that it added, rather than detracted, from the pieces of their neighbour (p. 138). Ch. 7 ‘Australian agricultural revolution’ is only four pages in length and suggests several Aboriginal crops that could be farmed commercially in the future. The final chapter ‘Accepting History and Creating the Future’ is a plea for an acceptance and re-visioning of Aboriginal agricultural and spiritual achievement, and allowing this to inform the future.

It is perhaps unfair to review a book by making reference to another author’s work, but in this case it is almost unavoidable. Bill Gammage’s The Biggest Estate on Earth was published prior to Pascoe’s work, and indeed Pascoe cites him in several places. A beautifully crafted and lushly produced book, Gammage’s work has been debated within academia and received the Prime Ministers Prize for Australian History in 2012. The two books, although mismatched in production values and ‘clout’, cover similar material and arguments. However, having only just flipped through Gammage’s book, it seems that he speaks more of land management, with a particular emphasis on fire.

Pascoe’s much smaller and more modest book, on the other hand, concentrates rather more on economic and social systems, with rather more emphasis on interventions in settled places as a challenge to the ‘hunter-gatherer’ image. A challenge, too, to a Prime Minister who sees the land as “unsettled- um- scarcely settled”.

Posted as part of Lisa’s  ANZLitLovers Indigenous Literature Week.

indigenous-literature-week-2014

Yvonne Perkins has reviewed it as well.

‘All the Birds, Singing’ by Evie Wyld

wyld_allthebirds

2013,  229 p.

Well, it’s won the Miles Franklin. The author was included on the once a decade Granta Best of Young British Novelists List. Her earlier book After the Fire, A Still Small Voice was acclaimed everywhere. So why was I underwhelmed by All the Birds, Singing?

It certainly starts with a jolt:

Another sheep, mangled and bled out, her innards not yet crusting and the vapours rising from her like a steamed pudding. Crows, their beaks shining, strutting and rasping, and when I waved my stick they flew to the trees and watched, flaring out their wings, singing, if you could call it that. I shoved my boot in Dog’s face to stop him taking a string of her away with him as a souvenir, and he kept close by my side as I wheeled the carcass out of the field and down into the woolshed. (p.229)

Jake is a sheep farmer on a remote, unnamed British Island, where she lives in a dank farmhouse with only Dog for company. We do not know how she came to be there, and why she is there unfolds gradually during the book.   It’s a visceral book, with not only carcasses of sheep and the bloodied life on the land, but the bodily violence of her other life- the one before this- as an abused prostitute in remote outback Australia.

The book is told in alternating chapters, with her life on the island told in first person past tense, and the Australian chapters told in first person present tense. It took some time into the book for me to realize that the Australian chapters were being narrated in reverse chronology. And so the author juggles two questions from the reader: ‘what happens next?’ as Jake gradually opens herself up to the company of an itinerant rambler who somehow ends up staying at the farm, and ‘what happened before?’ to bring her to such a lonely, cold and harsh environment.

The author is a master of setting. The whipping rain and inky darkness of the island is a stark contrast to the dessicated, searing light of the outback that opens the book. The motif of birds runs throughout the book like a soundtrack.

Part of my problem with this book might have been that I read it so quickly after finishing After the Fire, a Small Still Voice. When I look back at my review of After the Fire, I find that I could apply most of my observations about that book to this one as well. It’s almost the same story, with variations. Both books interweave two narratives. Both involve trauma and separateness that is heightened by isolation. In both, the setting is rendered carefully.  Even the titles are structurally similar and almost interchangeable.  Yes, there are differences- there are two characters in the first book and one in the second; the first book deals with the issue of masculinity, whereas there is a female main character in the second.   But I just couldn’t shake the feeling that I was reading variations on the same basic structure. Is this deliberate? Are these books elaborations on the same structure, rendered with different characters and scenarios? Is this part of a bigger project?

This year I didn’t get round to reading the other short-listed titles for the Miles Franklin. I think that I might just have to think “Well, interesting choice….”

awwbadge_2014 Posted to the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014

‘After the Fire, a Small, Still Voice’ by Evie Wyld

wyld

2009, 296 p.

For some reason, this book seemed to take me an age to read. Perhaps it was the structure of alternating chapters as it swung between two related men, forty years apart, which made it rather too easy to put down.  Once put down, its dual-narrative structure also required more back-tracking than usual to pick up again.

Frank has left Canberra after breaking up with his girlfriend, moving to a shack amongst the canefields on the north-east coast that was originally owned by his grandparents. He’s a damaged, angry, fragile man, estranged from his widowed father, with few apparent friends. It takes him some time to tentatively reach out to his neighbours and their daughter, and settle uneasily into sporadic work.

Forty years earlier, Leon was growing up in Sydney, the son of a pastrycook and Jewish refugees. His father had felt compelled through gratitude to his new country to join the Korean War, but came back home a shattered shell of a man. Leon, in turn was conscripted to Vietnam, and when he returned from Vietnam, he too was a damaged, angry, fragile man, traumatized by his war experiences and unable to settle.

These men feel much, but do not – can not- verbalize it. They are largely unreachable, encasing themselves in a masculine armour and a restlessness that deflects any attempts by others to reach the softer part of them. Women here are either idolized or uglified. There’s a hum of violence that runs underneath their stories.

The real strength of this book is its depiction of place, which is so crystal-sharp that you can picture it in your mind. Flipping through the book, I find myself surprised that there is as much dialogue as there is, because to me it seemed a very intense and silent book.

But I don’t think that I actually engaged in it at an emotional level although perhaps the writer has intended that, by mirroring the brusqueness of the male characters. With my disjointed reading of the book, it took me an inordinate time to work out the relationship between the two men, and it became an intellectual rather than emotional challenge to see how the two stories intersected. I’m not sure that I actually liked the book. I admire the writing; I doff my hat to such a strong debut performance; and her rendering of setting is very accomplished, but it just left me a bit like her characters- cold.

awwbadge_2014I’ve posted this review at the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

‘Letter to George Clooney’ by Debra Adelaide

Adelaide

2013, 294 p.

I see that Debra Adelaide’s book of short stories Letter to George Clooney has been shortlisted for Kibble literary prize for an established female writer.

I can think of many reasons why a collection of short stories should be nominated for major literary fiction prizes, but I also still have niggling reservations. What about the ho-hum stories in a collection? Do the constraints of the genre render particular criteria impossible? But having said that, this book really does deserve the highest accolades and recognition. It really is good.

As I have said many times before, I find it rather difficult to review a collection of short stories. The curatorial act of choosing one story to include over another, and the ordering of the stories within the volume suggests to me that in a collection of short stories there is another creator at work: the editor. In this case, Debra Adelaide is an editor herself, so perhaps she ‘owns’ that aspect as well.

Looking at the book as a whole there seemed to be several stories that deal with writing, and stories of a similar theme presented together- or am I imposing this order onto it? To me, the first two stories deal with writing; the next two with rituals. The fifth story ‘The Harp Society’ and the sixth ‘Glory in the Flower’ involve performances of some sort, while the seventh ‘Chance’ and ‘The New Millenium’ address ways in which technology have affected our lives. ‘The Pirate Map’ and ‘The Moon Will Do’ are both administrative challenges of a sort- the first to find the ATO office, the second to complete the instructions on a chain letter.  ‘Harder than your Husband’ and ‘Airlock’ both involve work places of different types. The final story, and the one that gives the collection its name absolutely stands alone.

Even in a collection of the quality of this one, there are one or two short stories that stand out. For me, there were two. The first, ‘Chance’ had me laughing maliciously, having dabbled in the waters of middle-aged internet dating myself. It’s the story of a woman away on a romantic weekend with a man she has met on the internet and the awful, intimate messiness of plunging early into relationships as we tend to do.

The second standout story is  ‘Letter to George Clooney’. I don’t want to talk about at all because to do so would diminish it. It is brilliant. Read it for yourself.

awwbadge_2014I have posted this review on the Australian Women Writers Challenge site.

‘Velocity’ by Mandy Sayer

 

velocity

2005, 302

As it happens, I finished reading this book at about 4.30 a.m.  Some hours later, over breakfast, I read that Maya Angelou had died.  I haven’t read any of Angelou’s work, but I was interested to see that she had written six memoirs, covering the period of time up until she turned 40.  My, I thought, what sort of a life would sustain six memoirs?

I had had the same thought when I finished Mandy Sayer’s book, and saw that she had won the National Biography Award and the Age Non-Fiction Book of the Year for an earlier memoir, Dreamtime Alice.  I read this current book, Velocity mainly because I was interested in reading her new book The Poet’s Wife.  I’m wedded enough to chronology to want to read the earlier book first, both in its production and in its time span.  However, my response to Maya Angelou’s prolific memoir output could apply here as well: what sort of a life sustains three memoirs with how many more to follow? One that has rootlessness and dysfunction at its core, it would seem, along with a strong vein of intelligence and a sense of self that somehow sustains the writer to endure it.

This is not to say that I didn’t find it engrossing, because I did.  I read it in two middle-of-the-night reading gulps, when I’m not wanting to read anything too taxing.  Nonetheless, it was probably an odd choice.  In many ways it’s a “look-away-I-can’t-help-looking” type of book, where one bad choice leads to another, and where you’re almost crying out in pantomine-audience style- “don’t do it!”. The violence, both physical and emotional, is not exactly bed-time reading.

Each chapter starts with an italicized episode which acts as a sort of preview for something that will arise later on.  It was quite an effective technique, although it usually made my heart sink.

The rootlessness is laid down in her life right from the moment of conception.  Her parents are drifters and party-animals, and after their marriage breaks down, her mother embarks on a series of toxic relationships that culminate in the controlling and violent Hakkim, a younger Lebanese man who Mandy fears.  Mandy is shifted from one school to another, as her mother keeps being drawn back to alcohol, depression, helplessness and this evil man.

One constant throughout all this is her father, Gerry the jazz musician.  It was interesting to read her response to her father’s cleft lip and palate (although she uses the older and more hurtful term ‘harelip’) as I have the same condition myself.  She mentions it several times in the opening chapter, and reminds us of it again after she reconnects with him after a long period of time.  In fact, at one stage she’d been away from him so long that she found it hard to understand his speech again.  Even though she stays with her mother and is dragged from one toxic or vulnerable environment to the next, her father seems a constant source of security, even though he disappears from her life for years at a time, and is in truth just as rootless and unsuccessful as her mother is.  Mandy bathes him in an idealized golden glow that he does little to merit.

This might sound like a misery-memoir, but it’s not at all.  It’s told in a clear-eyed fashion, and while not underplaying the abuse and danger, it does not wallow in it either.  I’m certainly up for reading her other memoirs as well.

awwbadge_2014I’ve added this to the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014.

‘A Biography of Robert Baldwin: The Morning-Star of Memory’ by Michael S. Cross

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Michael S. Cross A Biography of Robert Baldwin: The Morning Star of Memory, 2012, 367 p & notes

The first chapter of this biography begins with a jolt. It opens a month after the main protagonist’s death, with four men gathered around his corpse: his son, his brother, his brother in law and a surgeon. The surgeon cut across the abdomen to replicate a caesarean scar, and Robert Baldwin’s final wish was complete. His wife had died from long-term complications of a caesarean twenty-three years earlier, and Robert Baldwin was now to meet her in heaven bearing the same scar.

This opening chapter sets the tone for this biography, which seeks to unite the personal and emotional with the political. Australian readers are probably not familiar with Robert Baldwin, who is lauded as one of the founding fathers of self-government and who, along with Louis-Hippolyte La Fontaine, headed the Reform party in joint Anglo-Canadian governments in Canada between 1836 and 1851 . In Australia, with an overwhelmingly British 19th century population, we are not particularly alert to the nuances of an Upper Canadian politician championing the political equality of the French Lower Canadian province. It was a luxury of mono-culturalism that Canada did not share.  Conversely, our own historiographical emphasis on self-government (in, for example Peter Cochrane’s Colonial Ambition) tends to see Canada as an example to emulate as a more constitutionally-advanced sibling, rather than a fellow colony going through much the same battles with the Colonial Office within the same time frame.

Robert Baldwin was born in Upper Canada in 1804. His father, Dr. William Warren Baldwin was one of those multi-talented colonial gentlemen who combined a career as medical doctor, school teacher, attorney and politician. W.W. Baldwin was wealthy, forthright and dominant, and Robert was very much in his father’s shadow. He was admitted to the bar and was eventually elected to  the Assembly, but he was no orator, often speaking in barely a whisper.  He married his cousin Eliza, initially against the wishes of his family, and was heart-broken when she died nine years later. Even though he had chafed against his father as a son, he became very much like him with his own children: critical, cold and domineering.

The author, Michael Cross, keeps the emphasis strongly on the psychological and emotional aspects of Robert’s personality. He was a son overwhelmed by the dominant presence of his father; he was prone to depression; he loved deeply and mourned obsessively. Each chapter begins with an italicized and imagined epigraph that counts down the years since Eliza’s death.

The triumph that the first Reform government had seemed to represent was melting away. He was beset on all sides as death had gain reached out and into the family. Only in memory could he find relief. Eliza had been dead for eight years. It was April 1844 (p.158)

Or another one:

It would be prudent and fitting to stop here, now that responsible government was accomplished. Little more was needed than to fill up the great achievement with the few institutions of national culture that would complete it. How proud Eliza would be. She had been dead nearly twelve years. (p. 230)

I can see what Cross is doing here, chapter after chapter, (using Eliza as a touchstone; using Eliza’s death as a tethering-point to the chronology) but it does become rather contrived and mawkish. He makes a good case for this extended grieving for Eliza being a bedrock emotion, fundamental to Baldwin’s personality, by keeping it running throughout the narrative, rather than consigning it to an early chapter and not referring to it again. But I think I would have appreciated a widening of context here. To our eyes his obsession with Eliza’s death seems morbid and bordering on phobic. Was it? I’ve been aware of similar, disabling, obsessive grief expressed by fathers in World War I- was that a new phenomenon or was there an older tradition of overwhelming masculine grief? Was Baldwin’s grief another (albeit earlier) version of that exemplified by Queen Victoria in 1861? Or was it aberrant even at the time?

Alongside this ongoing drum-beat of Baldwin’s emotional and psychological state, Cross writes a political biography that traverses many of the big issues of 19th century Canadian history: the 1837 Rebellion, the Durham report, the Montreal Riots of 1849, Irish immigration after the famine and the rise of the Clear Grits. I must admit that most of my reading about Upper Canada has petered out at 1841 with the Act of Union that combined largely- English Upper Canada with largely-French Lower Canada, but I was able to follow the political narrative fairly easily (if uncritically).

As an Australian historian, I’m interested that in the lead up to responsible government, Baldwin was so comfortable with what we would call party politics. In Australia at the time, there was still an aversion to ‘party’ as being something disreputable and compromising.

I have the advantage, I suppose, of familiarity with both Canadian and Australian history of the time that enables me to detect the empire-wide issues that each government had to grapple with. I found myself surprised that Canada was not, as I had believed, constitutionally streets ahead of New South Wales, which still felt itself hampered by its ‘penal colony’ origins. Instead, politicians in both colonies were tussling with the same Colonial Office personnel who had far more of an empire-wide perspective than can be detected when dealing with one colony alone.

I came across Robert Baldwin in my own work through his friendship with my research interest, John Walpole Willis. Cross does not spend a great deal of time on the 1820s, which preceded Baldwin’s election to the Assembly, although Willis’ dismissal became a rallying cause to the reform-party dominated government in the early 1830s.  The chronological weaving of this book is interesting and unconventional, with the 1837 Rebellion dealt with rather cursorily at first, but referred to several times in retrospect in later chapters.

Willis did not appear to make many firm friends in his life.  In Upper Canada, his main friendships seemed to be with John Galt and Robert Baldwin,  although Willis tended to downplay his social connection with Baldwin later. Although of a similar social background and education to the ‘Family Compact’ elite, Robert’s politics put him firmly in the Reform camp, and his actions as a barrister in Willis’ courtroom during his brief tenure in Upper Canada, meant that they were both oriented towards the same political direction. I was interested to see whether there was a similarity in political beliefs between the two men beyond the convenience of a common cause at the time. There probably was. Although Baldwin was staunchly in favour of responsible government, and devoted his whole political career to its attainment, he was no democrat. He was firmly committed to British institutions and declared that he hoped to die a British subject (p. 314). Like many of the British reform politicians who had supported the 1832 Reform Bill, he found that his Upper Canadian colleagues were not content to stop at responsible government, but wanted to push further.   He wanted change, but not rapid change; he wanted popular participation but not democracy, and he wanted to preserve the best of the gentry-dominated past (p. 284).

I find myself indulging in a flight of–‘if history’. If Willis had stayed in Upper Canada, would he have gone on to voice many of the political opinions that Baldwin later did? I suspect that he would have.

 

 

‘Shattered Anzacs’ by Marina Larsson

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2009,  281 p. & notes.

There’s a striking pamphlet reproduced in the opening pages of Marina Larsson’s book Shattered Anzacs.  It’s a recruiting  leaflet for WWI, enticingly titled “Free Tour to Great Britain and Europe”.  You can see it here.   It spruiks “A Personally Conducted Tour whereby you can see the world and save money at the same time” and advises of the wages and separation allowances provided.  In best Fawlty Towers tradition, it doesn’t mention the war: only the ‘Great Adventure’.  But adjacent to the breezy exhortation to join the tour, it also has a chart of the pensions payable on return to the soldier, his wife and children should there be disablement or death.  The consciousness of injury and life afterwards was there right from the start and became even more sobering as men began arriving home.  For those who survived, it was most often literally ‘home’, to parents, wives, siblings and children who, as the subtitle of this book notes,  found themselves “living with the scars of war”. Continue reading

‘Boy, Lost’ by Kristina Olsson

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2013, 255p.

Some books seem to shift shape while you’re reading them.  Sometimes it really is the book that changes direction during its narrative, but other times it’s because you, as a reader, adjust your concept of what it is you’re reading as you go along.

Boy, Lost was such a book for me.  To be honest, I started reading it thinking that it was a fiction book narrated in the first-person, beautifully told, with the crystalline clarity of authenticity.  It was only when some facts seemed so concrete and so banal that I started to wonder if it was non-fiction instead.  I turned to the back cover, and sure enough- there it was, ‘Non-fiction/Memoir’.  And I obviously don’t look hard enough at the front covers of the books I read, because under the title, there it is again: “A Family Memoir”.  At the end of the book, Olsson explains how she came to write this book that she felt was not hers, initially, to write.  It is her mother’s story, and her brother’s, and yet even untold it affected the whole family. In this book she is piecing it together and telling it for her family, with their blessing and at their request.  In the closing pages she broadens her perspective beyond her family’s story to reflect on the historical and sociological phenomenon of ‘lost’ and stolen children  among unmarried mothers and aboriginal mothers more generally.

Olsson’s mother Yvonne marries young- too young- to Michael, a Greek post-war immigrant. He takes her to far-north Queensland, where the veneer of a sensual, confident older man soon fractures to reveal a cruel, rigid and controlling man.  In 1950 after enduring three years of marriage to him, the pregnant Yvonne takes her infant son and flees on the train. But Michael appears, takes their son from her arms, snarls a warning to her and leaves.  Yvonne will not see her son for another forty years.

She remarries; she has other children.

This is the story my mother never told, not to us, the children who would grow up around it in the way that skin grows over a scratch.  So we conjured it, guessed it from glances, from echoes, from phrases that snap in the air like a bird’s wing, and are gone.  Fragments of a legend, that’s how it seemed, and it twisted through our childhood like a fiction we had read and half-forgotten; a story that belonged to others, not to us, and to another, long-ago time.  As if the woman at its centre was not really our mother but a stranger, an unknowable version of her…. (p 3)

This is what we didn’t understand, not then: that the past had gripped and confounded her, stalked her dreams.  That every day of her life after her son was taken, she would sift through the memory of it, every terrible second.  Turning each in her hand, looking for ways she might have changed them.  But always she would be stuck at the image of the man, her husband, the terrible smile as he entered the train carriage, walked towards her, pulled Peter from her arms.  When she dreamed of her lost son she would dream of his father.  He would always be walking towards her, wearing that smile. (p. 4)

She was deflected from taking action by people who told her that her infant son  would have a better life with his father than he would with her, a single-mother and waitress. He would live like a little Greek prince, they said, basking in the glory of being a Greek son during the 1950s. He didn’t.  Instead, Peter had a spare, sad life.  He was too young to remember his mother, but the past had gripped and confounded him and stalked his dreams, as well.

I very much enjoyed this book, even though it utilizes two of the stylistic techniques that I usually dislike: very short chapters and use of the present tense.   The stories of Yvonne and Peter are alternated, moving forward chronologically, but not touching each other for much of the book.  Interwoven between their two stories are Olsson’s own reflections on the childhoods of Sharon, her older half- sister (full sister to Peter) and several brothers, as they circle warily this fracture in their family.  Each section is only a few pages in length.  I usually dislike such a ruptured narrative, seeing it as a cop-out from having to tie the narrative together in a logical and pragmatic sense, but in this book it works.  There are abrupt stops, loose ends and silences throughout all their stories, and the structure reflects that well.

The present tense is perhaps more problematic.  In her ANZLitLovers blog Lisa Hill recently referenced some observations by the writer Dorothy Johnston about the ubiquitous use of present tense in recently-published books.   I acknowledge that the present tense brings a sense of immediacy and contingency to the writing, but I find it rather suffocating and anxiety-producing.  This book IS, however, an anxious, hand-wringing book, and I think that the present tense works well here.

The author has inserted herself into the narrative the whole way through the book, but in the closing pages she steps into the light completely. She is at pains to answer the question that has tortured both her mother and her brother: why didn’t her mother try harder to get him back? Her mother’s story of the lost – no, taken- child was replicated in the stories of unmarried mothers, not good enough mothers, Aboriginal mothers.  I think that she provides as good an answer as can be made: that, in L.P. Hartley’s words, the past was a different country, and they did do things differently then.

But that is somewhat of a get-out clause.  While recognizing the pressures and constraints that might have caused people to act as they did, she does not downplay the deep sense of loss that exists at the heart of her family.  Things and people can be re-located and re-identified,  but events have moved on and the past cannot be recaptured. Some losses are never truly found again.

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Read because: Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014.

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