Category Archives: Book reviews

‘A Constellation of Vital Phenomena’ by Anthony Marra

constellation

2013, 400p

Reading the debut book of a writer whose second book you really liked is a bit of a gamble. What if s/he only found firm footing with the second book? What if the first was a dud?

I needn’t have worried. There are similarities between Anthony Marra’s second book The Tsar of Love and Techno in that both books have sections set in Chechnya (in fact, the whole of Constellation is set there) and they both have oblique titles,  but this book focusses more on a small group of people and is ‘straighter’.

It is set over five days, and the book is divided into three sections (The First and Second Day;  The Third Day; and The Fourth and Fifth Day). But within these three sections the narrative slides chronologically- and I use the word ‘slide’ deliberately because each chapter is headed with a timeline spanning 1999 to 2004 with the year in which the chapter is set marked out in bold type. In 2004, in a small snow-covered village in Chechnya, the good hearted Akhmed watches as his life-long neighbour Dokka is arrested and his eight year old daughter Havaa flees into the woods.  Akhmed finds her, and knowing that they will come back for her too, he takes her to a Russian doctor in the city, Sonja Rabina, who is struggling to hold together her bombed-out hospital.  There’s lots of backstory to be filled in: why Dokka has been arrested; who informed on him;  who this doctor Sonja is, the relationship between the villagers, and the tension between Chechnyans and Russians. I know very little Chechnyan history, but I feel that I know more having read this book- and what an easy, seductive way to learn it.

All of this written with wisdom and compassion and with landscapes and people described so clearly that you can see it. Is this really only his second book and is he really only the age of my son? He’s good. Very good.

Delia Falconer wrote a very good review in the Sydney Review of Books.

My rating: 9.5

Read because: I so much enjoyed his second book.

‘Billy Sing: A Novel’ by Ouyang Yu

Billy-Sing-front-cover-for-publicity

2017,  135 p. Transit Lounge

In my grave my spirit lingers, the undead, if you believe that sort of thing, which I think you ought to, you beings so materialistic you forget that life is not just one life but multiple ones, so that, for certain people not tied to possessions and property, life travels forward as it travels back, in time, one’s spirit interconnected to spirits of a similar persuasion, with a mind large enough to encompass all times, all places and all people. Still, as I lie here, I envisage that in some future time someone will stop by and put his ears to my heart, separated by cement and stone, and find himself whispering into the ears of my spirit. I shall listen. I have done enough sleeping in life to live death awake. Conversely, if you have not lived enough death in life, you’d better mind your own business. (p.36)

The voice is that of the dead Billy Sing, a real-life Gallipoli sniper nicknamed ‘The Assassin’ by his fellow soldiers. But it’s an imagined voice- and here the subtitle ‘A Novel’ is important – and it’s a voice that probably belongs more to Ouyang Yu than the character he has created.  In writing this review, I googled ‘Billy Sing’ because,  I admit, I had never heard of him. In the Wikipedia entry, mention is made of a television mini-series made about Sing, which cast him as European.  Queensland National Party member Bill O’Chee, a member of the Billing Sing Commemorative Committee criticized this decision to ‘white-out’ Billy Sing, saying “When a person dies, all that is left is their story, and you can’t take a person’s name and not tell the truth about their story.”  Ouyang Yu couldn’t be accused of ‘whiting out’ his Billy Sing. Instead Billy’s mixed race, in an Australia which saw the White Australia policy as a founding issue, is a fundamental part of his personality and story, permeating not just his reputation but also the language with while Ouyang Yu tells his story. The issues of racism and national identity bookend Billy Sing’s life, silenced only by his stint in the trenches at Gallipoli where he shucks off his humanity to become a disembodied killing machine.

The subtitle of this book is ‘a novel’. As it happens I finished reading this book just as I read Judith Armstrong’s  rumination on the relationship between facts and fiction in her own writing of what she calls ‘biographical novels’ of Sonya Tolstoy and more recently, Dymphna Clark (wife of historian Manning Clark). She describes both these books as  a “hybrid method of rigorous research coupled with intuitive interpretation”  but found that there was strong marketing and cataloguing resistance to accepting them as ‘novels’, even though that is what she insists they are. Hilary Mantel recently raised similar questions in relation to her own historical fiction, where she described fellow historical-fiction writers as ‘cringing’ when they attached a bibliography.

  You have the authority of the imagination, you have legitimacy. Take it. Do not spend your life in apologetic cringing because you think you are some inferior form of historian. The trades are different but complementary”

More than ‘fictionalized biography’, these novels – for they all clearly identify themselves as such – stake for themselves a place for imagination and supposition. The authors do not claim to be writing history or biography: it’s a novel. In Ouyang Yu’s case, he has tethered his narrative around a number of factual, documented fenceposts.  One is the author Ion Idriess’ diary entry about Billy Sing, another is Sing’s Distinguished Conduct citation.  These he cites in a small bibliography at the back.  Beyond these, however, the author has let his imagination play.

When an author is faced with a dearth of documented material, which is the case here, that very absence can be turned into part of the character him or herself, and this is certainly the case here. Billy Sing asserts that others may scribble, but he will not write.

Every time I saw him pick up a pen and put something down in his notebook, a green-covered one featuring a thin blade of corn across the cover, I’d wonder what that would lead to and if, in the writing of things the person vacated himself, a husk of a being, hollow inside and substance emitted.  It would be infinitely preferable to just go and dream and go on dreaming, in a sleep that never ended, and, better still, in  a sleep that was coupled with love or the act of it… If I had the ability to put it down, it would not amount to much, either. I’d just let it go as most things in my life would do. (p. 73)

I found this a difficult book to get into. The language was poetic, but strange and didn’t seem to go anywhere.  It may be the historian in me speaking here, but it was only when I reached those footnotes and realized that there was a factual basis, that I felt as if I were no longer scrabbling on gravel, trying to get a foothold. It’s the sort of book that I enjoyed more afterwards, once I found out more about the real Billy Sing.  The dream-like, insubstantial nature of his telling of his marriage mirrors the historical uncertainty over whether his wife ever came to Australia or not.  Dreams and a sordid, visceral reality are intermingled, and it’s a slippery book to read.

Did I enjoy it? I really don’t know how to answer. It is only short, and I was able to suspend my anxiety over whether I was ‘getting it’ over 135 pages, while I doubt that I could have done so had the book been 300 pages instead.  It’s the sort of book that I enjoyed more after finishing it, and once I’d established the ‘facts’ I was better able to appreciate the artistry and lyricism of the fiction. Somehow, I suspect that this is not the way the author intended his book to be read.

Lisa at ANZLitLovers, who has read a lot of Ouyang Yu’s work has reviewed Billy Sing here.

Source: Review copy

‘Badge Boot Button: The Story of Australian Uniforms’ by Craig Wilcox

badgebootbutton

NLA Publishing, 2017, 141 p & notes  $44.99 RRP

It’s a paradox that even though a uniform is supposed to mark its wearer out from the general population, we often become so inured to them that they become invisible.  Craig Wilcox’s book Badge Boot Button brings the uniform to our focus as an expression of institutional intent. Covering 200 years of Australian history, from convicts to Olympic Games volunteers, Wilcox casts a wide net in his analysis of uniforms, describing their design and manufacture and probing the purposes for which they were prescribed.

On the basis of his association with the War Memorial, and through his work on the Boer War, it’s not surprising that military uniforms appear multiple times during Wilcox’s  chronological account.  Wilcox has written several books based on military themes and he mounted a spirited , and I think completely appropriate, challenge to the historically anachronistic attempts to ‘pardon’ Breaker Morant. However, in this book he ranges further to discuss school uniforms, airhostesses, nurses and sportsmen.

As Wilcox explains in his introduction:

Uniforms are authority’s signature, its sartorial sound bite, speaking to a local community, a city or state, sometimes the entire world. And like any language, they reveal origins, status, aspirations and insecurities…. But there are always two voices speaking at once- that of authority, naturally, but also that of the individual. Unofficial variations in uniforms, or simply the angle at which a hat is worn, hint at personal attitudes to school, to an employer, to work, to life itself.  (p.1)

The book is structured chronologically. The first chapter ‘The Age of Livery’ starts with the military red coat that  constituted authority in convict-era Australia but which, as he points out, was often not worn on a day-to-day basis.  There were, after all, no army inspectors to enforce dress standards, and soldiers themselves began to modify their costume.  Nonetheless,  when governors and troops needed a display of authority, they donned their red coats and gold epaulets. Think, for example, of the picture of Governor Bligh being hauled out from under the bed by three members of the NSW Corps in full dress. Bligh was in his ceremonial outfit too, although as he himself admitted, he had put it on just before his arrest. “Just before I was arrested, on learning [of] the approach of the regiment, I called for my uniform”. Think too of Bungaree, Governor Macquarie’s go-betweeen with the Kurringgai people, in his red army coat.  Convicts wore a uniform too, the degrading motley of the ‘magpie’ convict uniform of grey and yellow.  The red coated soldiers were there at Eureka too, that conflict between uniformed upholders of the established order and their un-uniformed challengers.  Meanwhile, naval officers wore blue (think James Cook), and this was adopted by the mounted police seconded from the military garrison as a type of cavalry and the military pensioners who were used for civil policing on the goldfields.

In Chapter 2 ‘Civic Authority & National Identity’ Wilcox traces through the adoption of uniforms by civilians. The ‘Volunteers’ local citizen army, part of a world-wide movement in English-speaking countries during the 1860s,  adopted the grey uniform chosen by their English counterparts. A civic blue uniform was worn by police and railway staff, and increasingly by post-men and firemen.  When NSW sent a military contingent to the Sudan in 1885, their red coats were quickly substituted  with the empire-wide  khaki by their British army quartermasters.  The khaki was not enthusiastically adopted by all and the slouch hat seemed alien at first, with some describing it as “the worst and ugliest” military costume, strongly resisted by citizen soldiers in the cities.  However, during WWI it became visual shorthand for the AIF and it took on “some of the aura of an athlete’s laurel wreath” (p. 65).  The AIF was disbanded after the war “but there seemed no question of the militia wearing anything other than the uniform that had just toured the world” (p. 69).  But uniforms extended beyond the military. Sporting teams adopted uniforms: footballers wore caps and coloured jerseys and guernseys (including Melbourne Football Club in their startling magenta) ;and cricketers’ whites were enlivened by a sash around the waist and necktie. Nurses wore veils evoking the nunnery, and adopted the British red cape or tippet- much to the resentment of British nurses.  Australian maid-servants – always a more contingent and undisciplined class than in Britain- resisted wearing the mob-cap because it was perceived as a sign of servility.

Ch. 3 ‘Loosening up’ notes the waning of the authority of the policeman, priest and school master  as uniforms became more practical. Sports gear changed as footballers adopted shorts, women began playing tennis, and bathers became common.  However, khaki maintained its sway, although during WWII it shifted towards camouflage gear for fighting men. Groups like Boy Scouts and even the Girl Guides wore khaki between the war, and during WWII women in the Australian Land Army were dressed in masculine army attire above the waist.  Early air-hostess and pilot uniforms had a military influence at first. Although nurses’ uniforms remained uncomfortable and in need of careful ironing (itself a form of discipline), school uniforms and the uniforms of transport workers became less formal. Although the liberalization of uniforms may have moved slowly, the image of Sir Robert Menzies receiving his gong as Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports highlighted how antiquated the naval outfit with its tail coat, cocked hat and ceremonial sword had become.

In Ch. 4 ‘Promotion, Protection and Equality’, Wilcox moves to the second half of the twentieth century and the rise of designer-created corporate livery.  Now extended to commercial costume – think airhostesses, banks, hotels- he attributes the spread of corporate uniform to several factors.  First, publicity units began driving changes in organizations. Second the clothing industry wanted industry contracts  and, especially with trade liberalization and the flight of the TCF sector to Asian countries, was happy to make the Australian-made uniform a marker of patriotism.  Third, commercial emulation meant that  if one company adopted a corporate uniform, others were sure to follow.  Fourth, taxation law made the cost of providing and laundering uniforms a deduction for companies and employees. Fifth, the idea had the imprimatur of overseas practice and here I think of fast food companies. Finally, a corporate uniform was ‘sold’ to employees as a ‘wardrobe’ from which employees could ‘choose’.  Sportspeople have become a virtual working billboard for their sponsors. After a trend towards abolition, school uniforms have again become a marker of educational earnestness, supported by Julia Gillard’s statement that “Part of a high-quality uniform is learning how to present yourself to the world and that’s what a school uniform is all about”(p 133).  Meanwhile, when authority figures want to exert a frisson of menace, they turn to dark uniforms- and here I think of the Border Force uniforms and Victoria Police’s eschewal of the pale blue shirt for a dark blue one evoking New York coppers (both choices that I find sinister). While even judges’ costumes (I think they’d baulk at the term ‘uniforms’) have liberalized, they still remain set apart. His discussion of the semiotics of the vestments worn by Bishop Barbara Darling at her consecration was instructive.

The book is generously leavened with photographs and illustrations, with ‘break out’ displays every couple of pages that gave the feeling of looking at an exhibition rather than reading a book. While they lightened the reading experience, I did find that they disrupted the reading of the narrative.  Sometimes I’d stop and read the break-out then and there; other times I’d follow the narrative and then go back and read the break-outs later.  I suppose that it’s a book design that mirrors hypertext, but I found it disruptive. The book concludes with an encouraging list of further reading, references and sources for illustrations.

However,  I was rather non-plussed by the ending of the book, which seemed abrupt and overwhelmed by break-outs- almost as if  the author had been shunted out of the room by examples.  It was a pity- I’d enjoyed the presence of Craig Wilcox as a friendly and informed guide, and I felt that the end of the narrative deserved better.  My awareness of the uniforms depicted in historical images and around me in everyday life has been piqued by this book as another way of ‘reading’ history and society more generally.

Source: Review copy Quikmark media

‘Bush Studies’ by Barbara Baynton

baynton

1999, 140 P

A funny thing happened on the way to reading this book. I’ve been aware of it for some time, and always thought that I’d read it sometime but I never actually did anything about doing so. Then, last December, it turned up as our read for CAE bookgroup, even though no-one had selected it. When the secretary for the group rang to complain, she was told that another book that we had selected would be sent if it returned on time.  We’d have two books to read over Christmas, but that was no problem. When the second box of books arrived she opened it, only to find another book we hadn’t selected (Reading in Bed reviewed here). And so, here I was finally reading Bush Studies, even though I didn’t really mean to.

The version that I read started with an introduction by Elizabeth Webby. I often don’t read the introduction until I’ve finished a book, figuring that I need to read the book first before I want to engage with someone else’s opinion about it.  However, in this case I did read the intro, and I’m glad that I did so, as Webby’s introduction was followed by a memoir of Barbara Baynton written by her grandson in 1965.  In Webby’s introduction she follows Sally Krimmer and Alan Lawson in virtually debunking the whole of the family story that Baynton had put about and that her grandson had swallowed.The effect of this debunking was to put me on my guard as a reader, and alert me to the fact that this was one slippery woman.

Bush Studies is a compilation of short stories, and as I have said many times, I struggle to review a volume of short stories, aware as I am that what I am reading has been consciously curated from a selection of material that was written as stand-alone stories.  The first story, A Dreamer, was about a daughter returning home to her mother in a storm.  It was all very dramatic and Wuthering-Heights-y, and rather predictable.

The second story, Squeaker’s Mate is probably her best known story and one of the strongest in the collection.  The woman, unnamed until the end of the story, has been the mainstay of a timber-cutting partnership, hardworking and stoic and quite frankly taken advantage of by her feckless partner, Squeaker. When she is injured, it doesn’t take him long to find a substitute. There’s no freedom in this bush: it’s grey and harsh, just like Squeaker’s Mate’s prospects.

In Scrammy ‘And  an old shepherd is left to mind the selection. He talks to the dog to quell his fear that Scrammy ‘Hand- a bushman thief- would rob him. I found myself reading this book as a historian, mindful of John Hirst’s work on ex-convicts and their place amongst small selector society.  She’s writing from experience here, and it’s historically pitch-perfect.

The story I admired most was Billy Skywonkie, where a Chinese girl travels out to a selector. Racism is an unsettling undercurrent that runs through the story, and there’s no heroic bushman here. The story thrums with menace.

I have no idea how to read Bush Church at all. Is it a comic piece?

The final story The Chosen Vessel reminded me, as it does most readers, of Lawson’s The Drover’s Wife in the isolation and stoic vulnerability that being left behind in the bush engenders.  It’s not a snake she’s frightened by, but a man – not unlike the old convict in Scrammy Hand, but she has more to fear that mere robbery. I’m not sure about the Virgin Mary twist at the end though, and the story was chilling enough without it.

No wonder Barbara Baynton has been placed in the constellation of late nineteenth-century ‘bush’ writers but it’s a different bush that she’s writing about in her stories. There’s no ‘legend’ here. There’s isolation, racism and menace in this bush, and it brutalizes men who brutalize women in turn.

Sue at Whispering Gums has written several separate posts on Bush Studies, where she writes far more thoughtfully than I have done, as I’m writing some two months after I read the book. Both Squeaker’s Mate and Billy Skywonkie have stayed with me, which speaks to their strength I think, because short stories tend to wash over me a bit. and I must say that I’m glad that I’ve finally read Bush Studies (even though I didn’t mean to!)

Source: CAE bookgroup

aww2017-badge

I’ve posted this review to the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

 

‘State of Wonder’ by Ann Patchett

patchett

2011, 353 p

I don’t often think of films while I’m reading a book, but I did this time.  A few months back I went to see ‘Embrace of the Serpent’ (my short review here). I was rather nonplussed by the lack of plot in the movie at the time, but it complements this book beautifully.

Marina Singh is a 42-year old research scientist, working on cholesterol drugs for a pharmaceutical company.  Like Barak Obama, she was the daughter of a white American mother and, in this case, an Indian graduate student who returned to India.  When a research colleague, Anders, dies suddenly on the Brazilian Rio Negro, Marina is encouraged by her boss (with whom she is having a clandestine affair) and Anders’ widow, to go to find out what happened and, indeed whether Anders is even dead- something that his widow cannot believe. Anders himself had been sent by the pharmaceutical company to find out what happened too, but in this case the object of his enquiry was the intimidating Dr Swenson, who had been ensconced in the Brazilian jungle for years, working on a bark-based fertility potion observed amongst the Lakashi tribe. Lakashi women gave birth right throughout their lives: a burden to them, but a honey-pot to any Western pharmaceutical company catering to infertile Western women.  Dr Swenson had been funded by the company to undertake her research in Brazil, but she was not forwarding her results or progress to them.   Now that Anders had died, Marina was sent to follow up.

Marina knew, and feared Dr Swenson.  She had encountered her during her hospital internship as a doctor, when Dr Swenson castigated her for a surgical error, prompting her to leave medicine for good.  Now Marina meets her again, unsure whether Dr Swenson even remembers her.  Dr Swenson has surrounded herself with protectors, intent on blocking the company’s inquiries.  The doctors who work in her research program alternate between love and fear of her, and all the tribespeople obey her. Almost against her will, Marina finds herself being drawn into Dr Swenson’s orbit as well.

There are echoes of Conrad’s Kurtz here (can any book about the jungle ever escape parallels with Kurtz?) and it raises questions about the pharmaceutical industry and the ethics of fertility treatment in the face of other more urgent public health demands.

This book reminded me very much of Patchett’s earlier book Bel Canto which I read in 2002 and then again in 2014 for my bookgroup (but oddly enough, did not review in a blog post). Bel Canto, set in Latin America, involved a group of opera-lovers at a house concert being taken hostage by terrorists.  There was an opera element in State of Wonder too, but the most striking similarity is that in both books the author placed a group of people in an isolated setting, feeling powerless but increasingly coming under the thrall of those exerting power over them.  However, where in Bel Canto she managed to move between characters and fill them out, in a rather cinematic fashion, in this book there was really only one really robust and memorable character- Dr Swenson.  The other doctors in the group never really emerged as individuals, and even Marina as the main character seemed rather ‘thin’. It’s not clear why Marina was satisfied enough with the affair with her significantly-older supervisor Mr Fox, and there were too many pages spent in the Brazilian metropolis of Manaus, where Marina was deflected from travelling to the jungle by a young married Australian couple, Mr and Mrs Bovender, who are house-sitting Dr Swenson’s city apartment. There is much attention paid to Marina’s vivid nightmares, induced by the anti-malarial medication Lariam, a plot detail which takes on more significance by the end of the book.  It’s a relatively long book, and it meanders almost as much as the river that dominates the setting.

That said, I did find it rather compelling and did want to keep reading it. It was a book that was more rewarding during the act of reading, rather than thinking and discussing it afterwards.  In this case, I arrived at bookgroup having quite enjoyed it, but by the time we’d finished pulling it apart, the ‘State of Wonder’ seemed a little less wondrous after all.

My rating: 7/10

Read because: CAE face-to-face bookgroup

 

 

 

‘Looking for Rose Paterson: How Family Bush Life Nurtured Banjo the Poet’ by Jennifer Gall

rosepaterson

2017, 192 P & notes

I can remember how disappointed I felt when I first read Graeme Davison’s article ‘Sydney and the Bush:an urban context for the Australian Legend’, published in Historical Studies in October 1978 [1]. It was written some 20 years after Russel Ward’s The Australian Legend and it argued that the bush legend sprang not from the trenches of the goldfields or Gallipoli, but from the streets of central Sydney. How un-bush-like!  I couldn’t remember the details, but I did remember a map of Sydney, with dots depicting all the places where the ‘bush’ writers (Lawson, Price Wurung) lived, often in boarding houses and close to the radical centres of urban Sydney life.  Where were the ‘lowing cattle’ and  stringy eucalypts there?, I wondered.

I’ve only just gone back to look at the article to refresh my memory, and my eye snagged on Davison’s qualification that “’Banjo’ Paterson was the one important figure with even fair ‘bush’ credentials” (p. 192)  That’s good, then, because I’ve just finished reading Jennifer Galls’ book Looking for Rose Paterson: How Family Bush Life Nurtured Banjo the Poet. The crux of her argument is that Banjo (Andrew Barton) Paterson’s  short stories and poems like Clancy of the Overflow  and The Man from Snowy River drew on his childhood upbringing in small country towns in New South Wales (close to Orange and then Yass) and the influence of strong women of the bush- women much like his mother, Rose.

The author, Jennifer Gall is a curator at the National Film and Sound Archive in Canberra, and this is at least the second book of hers that has been published by the National Library of Australia.  I’ve been thinking about why a library, in particular, might publish a book about an individual.  In some cases, the subject has achieved fame, and the documentation held by the library or museum might be published to add an extra dimension to their already-public character (I’m thinking, most pertinently, of Germaine Greer’s archive which is about to become available from the University of Melbourne archives).  Alternatively, the library or museum may hold a collection that is notable for its completeness, or the illumination it throws on otherwise-undocumented, lived experience, but the creator him/herself is unknown (and I’m thinking here of the Goldfields Diary held by the State Library of Victoria). In such cases, the publication of a hard-copy, illustrated book would be a way of bringing the wealth of that particular archive to public attention.

Looking for Rose Paterson is a combination of both these spurs to publication.  As the title and cover design lettering suggests, this book is indirectly a commentary on the famous Australian writer Banjo Paterson, but the larger emphasis is on his mother Rose Paterson, rather than her son.  The book is based on the collection of thirty nine of Rose Paterson’s letters written to her younger sister Nora Murray-Prior between 1873 and 1888 and available online at  http://catalogue.nla.gov.au/Record/650061  The letters had once been part of the Murray-Prior estate and were crammed into an old sea-chest that had been cleared out of a family home.  In this regard they are like the family letters of any family that has had the education to generate and value the letters in the first place, and the wealth and stability to keep family documents through a limited number of shifts of location and strong family ties. The letters were purchased by academic Colin Roderick,  author of several books on Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson, who recognized the significance of the placenames and personalities (Banjo himself and  Nora’s step-daughter the author Rosa Praed) and hence the letters also have value because of their links with famous people. Roderick  published the letters in 2000 and offered the letters to the National Library.

So who was Rose Paterson, other than Banjo Paterson’s mother?  In her own right, she lived and died without recognition beyond her family. She was born in 1844 in Australia, four years after her parents had arrived separately in the colony on the same ship. She was part of the lineage of a pioneering pastoral family. Her mother had educated her at home, along with her siblings in a standard classical education- English and French, and an introduction to the rudiments of Latin, Greek, German and Italian.  She married at the age of 18 in one of those sisters-marrying-brothers constellations found in many family trees. Her husband, Andrew Bogle Paterson  was often absent on pastoral work on the three stations co-owned by the brothers in NSW and Queensland.  When the elder brother John died suddenly at the age of 40, his remaining brother Andrew lost the stations but was kept on at their Illalong station as an overseer.  It was in this environment that Banjo Paterson grew up, with his three siblings and cousin, and it was here  at Illalong that Rose wrote to her younger sister Nora, who lived with her much-older husband Thomas Lodge Murray-Prior along with her twelve step-children and eight own children. One marvels that Nora had time to correspond, but judging from Rose’s side of the correspondence (Nora’s is lost), she clearly did, facilitated most probably by money and material comforts that her sister Rose lacked.  After the death of Rose’s husband in 1889, the connection with Illalong was severed and Rose shifted to her mother’s house at Rockend, in Gladesville, Sydney where she died in 1893 at the age of 49.

These are just the sort of letters that a historian craves. There is continuity and detail, and they provide an entrée to the world of women who have intermarried into a small subset of pastoralist families and who are known to each other.  Although Rose’s life at Illalong was hard, she maintained her connections with her much more genteel and refined pre-marriage life. The line between a wealthy squatter and an impoverished one was a permeable one because of clan connections, particularly in the Scots pastoral fraternity.  If you’re looking for details of interactions with the indigenous people who had either been ‘turned away’ or still lived and worked on the stations, you’re not going to find them here. Instead, through the intimacy of sisters who see each other on occasion at their mother’s house in Sydney and who take an interest in their nieces and nephews, we gain a family-based, woman’s-eyed view of childbearing, motherhood, parenting and social life. In this, I was reminded of the repository of letters by Anna Murray Powell in Upper Canada, and Katherine McKenna’s wonderful use of them in writing A Life of Propriety.    However, in Gall’s book the narrative is driven by themes rather than chronology, and what rich themes they are!

In Chapter 1 ‘This poor old prison of a habitation’, the circumstances by which Rose ended up at Illalong are detailed, but the chapter then moves to a discussion of sewing, mending, trousseaus and marriage.  Chapter 2 ‘All utilities and no luxuries’ highlights the drudgery of farming, the isolation and cheerlessness of living on a remote station, and the financial strain of drought and the poor remuneration for overseers.  Ch. 3 ‘Smuggle a bottle of chloroform’ was absolutely fascinating in exploring the experience of pregnancy – a topic that is delicately avoided in most colonial correspondence, particularly when the correspondence itself is infrequent, addressed to and read by the men of the family, and covering months of news, rather than the day-to-day.  The two sisters write about the pregnancies, births and losses of mutual acquaintances, and Rose’s letter to Nora after her nine-month-old baby died gives the lie to the assumption that parents were inured to the loss of children at a time of high infant mortality.  They write of the search for doctors, or failing that,  ‘gamps’ – midwives- and plans for confinement where there will be assistance. Gall points out that Australian women were more likely to call on a doctor during their confinement than women in Britain and Europe, who turned to midwives instead, suggesting that this might reflect the disproportionate rate of men to women in early decades of Australian settlement.

There is an abrupt change of pace and direction in Chapter 4, where Gall returns to the ‘Banjo’ thread of her narrative.  I found this rather jarring, as the spotlight is turned to the son, rather than the mother.  Having noted the dearth of commentary about Aboriginal people in Rose and Nora’s letters, it was startling to turn the page to see a full-length portrait photograph of Banjo, known to the family as ‘Barty’, aged possibly 2 or 3,  sitting on a chair with his Aboriginal nurse Fanny, who was barely more than a child herself.  Rose accuses ‘that horrid Black Fanny’ of allowing him to climb trees and injure his arm, but there is no other comment in the text (and presumably in the letters) of the presence of Aboriginal people on the station or in the domestic setting of the home.  This chapter is more chronological, briefly tracing through Banjo Paterson’s career,  the writing of Waltzing Matilda and his work as war correspondent.  Was this chapter necessary? I think maybe not, or perhaps it could have been better incorporated into the introduction, because it broke the narrative thread of the other chapters.

Chapter 5 ‘Judicious neglect and occasional scrubbing’ returns to the domestic world of childcare, child rearing and education. As an educated woman herself,  Rose placed high importance on education for both her sons and her daughters, and she sought to secure the best tuition she could with the limited money available to her.  For her sons, this involved boarding in Sydney to attend Sydney Grammar School, but for her daughters this involved tuition through a governess, and later through boarding with school teachers in nearby Yass, and the passing on of skills from one sister to another.   Chapter 6 ‘No better dower than a good education’ continues this theme, describing the career paths and life choices available to Rose’s and Nora’s daughters.  Rose’s awareness of the literary success of Nora’s stepdaughter Rosa Praed, and her responses to the books that she is reading hint that Rose could, perhaps, have been a writer herself – like Louisa Lawson perhaps? Chapter 7 ‘We shall have a fine houseful’ describes Roses’s social life and larger cultural world, which encompassed what could be termed ‘bourgeois’ families in the local area, wider contacts within the intermarried squattocracy families, and at her mother’s house in Sydney.  The chapter discusses etiquette, the importance of the piano, visiting protocols, weddings and country balls- and here again I was reminded of the Powell family in Upper Canada and the transference and ubiquity of middle-class domestic practices  across the colonies of the Empire.

The book finishes with a short summary of Rose Paterson’s legacy and returns to the theme announced in the title of ‘How family bush life nurtured Banjo the poet’ – something that I wondered if Gall was going to return to at any stage.  The book closes with an expression of regret that no photo had been found of Rose, but as we read in the obviously-later-written introduction, there is a photograph of her- and what a beautiful photograph it is.

The book is interspersed with reproductions of Rose’s letters on yellowed paper, with the ink faded to brown, and occasionally cross-written (the historian’s curse!). There are lengthy quotes from the letters in the text, marked with the icon of a pen-nib to denote when the original has been reproduced on the adjoining page, and as a reader you never felt that the author was holding the sources back from you.  The book is lavishly illustrated with images, only few of which relate directly to the Paterson family.  At times I wondered if the images were being used  too tangentially.  Barely two pages of text passed without an illustration, and the ‘coffee-table’ presentation tended to  detract from the scholarship of the work, in the quest for atmosphere and context.

I very much enjoyed this book.  As a historian of a ‘famous’ man myself, this archive of correspondence is just the sort that I craved and sought in vain,  in trying to flesh out the domestic world that lies behind us all- famous and unknown alike.   Gall has served us well, in presenting the archive, contextualising it within the milieu of nineteenth century Australian pastoralism,  and drawing out the themes of women’s lives in that class and environment.  I felt sorry to leave Rose- or rather, sorry that she left us- a sure sign that a  letter can reach  across time and generations.

[1] Graeme Davison ‘Sydney and the Bush: an urban context for the Australian Legend’ Historical Studies, vol 18, no 71, October 1978.

Source: Review copy NLA, courtesy Scott Eathorne, Quikmark Media

My rating: 8.5/10

aww2017-badgeI am posting this review to the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

‘Dreams From My Father’ by Barak Obama

barakobama

1995, 2004, 442 p.

I was so downcast and discouraged by Trump’s inauguration that I decided to finally take Barak Obama’s memoir off the bookshelf where it has been languishing for years, and read it to expunge the current Presidential oafishness from my mind.  I knew that it had been top of the New York Times bestseller list for months and months, but nonetheless I was pleasantly surprised by the easy tone and Obama’s self-deprecating yearning to find answers to his questions over identity and masculinity.

This book was written in 1995,  before he took political office of any kind. Born in Hawaii, his Kenyan father had returned to his homeland while Barak was only two years old. His white American single mother remarried, and the family shifted to Indonesia, although Barak returned to the care of his grandparents in Hawaii when he was ten.  It was at the age of ten, too, that he met with his father for a short, awkward time, and never met him again. His father died in a car crash when Barak was twenty-one years old.  He was brought up on the myths of his father, told to him by his mother and grandparents, and much of this book deals with his disillusionment at how the rest of his father’s life unfolded, and his own search for identity as a mixed-race child, fitting neither into white or African-American society.

The book is divided into three parts: ‘Origins’, dealing with his childhood in Hawaii, Jakarta and New York; ‘Chicago’ set in Chicago (naturally) as he works as a community organizer in the African-American community, and ‘Kenya’ where he returns to meet his Kenyan family.  Having visited Kenya, I loved this last part- especially his description of the Mara which captured just how I felt about it!  His potted history of Kenyan colonialism, from the point of view of his Luo family, is masterful.

This is a beautifully written book, whether the author became President of the United States or not and, written in 1995, there is no consciousness at all that this could even possibly be his destiny. As a work of memoir, he has invented conversations and combined or renamed characters, but the book rings true to its very core.  I can’t imagine that there could be a greater contrast than that between ‘Dreams from My Father’ and ‘The Art of the Deal’, the memoir of the current presidential incumbent.

And look at this- a video from 1995, just after the book had been published. Oh, I miss that easy eloquence and gentle humour already.