I discovered ‘Walkabout’ by James Vance Marshall, when I was browsing books in the children / YA literature section of the bookshop recently. When I read the blurb, I discovered that the story was set in Australia. It looked quite enticing and so I thought that I will get it and read it. I started reading it yesterday evening and finished it in one sitting. Here is the review. I will say something here before I continue. Please pardon me for the length of my review. I tend to write more about things that I like. I hope that is a good excuse 🙂
Summary of the story
I am giving below the summary of the story as given in the back cover.
Mary and Peter are the only survivors of a plane crash in the middle of the Australian desert. They are exhausted and starving when they meet an Aboriginal boy who helps them to survive. But an inevitable clash of cultures leads to a tragic misunderstanding.
Julia Eccleshare says this in her introduction to the book :
At its heart this is a story of survival – two children, stranded in the Australian outback when their plane crashes, must find food, water and shelter if they are to stay alive – but Walkabout is also much, much more than that. It’s a journey of emotional enrichment that takes Mary and Peter from knowing only the simple stereotypes of their upbringing to a new appreciation of a great deal that was previously unknown.
What I think
I enjoyed reading ‘Walkabout’ very much. It was an undiscovered treasure for me. James Vance Marshall’s prose is easy to read and the story is interesting from the beginning till the end. The book reminded me in some ways of ‘The Coral Island’ by R.M.Ballantyne (it was one of my favourite books, when I was in school) – because that was also a story of children who were stranded in an island. The difference was that in ‘Walkabout’ the children are stranded in the middle of a continent, and this part of the continent is so desolate, that it is similar to being stranded in an island. There is a description of this in one of the early chapters, which goes like this.
Sturt Plain, where the aircraft had crashed, is in the centre of the Northern Territory. It is roughly the size of England and Wales combined; but instead of some 45,000,000 inhabitants, it has roughly 4,500, and instead of some 200,000 roads, it has two, of which one is a fair-weather stock route. Most of the inhabitants are grouped around three or four small towns – Tennant Creek, Hooker Creek, and Daly Waters – which means that the rest of the area is virtually uninhabited. The Plain is fourteen hundred miles from Adelaide and is not a good place to be lost in.
It is quite interesting that, though we think today, that most of the world is known and is inhabited by people, there are parts of the world which are still uninhabited and are desolate and wild. ‘Walkabout‘ was published fifty years back, and so things might have changed today in Northern Territory, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there are still desolate and wild lands out there.
The clash of cultures between the modern way of life and the Aboriginal way of life is beautifully portrayed in the book, without the author taking sides (he does seem to have a soft corner for the Aboriginal way of life, though). When I read the parts of the book, which were related to this aspect, I remembered the two movies in ‘The Gods Must be Crazy’ series which came out many years back, which I enjoyed watching very much. These two movies also depicted the difference in culture and thinking between the modern way of life and the African bushmen’s way of life without taking sides or being judgemental. Here is one excerpt which describes this clash of cultures.
The three children stood looking at each other in the middle of the Australian desert. Motionless as the outcrops of granite they stared, and stared, and stared. Between them the distance was less than the spread of an outstretched arm, but more than a hundred thousand years.
Brother and sister were products of the highest strata of humanity’s evolution. In them the primitive had long ago been swept aside, been submerged by mechanization, been swamped by scientific development, been nullified by the standardized pattern of the white man’s way of life. They had climbed a long way up the ladder of progress; they had climbed so far, in fact, that they had forgotten how their climb had started. Coddled in babyhood, psycho-analysed in childhood, nourished on predigested patent foods, provided with continuous push-button entertainment, the basic realities of life were something they’d never had to face.
It was very different with the Aboriginal. He knew what reality was. He led a way of life that was already old when Tut-ankh-amen started to build his tomb; a way of life that had been tried and proved before the white man’s continents were even lifted out of the sea. Among the secret water-holes of the Australian desert his people had lived and died, unchanged and unchanging, for twenty thousand years. Their lives were unbelievably simple. They had no homes, no crops, no clothes, no possessions. The few things they had, they shared : food and wives; children and laughter; tears and hunger and thirst. They walked from one water-hole to the next; they exhausted one supply of food, then moved on to another. Their lives were utterly uncomplicated because they were devoted to one purpose, dedicated in their entirety to the waging of one battle : the battle with death. Death was their ever-present enemy. He sought them out from every dried-up salt pan, from the flames of every bush fire. He was never far away. Keeping him at bay was the Aboriginals’ full-time job; the job they’d been doing for twenty thousand years: the job they were good at.
The desert sun streamed down. The children stared and stared.
Mary had decided not to move. To move would be a sign of weakness. She remembered being told about the man who’d come face to face with a lion, and had stared it out, had caused it to slink discomfited away. That was what she’d do to the black boy; she’d stare at him until he felt the shame of his nakedness and slunk away. She thrust out her chin, and glared.
Peter had decided to take his cue from his sister. Clutching her hand he stood waiting : waiting for something to happen.
The Aboriginal was in no hurry. Time had little value to him. His next meal – the rock wallaby – was assured. Water was near. Tomorrow was also a day. For the moment he was content to examine these strange creatures at his leisure. Their clumsy, lumbering movements intrigued them; their lack of weapons indicated their harmlessness. His eyes moved slowly, methodically from one to another : examining them from head to foot. They were the first white people a member of his tribe had ever seen.
Mary, beginning to resent his scrutiny, intensified her glare. But the bush boy seemed in no way perturbed; his appraisal went methodically on.
After a while Peter started to fidget. The delay was fraying his nerves. He wished someone would do something: wished something would happen. Then, quite involuntarily, he himself started a new train of events. His head began to waggle; his nose tilted skywards; he spluttered and choked; he tried to hold his breath; but all in vain. It had to come. He sneezed.
It was a mighty sneeze for such a little fellow: the release of a series of concatenated explosions, all the more violent for having been dammed back.
To his sister the sneeze was a calamity. She had just intensified her stare to the point – she felt sure – of irresistibility, when the spell was shattered. The bush boy’s attention shifted from her to Peter.
Frustration warped her sense of justice. She condemned her brother out of court; was turning on him angrily, when a second sneeze, even mightier than the first, shattered the silence of the bush.
Mary raised her eyes to heaven: invoking the gods as witnesses to her despair. But the vehemence of the second sneeze was still tumbling leaves from the humble-bushes, when a new sound made her whirl around. A gust of laughter: melodious laughter; low at first, then becoming louder: unrestrained: disproportionate: uncontrolled.
She looked at the bush boy in amazement. He was doubled up with belly-shaking spasms of mirth.
Peter’s incongruous, out-of-proportion sneeze had touched off one of his people’s most highly developed traits: a sense of the ridiculous; a sense so keenly felt as to be almost beyond control. The bush boy laughed with complete abandon. He flung himself to the ground. He rolled head-over-heels in unrestrained delight.
His mirth was infectious. It woke in Peter an instant response: a like appreciation of the ludicrous. The guilt that the little boy had started to feel melted away. At first apologetically, then whole-heartedly, he too started to laugh.
The barrier of twenty thousand years vanished in the twinkling of an eye.
Whenever I think about Australia, I remember it as the land of wonderful sportspersons – Sir Donald Bradman and other wonderful champion cricketers, legendary swimmers like Dawn Fraser and Ian Thorpe and tennis legends like Rod Laver. I also remember it as the country which has beautiful beaches, which has summer in December and January and which also has some of the most beautiful cities in the world. But Australia is also a land of wild and beautiful flora and fauna and it is the home to plants and animals which are unique and which are not found in any other continent. ‘Walkabout’ brings this facet of Australia to the forefront. There are many beautiful descriptions of unique flora and fauna in the book. Some of the interesting animals and birds I encountered in the book were – wombat, kookaburra, gang-gang, finch, wallaby, wonga-wonga, echidna. There were many more. My most favourite passage from the book is a beautiful description of an interesting bird, which goes like this :
They saw a bird. An ordinary rather sad-looking bird, with big eyes, pointed beak and long, straggling tail. He was scratching about for grubs. To the white children the scene looked very prosaic : an anti-climax. But the black boy was obviously enthralled; he signalled to them to be quiet, and so they knelt close up to the wattle-bushes : motionless : expectant. And after about ten minutes their patience was rewarded.
Quite suddenly the bird raised his head; he drew himself erect and, with a stiff-legged goose-step, strutted into the centre of the clearing. Then he started to sing. And in an instant all his drabness was sloughed away. For his song was beautiful beyond compare : stream after stream of limpid melodious notes, flowing and mingling, trilling and soaring : bush music, magic as the pipes of Pan. On and on it went; wave after wave of perfect harmony that held the children spellbound. At last the notes sank into a croon, died into silence. The song was over. But not the performance. For now came a metamorphosis too amazing to be believed. The drab brown bird with its tatty, straggling tail disappeared, and in its place rose a creature of pure beauty. The drooping tail fanned wide; its two outmost feathers swung erect to form the frame of a perfect lyre; and in between spread a mist of elfin plumage, a phantasmagoria of blue and silver, shot with gold, that trembled and quivered with all the beauty of a rainbow seen through running water. Then, hidden behind his plumage, the lyre bird again burst into song. And as he sang, he danced; prancing joyfully from side to side, hopping and skipping to the beat of a high-speed polka. And every now and then his song broke off, was interspersed with croaking chuckles of happiness.
Then, as suddenly as his performance had begun, it ended. The feathers drooped, the polka came to a halt, the singing died. And he was just another bird, scratching the earth for food.
There is also an interesting description of trees and plants in the forest, which goes like this :
The trees soared skyward, slim and straight, seeking the life-giving sun. But around them, choking them to death, coiled the dodders – the predatory vines, sucking the nutriment out of their roots, gripping the trees with tentacles like tightening tourniquets. And intertwined with the dodders were the jikkas : headless, tail-less, rootless, vegetable snakes; growing on and on, from either end, wrapping their vampire arms around anything they touched.
I found the ‘jikkas’ quite interesting! How can one believe that there are plants without roots? It is fascinating to know that there are plants which behave like animals – the dividing line is really thin, isn’t it?
A description of another unique Australian plant in the book, went like this :
The bush boy nodded, and together they started to unearth the strange coconut ball. It was one of nature’s paradoxes : a plant growing upside-down : a leaf and flower-bearing liana whose foliage grew entirely under the ground. Close to the surface was the tuber-like yam; spread out around and beneath it were its flowers and leaves, drawing from the soil that sustenance which the air of the desert denied. It was a plant as rare as it was strange, and as tasty as it looked unpalatable.
Very difficult to believe!
In some parts of the book, the author spends more time in describing the wild and beautiful nature of the Northern Territory, rather than on the story, but as nature is so intertwined with the story, one loves it.
The story is wonderful, the descriptions are beautiful and the book haunts one’s thoughts even after one has finished reading it.
I loved reading ‘Walkabout’. I will add it to my list of favourite books, and I will read it again. I will also look for James Vance Marshall’s ‘A River Ran Out of Eden‘. If you like YA literature, and enjoy reading a story set in wild nature, you will like this book.
Posted in Book Review | Tagged Aborigine, Australia, Northern Territory | 7 Comments
Walkabout, by James Vance Marshall
“It was silent and dark, and the children were afraid.” This the opening line of James Vance Marshall’s Walkabout, but isn’t it also the first line of all of our lives?
Walkabout, first published in 1959, is a petite book with a classic premise: two white children from Charleston, South Carolina are traveling when their plane crashes in the Australian outback. The only survivors, they set out to return to civilization, when they encounter a young Aboriginal boy who teaches them how to survive in the wild. A list of books with this essential set-up would take up the entire word count of this review, but suffice to say that Walkabout echoes Lord of the Flies, Robinson Crusoe, and A High Wind in Jamaica for starters. All books where people (often children) attempt to brave the world they originally, many moons ago, came from, a world they are now utterly lost in.
The two siblings are Mary, a teenage girl who hides her fear behind stern prudence, and her younger brother Peter, an amiable child who provides comic relief throughout the heavy tale. It’s clear early on that in order to survive they’re going to need saving. “Coddled in babyhood, psycho-analysed in childhood, nourished on predigested patent foods, provided with continuous push-button entertainment, the basic realities of life were something they’d never had to face.” Luckily for them the aboriginal boy is a god-send (perhaps literally?) who takes on the task of their survival. Despite not a single word of language in common, the aboriginal boy teaches Peter how to fish (see Bible) and provides the siblings with endless tips from where to find water to how to roast a wallaby.
On the first day of their meeting, the aboriginal boy inspects the two, sheerly out of curiosity. “He ended up with a detailed inspection of Peter’s sandals. Then he turned to Mary. It was the moment the girl had been dreading. Yet she didn’t draw back. She wanted to; God alone knew how she wanted to. Her nerves were strung taut. The idea of being manhandled by a naked black boy appalled her: struck at the root of one of the basic principles of her civilized code. It was terrifying; revolting; obscene. Back in Charleston it would have got the darkie lynched.” Of course, the unclothed boy is mostly curious as to why she’s wearing such a silly dress, but Mary sees it quite differently. She is so afraid of his blackness, of his nakedness, that it clouds her perspective. In fact, her main obsession throughout the book, is keeping her dress close to her body, her thinly veiled protective sheath.
The aboriginal boy is a clear Christ figure from the outset: pure of heart, generous, someone who lives only to help others. When Peter and Mary meet the boy, he is in the middle of a walkabout, a rite of passage in which young men set out on a six-to-eight month journey through the desert alone, yet he abandons his mission because the children are in need of his help. “Unless he looked after them, they would die. That was certain.” Some lines from Walkabout seem as though they’re lifted right from a passage in the Bible. “It was his people’s way to accept individuals as they were: to help, not to criticize, the sick, the blind, and the maimed.”
Yet despite the fact that the boy provides Peter and Mary with security, food, shelter, and sacrifices his spiritual journey for them, it does not succeed in quelling Mary’s institutionalized racism and fear. For the real fear does not rest with whether or not they will survive physically, but whether or not they can deal with their spiritual and psychological crises. For “…then, quite suddenly the children were walking into their shadow.” And what shadow is that? The dark, deep-seated fear that the presence of the aboriginal boy draws forth from the reserved virginal Mary.
One day, her suspicions causes her to give him a look that “could only mean one thing: that she had seen in his eyes an image: the image of the Spirit of Death.” Apparently within Marshall’s rendering of Aboriginal culture, autosuggestion of death is enough to kill someone. The aboriginal boy ends up dying from catching the white girl’s fear (or perhaps more realistically the white boy’s cold), and in the moment of his death, he lays his head on Mary’s lap, a Christian echo of the mother Mary cradling Jesus’ dead body. “It was the smile that broke Mary’s heart: that last forgiving smile. Before, she had seen as through a glass darkly, but now she saw face to face. And in that moment of truth all her inbred fears and inhibitions were sponged away, and she saw that the world which she had thought was split in two was one.”
It’s a deep reversal. Mary’s fear and ignorance is so potent that it kills the boy, and yet in the moment of his death, its his fearlessness and Christ-like forgiveness that transforms her. Oddly, the book’s death scene doesn’t have an air of deep grief. In fact, it seems to be tinged with transcendence. As we know from Christ’s tale, death is only a mirage; life is always resurrecting.
For a book that’s only 120 pages, small pages at that, it’s so densely layered with symbolism as if to verge on being overwrought. Yet the book is saved by its focused narrative path, interior character portraits, and lush descriptions of the outback. In fact, the language is so rich with flora and fauna (the author’s pseudonym is borrowed from an Australian nature writer he admired) that I felt myself almost plucking the fauna off the page for a quick sniff. In such a short space it asks some of the most profound questions. What is behind language? Who are we when we can’t rely on that limited form of communication? What will save us from the never-ending wild?
There’s an idea that there is something that touches the languageless place within us, outside of symbolic language and the imaginary, something known in psychoanalytic thought as “the real”. “The real” cannot be spoken or written. It’s the neo-natal, primal place we have been forever severed from through our inescapable introduction to language, that cornerstone of “civilization”. The aboriginal boy represents that place for Mary and Peter, a place they have long since lost access to. Lacan’s statement “What does not come to light in the symbolic appears in the real” is revealed in the brief moments between the three: laughter, eye contact, the embrace of another. These are moments when the “real” cuts through the symbolic, moments of pure existence. Perhaps, even when we are lost in the wild, whether it be in nature or the endless wilderness of the psyche, when we encounter another, we can always speak with them, one way or another.
Anisse Gross is a writer, editor, artist and question asker living in San Francisco. Her work has been featured in The New Yorker, The Believer, Lucky Peach, Buzzfeed, Brooklyn Quarterly, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. She openly welcomes correspondence, friendship, surprises and paid work. More from this author →