Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 257 pages; 2009.
D’Arcy Niland was an Australian author who wrote six novels, several short story collections, some poetry, radio and television plays, and an autobiography between 1955 and his untimely death in 1969. He was married to New Zealand writer Ruth Park of The Harp in the South trilogy fame.
He was best known for his first novel, The Shiralee, first published in 1955, which went on to become an international bestseller. It was turned into a film, starring Peter Finch, in 1957. But I largely knew it as a TV mini-series, produced in 1987, starring Bryan Brown. I didn’t watch the series, because I remember the promotional adverts made it look like mawkish sentimental claptrap, and sadly that put me off ever wanting to read the book.
Turns out that was my loss, because The Shiralee, recently re-issued as a Penguin Modern Classic, is an absolute gem, one of those delicious reads that transports you to another time and place, and makes you hungry to read more of the same thing.
Life on the road
The story is set during the Great Depression (I think — it’s hard to be 100 per cent sure). Macauley is a swagman, an Australian term for an itinerant labourer who travels between jobs largely on foot, carrying a traditional swag (a bed that you roll up) and a tuckerbag (a bag to store food). He even stores his money in “a travelling branch of the Colonial Sugar Refining Company — an empty golden syrup tin”.
As he crosses the byways and highways of rural NSW, Macauley is accompanied by his four-year-old daughter, Buster, whom he initially regards as his “shiralee”, a slang word for burden. Six months earlier he “kidnapped” Buster from her city-based mother, when Macauley discovered his wife in bed with another man. Taking Buster was supposed to be a form of punishment, but it seems to have backfired, and his quiet, frugal lifestyle has now become tempered by a little girl who talks too much and slows him down.
And yet, while it’s slowly dawning on him that Buster’s mother doesn’t want her daughter back, Macauley is getting used to the company — even if he may not want to admit it.
They had walked for two hours, and Macauley couldn’t help but observe, as he had been observing, the growing endurance of the little girl. It dragged from him some slight sense of gratification. He wasn’t paying out tribute to the child: he was merely feeling the small but positive diminution of responsibility. But it wouldn’t be long now. At the end of the third hour and a steadily maintained pace, Buster’s feet were scuffling, and she was whinging to be carried.
‘Don’t kid me,’ Macauley said. ‘You can go on a bit yet.’
‘I can’t. I can’t,’ the kid whimpered desperately.
Macauley took her hand, and kept going. He felt the tugging weight. It got heavier and heavier. It was not brutality, but purposeful tactics. He stopped them short of the verge of exhaustion. When the child was swaying, leaning back from the mooring of his hand, the legs wobbling, the voice dreeing mournfully while the tears flowed unattended down the crumpled face — that was when Macauley picked her up.
She was asleep in five minutes, her head on his shoulder.
Pity crept like a little flame into the smoulder of his resentment, but the resentment was too strong for it and it was smothered. Macauley told himself this could not go on. He was vehement.
Yet when he saw emus he had a wish that she could see them; when he saw the wild pigs had been rooting up ground he had an inclination to point it out; and when he came upon a goanna disgorging at his approach a kitten rabbit he had an instinct to wake her up and show her the sight.
The story covers Macauley’s and Buster’s adventures on the road. To write much more would spoil the enjoyment for others, but it’s safe to say there’s a few brawls, a run-in with the police and a lot of miserable weather. In fact, you’re never quite sure what’s going to happen next, and I was surprised, on more than one occasion, at the turn of events. (Note, there are no chapter breaks, so it’s almost impossible to put this book down, because there never seems to be a natural point to stop reading.)
A bygone way of life
It’s interesting to get a glimpse of a bygone way of life, particularly given that allowing a child to live such a rough and ready lifestyle today would be tantamount to child abuse.
There’s a wonderful sense of friendship and camaraderie in this book, too, not only between father and daughter, but between the many old friends Macauley meets along the way, as well as the new people he bumps into who think nothing of sharing their food and their shelter. It’s certainly a less suspicious era, where people are trusted at face value, and no one thinks twice about picking up strangers wandering along the roadside.
Obviously, The Shiralee is a product of its time, and there’s a very light smattering of racist terminology throughout.
But the book has a big heart. It’s funny in places and sad in others. It’s occasionally tender, occasionally brutal. It’s humble, knowing and wise. Sometimes it makes you feel ashamed to be human, at other times it makes you feel proud. And, above all, it makes you wish every book was written like this: forthright, absorbing and genuinely moving. It is never mawkish, never sentimental.
I wanted the book to go on forever because I so enjoyed being in the company of these wonderfully smart and good-hearted people, but when it didn’t, I felt like having a good, long howl: it’s got a cracker of an emotional ending.
The Australian Dictionary of Biography says the book is about the “responsibility of fatherhood” but I like this description best, because it sums it up perfectly: “Niland’s writing reveals a man who was profoundly aware of the paradoxical burdens and vitality of the shiralees which all human beings must carry.”
I can’t praise The Shiralee enough and look forward to hunting out Niland’s back catalogue, sadly all out of print, in the weeks to come.