Review: Remembering Babylon, by David Malouf

Set in mid-19th century colonial Australia, Remembering Babylon explores issues of race and class through a young man named Gemmy Fairley.  Gemmy turns up in a Queensland village, seemingly out of nowhere.  He is white, but “appears” black and speaks the language of native people.  He is most comfortable communicating with the three children who first discovered him, members of the McIvor family.  Through various means of communication, Gemmy shares his background as a ragamuffin boy tossed from a ship, who lived with aboriginal people for 16 years.  The McIvor family take him in, providing for his basic needs and giving him work to do around their property.  Gemmy baffles the community:

He had started out white. No question. When he fell in with the blacks — at thirteen, was it? — he had been like any other child, one of their own for instance. (That was hard to swallow.) But had he remained white?

They looked at their children, even the smallest of them chattering away, entirely at home in their tongue, then heard the mere half-dozen words of English this fellow could cough up, and even those so mismanaged and distorted you could barely guess what he was on about, and you had to put to yourself the harder question. Could you lose it? Not just language, but it.  It.

For the fact was, when you looked at him sometimes he was not white. His skin might be but not his features. The whole cast of his face gave him the look of one of Them. How was that, then?  (p.40)

But Remembering Babylon isn’t so much Gemmy’s story as everyone else’s.  Janet, Meg, and Lachlan are forever changed after finding Gemmy.  Several settlers actively work to oust Gemmy, showing their true selves and straining Jock and Ellen McIvor’s relations with them.  And just beyond the hubbub lives Mrs. Hutchence, an eccentric woman who offers love and kindness to everyone she meets. Malouf introduced every type of character imaginable: angry, bigoted settlers, a young schoolmaster, a preacher nearing the end of his career, etc.  Most were not as well-developed as the McIvor family, and after a while I found the frequent new faces a distraction.  The ending was also strange, jumping ahead in time while leaving a number of loose ends back in the 19th century.  Still, this was a worthwhile read, an interesting study of human nature, set in a historic period I enjoy reading about.


Review: The Lieutentant, by Kate Grenville

In every situation in his life, Rooke had seen that there were people with a power of personality that gave them effortless authority.  It was not to do with rank or position: the governor lacked it. Rooke did not possess it either, he knew that about himself, but Silk had it, and so did Gardiner.

And so did Tagaran.  (p. 175)

Daniel Rooke was an introverted boy, in love with mathematics and astronomy.  He was fortunate to receive a place in the Portsmouth Naval Academy, vaulting him into a different social class and affording him the opportunity to meet the Astronomer Royal.  At 15 he left school and was assigned to a ship supplying His Majesty’s forces in the American colonies.   He proved to be a skilled navigator, but naive as to the realities of military service.  Rooke returned home permanently changed by war’s violence and an early encounter with slaves in Antigua.  But he was still a young man, and in 1786, when Rooke was 24, the Astronomer Royal recommended him to serve on one of the first ships taking prisoners to Australia.  The journey began in 1788; serving in the same fleet was Captain Silk, a colleague from Rooke’s earlier tour of duty.  On arrival, the English found the landscape much less hospitable than expected, with very little edible agriculture and game.  Not surprisingly, the native people were also less than thrilled by their presence.

Rooke managed to convince his commander to allow him to set up an observatory some distance from the main camp, and there he performed “official duties” in relative isolation.  While the men in the main camp struggled to gain the natives’ trust, Rooke received regular visits from a group of mostly women and children.  He had a special rapport with a girl named Tagaran.  Their mutual curiosity allowed them to bridge the language barrier, teaching each other words and progressing to real conversations.  Rooke kept elaborate notebooks, trying to make a record of Tagaran’s language.  He developed a level of respect for Tagaran and her tribe that was far more advanced than those in the main camp.  But eventually conflict arose between the main camp and the natives, and Rooke faced a series of ethical dilemmas that threatened his relationship with Tagaran and caused him to question everything he once held true.  The resolution of this internal conflict was in some ways inevitable, and yet quite moving.

The Lieutenant is similar in some ways to Grenville’s earlier book, The Secret River.  Both explore the conflict between white settlers (invaders?) and native Australians.   By focusing on feelings and inner conflict more than violence, The Lieutenant offers a rich and sophisticated take on Australia’s history.

Review: Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living, by Carrie Tiffany

In the 1920s and 30s, the Better Farming Train traveled across the Australian state of Victoria, educating isolated rural communities on farming and household management practices. Jean Finnegan and Robert Pettergree met on the train; she was a specialist in sewing and household management, and he was a soil scientist.  The train’s close quarters stoked their passion, and soon Jean and Robert decided to marry, leave the train and start their own farmstead.

Robert adopted a highly scientific approach to wheat farming, and enlisted Jean’s help to conduct  experiments in bread production following each year’s harvest.  He is idealistic and convinced his way is the correct one; she trusts him and provides moral support.  She also keeps detailed records for each year’s crop, as if writing a laboratory report for a high school science experiment:

The sample has a low bushel weight (61 lbs). In accordance with standard sampling procedure a portion of FAQ (fair-average quality) wheat was critically examined and subjected to analysis and a milling test in the experimental flour mill.

The sample is very bright and plump, and has a generally pleasing appearance. The moisture content and the protein content are normal.  (p. 78)

Jean’s report continues with a description of the “experiment’s” purpose, quality test results, and the measurable characteristics of 10 loaves of bread baked with flour from the year’s harvest.  This is repeated each year, allowing the careful reader to see for themselves the effectiveness of Robert’s scientific farming methods.

When the government launches a wheat-growing scheme to stimulate the economy, Robert uses facts and figures to convince other farmers to increase wheat production by adopting his techniques.  What follows is a classic example of the effects of messing with an ecosystem.  As farming becomes increasingly difficult, Jean and Robert also suffer — individually, as a couple, and as members of their community.

Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living is written in spare prose, laced with both understatement and irony.  The character development is subtle; both Jean and Robert are fully formed, and yet there’s so much more I wanted to know.  But the style perfectly conveyed the stark landscape and the harsh life of a farm family.