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