Lost, by Frederick McCubbin (Presumed Public Domain, from National Gallery of Victoria, via Wikipedia)
In his rather notorious review (1955) of Patrick White
‘s The tree of man,
Australian poet, A.D. Hope, at his caustic best, described the requisite features of the Great Australian novel
(GAN). One of these was that it must include a child lost in the bush, a reference to the prevalence of this motif in Australian literature. The tree of man
did not have such a plot line … but that wasn’t the reason Hope discarded its claims to be the GAN. Why he discarded these claims though is not the subject of this week’s Monday Musings, so let’s move on. The lost-child-in-the-bush motif can, in fact, be found throughout 19th and 20th century Australian cultural output – in literature, art and film.
My first introduction to “the lost child in the bush” story was through Banjo Paterson
‘s tragic poem, “Lost” (1887):
The old man walked to the sliprail, and peered up the dark’ning track
And looked and longed for the rider who would never more come back.
The rider was a boy who had fallen from his horse and was never found, “for the ranges held him precious, and guarded their treasure well”. Oh the pathos! Around the same time that this poem was written, Australian artist Frederick McCubbin
painted “Lost” (1886). It was inspired
by the disappearance of 12-year-old Clara Crosbie, who was lost in the bush near Lilydale, Victoria, in 1885, but was found alive three weeks later.
One of my favourite representations of the motif is in John Heyer’s
award-winning docudrama, Back of beyond
(1954). It is about Tom Kruse, the Birsdville Track mailman who, every fortnight or so, made the 325-mile trip from Birdsville to Marree to deliver the mail. Inserted into this chronicle of a “typical” journey (it includes re-enactments to convey Tom Kruse’s “experience” rather than recording one actual trip) is a fictional story about two little girls becoming lost in the desert. The movie was sponsored by the Shell Oil Company with the aim of associating the company with Australia and Australianness! And so myths are made (or entrenched!).
A book I have not read (but have read about) is Charles Rowcroft
‘s novel Tales of the Colonie
s (1843). It “features the tropes of the Aborigine as a flawless tracker or a treacherous murderer, as well as the already well-worn motif of the lost white child who falls into the hands of bushrangers and blacks”. I mention it because this idea – the lost white child and the Aboriginal tracker - is found in the most recent example I’ve experienced of the lost-child-in-the-bush idea, the short film One night the moon (2001)
which was directed by indigenous Australian filmmaker, Rachel Perkins
, and stars, among others, Australian musicians, Paul Kelly and Ruby Hunter
. This film’s main message is the refusal of white Australia to respect the skills and knowledge of its indigenous inhabitants – with tragic consequences. Rachel Perkins says that she wanted to make a film “about the space between black and white Australians”. How appropriate to use an age-old Australian motif for such a purpose.
Why this motif became particularly common in the Australian cultural landscape is a topic of much discussion, but the most common reasoning relates to the discomfort the early European settlers felt when confronted with a landscape that seemed harsh and alien. The fact that many of those children who actually became lost were those most familiar with the bush is perhaps the truth that spoils the story!
I’d love to hear about the motifs that run through your nation’s cultural representations – and from Australians who would like to add to my discussion here of the “lost child” motif. Do you have other examples to share?