Barbara Baynton, Billy Skywonkie (Review)
Well, I must say that “Billy Skywonkie”, my fifth* story from Barbara Baynton’s Bush studies, fair near defeated me, so I was rather relieved to read in Susan Sheridan’s introduction that “in this story and others, Baynton’s use of dialect to represent the speech of these uneducated bush folk can also act as a barrier to understanding”. I did understand it, but only just in places. I reckon it would be a good one to hear in audio version.
The story concerns a woman from the city coming to work as “a housekeeper” on a station in drought-ridden outback Australia. It starts on the train, in which she travels with a bunch of drovers accompanying their cattle. En route several cattle die in the heat and squash of their carriage, and the drovers make no attempt to speak nicely to the woman sharing their journey. This sets the scene for the coarse speech, lack of any sort of chivalry, and racist attitudes that feature in the rest of the story after she is picked up by rouseabout Billy Skywonkie in the buggy.
On the first page, Baynton describes the country our female passenger is coming to:
The tireless greedy sun had swiftly followed the grey dawn, and in the light that even now seemed old and worn, the desolation of the barren, shelterless plains that the night had hidden, appalled her.
As she alights at the Gooriabba siding her dismay – and hesitation – as the train disappears in the distance is palpable. There is a buggy waiting but, although she is the only person to alight, the driver seems not to recognise that she is his passenger! We’ve been given no description of our passenger – we have no idea how old she is, what her background is, or why she’s coming outback – but clearly she’s not the “piece” Billy was expecting. “There’ll be a ‘ell of a row somew’ere” he rather ominously pronounces.
Most of the rest of the story concerns the 12-mile trip – perhaps a bit more given Billy’s shortcut to the “shanty” – to the station. Nothing that happens on the trip goes anywhere near reassuring our passenger or, in fact, the reader, that things are going to get better. Billy evinces no kindness to his charge – leaving her sitting in the hot buggy while he has a drink and a flirt with Mag in the shanty – though he is kind to the drunk kangaroo-shooter collapsed in the sun outside the shanty. That’s telling.
This is racist country. Chows or Chinks in particular are not liked. “Blanky bush Chinkies! I call ’em. No one can tell them apart”. Billy would rather “tackle a gin as a chow any day”, and we soon learn why. His missus, Lizer, is “dusky”, and has him under her thumb, though not enough to prevent his little side-trips to Mag!
There’s rough humour here. The characters tease Billy Skywonkie (whose name apparently means “weather-prophet”) with the question, which they find hilarious, “W’en’s it goin’ ter rain?”. There’s no lightness in the story’s humour though. It’s mostly bitter, unkind stuff, as though the land doesn’t encourage any sort of empathy or genuine relationship. Baynton’s people in this story are not the heroic or tragicomic bushmen of Henry Lawson, Banjo Paterson and Adam Lindsay Gordon. They are, well, base – and the story’s unrelenting language leaves us in no doubt regarding how we are to read it.
When Billy finally arrives at the station with his charge, things do not turn out well, but why is something I’ll leave you to found out (by reading the story in the link below). My problem, though, is that not telling you why severely hampers my discussion of this story. It’s interesting that “Billy Skywonkie” is not as well known as “The chosen vessel” or “Squeaker’s mate” because its exploration of racism, in particular, must surely be pioneering. I certainly found it powerful when I realised what had been going on under my nose! It may be that the challenges involved in reading it, and the ambiguities it contains, put readers off, but it deserves wider readership and attention.
And now, I have one story to go to complete my reading of Bush stories. What an interesting and eye-opening collection it is for one used to romanticising the bush!
in Bush studies
Sydney University Press, 2009
Available online: in Bush studies at Project Gutenberg.