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Barbara Baynton, Billy Skywonkie (Review)

March 29, 2014

awwchallenge2014Well, 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!

Barbara Baynton
“Billy Skywonkie”
in Bush studies
Sydney University Press, 2009
ISBN: 9781820898953

Available online: in Bush studies at Project Gutenberg.

*For my previous reviews of stories in this book, click the appropriate title: A dreamerScrammy ‘and, Squeaker’s mate, The chosen vessel.

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18 Comments leave one →
  1. Jim KABLE permalink
    March 29, 2014 10:16 pm

    WG: I really enjoy wherever your literary interest drags me! Barbara BAYNTON’s grave at Waverley Cemetery I stumbled across some decade or more ago – on the left hand side going down – or – in more recent times – on the right – looking up from the coastal walk – in fact clearly visible from that walk/metal bridge – across the front of the cemetery as it almost spills into the Pacific. Almost 30 years ago I took a discrete study subject at Sydney – Australian Lit. III. I have never forgotten taking up an essay in which I had to deal with exactly the kind of orthographic representation of broad Australian speech against which you, too, have reacted here – a mis-representation – imputing poor education as a way of signifying class – when no-one sees spelling in speech – even if noting accent or grammar/structural differences from the standard. I don’t think it was one of Barbara BAYNTON’s stories – but it may have been. Anyway, yes – sexism and racism – how far we have come since – when a male PM is the Minister for Women – and bigotry is apparently a right! Come back Barbara! How timely, WG!

    • March 29, 2014 10:43 pm

      I’m glad … it’s fun for me and I hope others enjoy the serendipitous journey I go on here. I feather like cemeteries. Must get to Waverley one day … make a pilgrimage.

      I love the way Baynton represents the speech here. As I said, it would be great to hear it read.

  2. Kirsty permalink
    March 30, 2014 12:25 am

    Your wish to perhaps hear an audio version of Billy Skywonkie emboldens me: I recorded Bush Studies for Librivox at the end of last year. You can download it for free: https://librivox.org/bush-studies-by-barbara-baynton/ Reading the vernacular was a challenge! I’m currently recording Baynton’s Human Toll, which is similarly opaque–especially the character Boshy. I have to repeat things many times and sometimes I just have to stop to figure out what it is the character is even saying.

    • March 30, 2014 8:13 am

      Oh, good on you for being bold, Kirsty … I knew of Librivox but had forgotten it. I’ll check it out.

    • April 4, 2014 8:46 am

      I listened to half of your reading in the wee small hours of this morning Kirsty. Very nicely done. I reckon it would help people a lot, particularly if they do it as a read along. Thanks for reminding me about Librivox … It’s been a few years since I looked at it.

  3. Kirsty permalink
    March 30, 2014 12:26 am

    ps I love Bush Church, the remaining story. Look forward to reading your thoughts on it.

  4. March 30, 2014 1:57 am

    I taught this story as part of a unit on Australian modernism some years back and found it powerful and disturbing—fascinating, too, in its portrait of gender and race. But I remember it was not well liked by students!
    Great review, Sue.

    • March 30, 2014 8:18 am

      Thanks Amanda … That’s great to hear you taught it. I can imagine some not liking it … It’s challenging and confronting on a number of levels isn’t it.

  5. March 30, 2014 2:41 am

    Reading your review makes me think of reading the literature from the American South, like a whole different kind of dialect. Interesting backdrop and explorations of socio-cultural differences.

    • March 30, 2014 8:19 am

      Yes, like that Arti … And particularly when we a talking over a century difference too.

  6. March 30, 2014 6:39 am

    I read Scrammy and decided that it was very like reading of madness.

  7. March 30, 2014 9:02 am

    Thanks for the links, very useful! Some stories are defeating, not meant to be judged by modern sensibilities but part of our history.

    • March 30, 2014 6:06 pm

      Yes, I think you’re right, eagoodlife. In a way all literature risks that doesn’t it. Even works that seem understandable, we read differently to the way they would have been read at the time they were written.

  8. April 1, 2014 4:57 am

    So I started reading the story and that dialect! Like Arti says, kind of like reading dialect for the American South except at least with that I can figure out what they are talking about but I had to give up here because I have no frame of reference. Maybe some other time when I have patience and the will to Google, but for now I’ll trust that it’s a really good story :)

    • April 1, 2014 8:31 am

      Oh good for you for giving it a go … It’s interesting to hear how a non-Aussie fared. I can understand your reaction entirely … The story, of the ones I’ve read, is by far the trickiest. It s so interesting, that it’s unfortunate that people have trouble. I read one review/article where the person seemed not to have got the significant point of the story! At least, they didn’t mention it.

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  1. March 2014 Roundup: Classics and Literary | Australian Women Writers Challenge

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