Monday musings on Australian literature: The lost child motif


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 Colonies (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?

31 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: The lost child motif

  1. As an English person who has visited Australia a number of times, I found this blog interesting and it reminded me of a book I read in Australia, Peter Pierce ‘The country of lost children’ which I found compelling in its suggestion that ‘lost children’ were a motif for the ambiguity felt by European Australians about Aborigines, both now and in the past. He uses a number of examples from film and novels as well as actual accounts to make his point. Apologies if this is a very familiar book to Australians, but it was new to me and well worth reading.

    • Thanks for commenting Susan. I had heard of that book, but have not read it so thanks for sharing your recollection of it. I think fear of/ambivalence about Aboriginal Australians has to be one of the issues behind this motif.

      It’s interesting that visual representations – film in particular – popped into my mind more than literary (despite AD Hope’s pronouncement!) when I thought about writing this post.

      What made you read that book?

  2. What is interesting, I think is how common the lost child motif is in folk literature in general. Think of the fairy tales which have either the actual lost child (Hansel and Gretel) as the main theme or the child who is in some way or another spiritually lost or socially denied (Beauty and the Beast or Cinderella). This is obviously a powerful human motif, wherever those humans find themselves.

    • Oh yes, good one. It certainly appears as you say in folk/fairy literature.

      I was also thinking of the wild child motif — they tend to be lost too, before they are then taken in, often, by animal/s – and leading us to exploring the man-beast nexus.

    • That’s an excellent point. And it reminds me that the fairytale Lost Child changed even in Europe, to suit the new industrial circumstances of the 1800s and beyond. Oliver Twist was lost, but not in a forest, and a sinister influence found him, but not a witch. Peter Pan was lost and made a game of it. Hugo’s Cosette was lost and found by a benevolent father. I wonder if the difference in Australia comes down to the landscape. The stereotypical Australian lost-child stories I can think of don’t have witches, or witch-substitutes, instead the landscape itself lures the children in and swallows them up. Picnic at Hanging Rock, obviously.

      • Yes, thanks DKS, I think that is the point — it’s the landscape that is the defining force in most of the lost child stories in Australia. The alien landscape that overwhelms… In Picnic – one could almost say that the landscape is the witch-substitute? This one is overlaid, at least, with an element of the supernatural whereas in Back of beyond for example they just get lost in the desert, lose their way in the harsh, unforgiving landscape.

        • The landscape might be the witch-substitute and the substitute for the gingerbread house as well, the lure and the monster both in one, a Steerforth. Charlotte mentions Malouf and Remembering Babylon, and perhaps Malouf is significant here, because so many of his lost children (Gemmy in Babylon, Ovid in Imaginary Life, at least one character I can’t name from a short story whose title I can’t recall) are embraced by the country, not stifled and murdered — they vanish into it, but they go gladly, and dissolve with joy. (I know the countryside in Imaginary Life is British, not Australian, but the idea of melting into an environment is still there.) If he’d written Hanging Rock then the the ending would have been ecstatic. His Lost Children are happy.

  3. I may be completely off the mark, but isn’t there one about a little girl who befriends a kangaroo? I either had it, or read it? Though maybe she didn’t get lost, exactly… oh, this is going to frustrate me. WAIT! DOT AND THE KANGAROO!

  4. There’s a child lost in the bush in After the Fire, A Still Small Voice, by Evie Wyld. I didn’t realize that motif was a part of Australian literary history! Very interesting.

  5. Ah, you’ve made my day: that’s my favourite McCubbin painting!

    As to the mailman, in 2001 my partner and I did a 12-hour journey with the mailman who leaves from Coober Pedy once a week (I think?) and returns via Oodnadatta and William Creek, stopping off at various cattle stations on the way delivering mail and groceries! It was a brilliant day’s outing — and my Irishman got to see his first wild kangaroo, so it sticks in the mind. I remember him sitting in the front seating giggling with excitement 😉

    Oh, and don’t forget Picnic at Hanging Rock — even if it is children lost in the bush en masse!

    • Ah yes, good one … Picnic at Hanging Rock is an evocation of that really isn’t it?

      That trip from Coober Pedy would have been wonderful. Have you seen Back of beyond? You’d enjoy it I suspect.

  6. Remembering Babylon by David Malouf, written nearly 40 years after the review you mention sounds like the perfect example of the novel using that motif. I was just looking at a copy of it yesterday in the library and thinking it would be a good candidate for my to-be-read list. I haven’t read anything by him yet — is this one the place to start?

    • Thanks Charlotte. Of course, Remembering Babylon. I have read that. It’s hard to pick a Malouf to start with. I haven’t read all of them but I usually recommend Fly away Peter and Johnno. The conversations at Curlow Creek is great too. As is Ransom. But if you’ve got Babylon, I’d go with it. I’ve often thought – because of the indigenous issues in it – that I’d like to read it again.

  7. What an interesting motif and so many interesting comments too! I think the common motif in the U.S. is/was children and women being stolen by Native Americans and/or settlers “going native.”

    • Yes, I’m thrilled that Aussies engaged and contributed, I didn’t want to write a whole exhaustive list – not that I remembered all of them anyhow – because that can get boring. It’s more fun when others introduce works they remember, for me – so I’m glad you have enjoyed the contributions too.

      Women and children stolen … that would be interesting to unpack a little I reckon.

  8. Thanks DKS … which suggests that the fear we are talking about is usually (well, often) adult. So often, it’s the adults who fear the “bogey man”, and instil that into children isn’t it? There’s nothing wrong with sensible caution but fear – usually of the unknown or “other” – is not so worthy. In the examples I remember best the children are lost – permanently – reflecting, it seems, adult fears or, in the case of “one night the moon”, stupidity.

    Does Christina Stead do lost children?

  9. Not really. The children who leave home in her books tend to be going somewhere deliberately, rather than getting lost, and when she lets them run around hazy-mazy in the countryside (the children in The Man Who Loved like to explore their creekside neighbourhood, and the teenage lead in For Love Alone goes wandering at night) it’s an adventure for them, a welcome escape from the regimen of their parents, and necessary to their mental health. It’s the children who stay at home, in her books, who end up in the category of Lost, although their Loss is a mental Loss, not a physical one. Home life stunts their characters.

    • Thanks DKS … I certainly remember the days of running around hazy-mazy and the value of that. I must try to read Stead this year. Mental and spiritual loss is another whole ball game as you and Annie have so well raised here.

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  12. So glad to have found this. Marcus Clarke’s ‘Pretty Dick’ is also an interesting early example of the lost child narrative. It’s fascinating how these tales tie in with newspaper reports of those times, and how they were a part of public consciousness. No wonder rural women told their children ‘not to go down there – there are bunyips!’

      • It’s online. I found it through Trove initially – and Trove MUST get the funding it needs. The tale has many of the elements of the lost child trope – crossing the creek, (or the road in some cases) – the boundary between known and unknown, safe and unsafe, for example. A generation later, young Annie Rentoul picks them up in “Mollie’s Bunyip”, with a different outcome. Ida Rentoul’s juvenile illustrations are beautiful.

        • Thanks. And yes, Trove MUST. It’s an unbelievable treasure, isn’t it? the research it makes possible is immeasurable.

          I will order lda Rentoul – looks like Juvenilia Press still doesn’t do online orders?

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