Nancy Cato, All the rivers run, Book 1 (Review)

It’s been a long time since I reviewed an audiobook or, more accurately, reviewed a book via its audiobook version. As I’ve said before, I don’t listen often to audiobooks, but last month Mr Gums and I did a long drive and so decided to listen to Nancy Cato‘s All the rivers run. I referred to this novel a few Monday Musings ago, because it was one of Australia’s early, successful adaptations for television.

Enough introduction though, time to talk about the book. Our audiobook contained the first book* of Philadelphia (Delie) Gordon’s saga. It starts her story when, in 1890 at the age of 13 she is orphaned in a shipwreck off the coast of Victoria. She is taken in by her dour aunt and more welcoming uncle who lead a spartan prospecting life at Kiandra in the Australian Alps. When her uncle Charles strikes it rich – that is he finds a large nugget of gold – the family (with her cousin, Adam, who is three years older than she) move to a sheep farm on the Murray River not far from Echuca. This first book, which is pretty much a coming-of-age story, finishes when Deli (as she prefers to be called) leaves home at the age of 17, after a tragedy has struck the family.

This is not really the sort of book I would normally read, though it is the sort of book I’d listen to on audiobook. Why so? Well, at the risk of being called a literary snob, I tend not to read sagas (whether they be historical fiction, fantasy or whatever). This is because their focus tends to be plot rather than style, structure, theme and, even perhaps, character development, though I know aficionados will argue with me and they will probably be right (to a degree!). Anyhow, there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just not what I prefer to read. However, such stories are perfect for listening to in the car. Literature requiring intense concentration is not a safe bet when you are driving (or even when you are navigating). Horses for courses, as they say.

Cato’s book, like good historical fiction, captures the social history of the era well, particularly the tail end of the gold rush, the 1890s depression, life along the Murray River for the pastoralists and paddle steamers, the challenges faced by women in a male dominated society. She also touches on the dispossession of the indigenous people, showing the women working as “house-girls” for the pastoralists and their all too often descent into prostitution, often as the result of being used by and bearing the children of their white male bosses. Cato was, apparently, an active campaigner for indigenous land rights as well as for conservation.

I enjoyed Cato’s vivid descriptions of the landscape. The plot is a little predictable and the characters are somewhat stereotypical – the welcoming, easy-going farmer, the tough wife, the handsome son champing at the parental bit – but not so much that they don’t engage. Delie in this first book, for example, is a believable young girl, orphaned and taken in essentially by strangers and then experiencing her first love. She’s bright but not brash, independent but not without uncertainties.

I enjoyed one little description in particular. At a moment when things are going wrong for Deli, Cato writes that “a pair of kookaburras laughed sardonically”. I liked this description because only recently I’d been thinking about the first white settlers in Australia and what they made of the birds here, many of whom can sound pretty raucous. I wondered, in particular, what they thought when they first heard a kookaburra’s “laugh” as we describe it. Sardonic, is a very good description of it!

Overall then, it’s an enjoyable read, if you enjoy historical sagas, are interested in life in country Australia in the 1890s – and particularly if you have a long drive ahead of you! You could do way worse …

Nancy Cato
All the rivers run: A river not yet tamed (Audio CD)
Read by Kate Hosking
Bolinda Classics
6 hrs 15 mins on 5 discs
ISBN: 9781742336732

* Note: As far as I understand it, the three books in the trilogy were originally separately published as: All the rivers run (1958); Time, flow softly (1959); and But still the stream (1962). Recent editions, however, combine the three novels into one volume titled All the rivers run. I am not sure where the title A river not yet tamed comes from, but it looks like it might be Bolinda’s title for the first part of their recording of the trilogy.

16 thoughts on “Nancy Cato, All the rivers run, Book 1 (Review)

  1. Sounds like a perfect listen in the car book. You didn’t happen to also be driving through the area where the book takes place? that could have been extra fun.

    • Not exactly Stefanie, bet we heard the last CD on last weekend, a few weeks after the rest and on that trip we did go pretty close to Kiandra. We can get to the Murray in around 4 hours drive from our place, but it’s probably about 3 more after that to where the main part is set.

  2. I think the kookaburras would’ve given our first settlers a mighty big fright. Pair that sound with the bizarreness of platypuses and dear golly, it must’ve seemed a strange land.

    • A scary fantasy land perhaps? But yes, I was listening to and enjoying kookaburras a couple of weeks ago and then suddenly found myself thinking about hearing them with English first settler ears … I wonder if they felt mocked!?

    • No, Lisa, I don’t believe so. All the rivers run was part of a trilogy. The other two were “Time, flow softly” (1959) and “But still the stream” (1962). I wonder what Northwest by South is about.

      • Hey, I found it on the shelf straight away, nicely in alphabetical order! The flyleaf says it’s about the career of Sir John Franklin (as in the search for the North-West passage) and his time in Tasmania as governor. The same territory covered by Richard Flanagan’s Wanting! I must read this!

  3. I remember reading Nancy Cato when I was young, enjoying the rural setting as I grew up in the suburbs of Sydney. I’ve just finished reading Voss again and one of the environments he conveys best must surely be the early colonial town with its uncomfortable settlers and exotic landscape. I’m sure most foreigners are still unsettled by the many different bird calls/caws.

    • You know Catherine, for some reason I don’t think I read Cato when I was young though I was aware of her. I have no idea now why as I did like to read “pioneer” Australian stories. I bet you liked Voss.

  4. I agree about sagas and don’t think you’re a literary snob – you just know what you like. It’s interesting about horses for courses. Sometimes I find audio books can be good for those quite dense, difficult novels – having someone read it out to me makes it easier somehow! But I guess not great for a road trip 🙂 Did you take any photos on the drive? Would love to see some if you did…

    • Thanks Andrew for that … I’m glad you understand. I can see your point regarding difficult books … now I think about it. A good reader getting the tone and sentence breaks right would help immensely. Because I only listen – at present – when driving, I hadn’t thought of different books working in different situations. As for photos, yes I did … I think I can track down your email address in my comments system so I’ll send you links.

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