Back in November, Trevor at Mookse and the Gripes, decided that rather than write a single review of Alice Munro’s latest collection of short stories, Dear life, he would, over a period of time, read and review the individual stories. Now, there’s something to be said for reviewing a collection of short stories as a collection because authors do put a lot of effort into the order of those stories. Reading them over a long period of time or, worse, out-of-order, could disrespect the author’s art. However, reviewing each story individually, enables us to give each one real recognition, and that has its value too methinks. Anyhow, this is what I’ve decided to do with Barbara Baynton‘s collection, Bush studies. I have, so far, reviewed the second story, “Squeaker’s mate”, and the sixth and last story, “The chosen vessel”. Today I’m going to review the third story, “Scrammy ‘and”, partly because Debbie of ExUrbanis likes it. Next, maybe, I’ll start at the beginning! I hope Baynton isn’t turning in her grave.
In her post on Australian classics for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012, Australian novelist Jennifer Mills wrote of discovering Barbara Baynton, saying that reading her was “an absolute pleasure”. She wrote:
Her work is distinguished by her rural character studies and a poignancy which verges on despair, and her stories are prototypes for the proliferation of outback gothic in our literature now. Baynton is part Henry Lawson, part Eudora Welty, and a master of the tension and texture of the short story form.
I couldn’t say it better myself! Mills’ comment that Baynton’s a master of “tension and texture” in the short story form is particularly true for “Scammy ‘and” because this story commences, quite deceptively as it turns out, with a fair dose of humour. It concerns an old shepherd and his dog Waderloo (Waterloo). The story starts with a flashback to a few weeks previously when the old man’s neighbours had headed into the nearest town to await the birth of their first baby (which, the old man thinks, “will be a gal too, sure to be! Women are orlways ‘avin’ gals. It’ll be a gal sure enough”.) The story then jumps forward to when the old man, having notched up the passing weeks, expects the young couple, who clearly provide some sense of security, to be back.
The humour in the first part of the story derives from Baynton’s description of the relationship between the man and his mate Waderloo as they go about their business. Here for example is the man talking to the dog about fixing a hat:
‘It’s all wrong, see!’ The dog said he did. ”Twon’t do!’ he shouted with the emphasis of deafness. The dog admitted it would not …
… and so on. The man and his dog resemble a Darby and Joan pair, dependent on each other, loyal to each other, but also having their little tiffs. However, underlying what seems like a light-hearted character study are intimations of something darker. First there’s the misogyny which features regularly in Baynton’s work. The old man is critical of the young woman despite her apparent attempts to help him, including fixing the hat. “‘The’re no good'” he says of women. This misogyny becomes more pointed in the parallel story of the man’s irritation with the ewe whose “blanky blind udder” means she can’t feed her “blanky bastard” of a lamb, and that he must feed it. Later on though the ewe is shown to be perfectly capable of teaching her lamb to drink.
But, there are intimations of other menace too. Things are awry at the farm – including a tomahawk and an axe gone missing. Scrammy is mentioned in the second paragraph. The old man says:
”twarn’t Scrammy.’ But the gloom of fear settled on his wizened face as he shuffled stiffly towards the sheepyard.
As the story progresses, our disquiet increases, though for a while we are not quite sure where the problem is – is it an external threat or is it internal? The old man suspects “ther blacks”, “not poor ole Scrammy, ‘cos Scrammy wouldn’t ‘urt no-one”. Baynton builds the tension slowly, but gradually, inexorably, it becomes clear – and halfway through the story the perspective shifts from the old man to the vagrant one-handed Scrammy, who’s seen the old man counting out his money. The menace grows. It’s melodramatic and almost a comedy of errors as Scrammy misreads clues … but I’ll leave the plot here.
Again, there’s none of Lawson’s pioneer romanticism here. Rather, this is a powerful story about refusing to see the truth – or perhaps being scared of the truth. It’s not only the old man’s aloneness that makes him vulnerable but his prejudices. In the end, we see that wisdom is, in fact, more likely to be found in the ewe and the mother.
in Bush studies
Sydney University Press, 2009
Available online: in Bush studies at Project Gutenberg
This review will count towards my Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013.