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Monday musings on Australian literature: Bushfire fiction

August 21, 2017
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Karenlee Thompson, Flame tipLast week I reviewed Karenlee Thompson’s short story collection, Flame tip, which was inspired by (if “inspired” is quite the right word here) the horrendous Tasmanian bushfires of 1967. Lisa at ANZLitlovers had also reviewed this book, and in discussion on her post we discussed the apparent dearth of books on a topic so critical in Australian life. I thought the topic warranted a Monday Musings. Maybe readers here will come up with some more titles that we haven’t thought of!

In 2015, researcher at the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions, Grace Moore wrote an article for The Conversation titled “Bushfires are burning bright in Australian letters and life”. She starts by noting that

Historically, bushfires have played an important role in Australian literature, adding a touch of exoticism in fiction written for readers back in Europe, while also offering insights into the dangers faced by settler communities.

She says that novelists and short story writers from as early as the 1850s referred to fires, often using them as “a melodramatic device to resolve romance plots.” A “heroic rescue from swirling flames (themselves an outlet for the smouldering passions of the protagonists)” would be used to bring together “characters whose marriage would have been considered unsuitable ‘back home’ on the other side of the world.” She names Ellen Clacy as one such writer – though her best known book, A Lady’s Visit to the Gold Diggings of Australia in 1852–1853, is a non-fiction account of the goldfields. I couldn’t find an example online of the sort of story Moore describes.

However, by the 1880s, she writes, “as settlers became better acquainted with the devastation that fire could cause in the outback, bushfire narratives became bleaker and more menacing”. Instead of settlers successfully defending their homes, stories started to describe “suicides, traumatic flashbacks and apocalyptic visions” (like J.S. Borlase’s Twelve miles broad1885) or “devastating environmental impact” (such as H. Hudson’s story, The phantom herd, 1907).

Canberra fires, 2003, taken from opposite our house

In another article Moore is quoted as saying, that in the 20th century fire became “increasingly tied to the nation and resistance”. When fire threatens people’s property, or towns or lives, she said, “it is like a micro war on Australian soil, one that acts as a call to arms for members of the community to fight for their own and their neighbours’ safety”.

Moore had (or has), in fact, been researching fires for some time, and was involved, back in 2013, in a two-day conference held by the Centre, called “Fire stories”. One of the papers was by John Schauble titled “Lost in the flames? The missing great Australian bushfire novel”. The abstract for the paper says:

Bushfire might have been expected to produce a great Australian storyteller, but curiously it has not. While this quintessentially Australian disaster looms large in the popular imagination, bushfires are largely absent from the nation’s fictional narrative. Fire finds expression in the visual arts, poetry and particularly in children’s literature, but novels and even short fiction in which bushfire is central to the narrative are a rarity. Even cataclysmic events such as Ash Wednesday and Black Saturday – that triggered a flurry of other literary activity – have largely failed to ignite the imagination of fiction writers. Fiction has largely been eclipsed by factual accounts, while other forms of literary expression of fire have flourished. A strong tradition of juvenile literature has not translated into adult genres.

Interesting, eh? Why is this?

Now, I hadn’t heard of Schauble before – he’s a CFA volunteer  advisor to Victoria’s Fire Services Commissioner – but he’s been interested in this topic for sometime. Back in 2002, he wrote an article for The Age on our relationship to bushfires, and said something similar to what he said in 2013:

Despite the great tragedies of fire in the Australian bush, just a handful of novels use bushfire as the central theme. A few poignant short stories – Henry Lawson’s The Fire at Ross’s Farm, John Morrison’s The Children, and Robert Drewe’s Radiant Heat – are noteworthy, along with the occasional poem.

Curiously, bushfires have been seen as been as more suitably the stuff of children’s literature. A succession of well-known children’s authors – Ivan Southall, Colin Thiele, Mavis Thorpe Clarke, Alan Aldous and Roger Vaughan-Carr – have used bushfire as the theme of at least one work.

He said more, including quoting loved Australian cartoonist, Michael Leunig, but you can read the article yourself if you are interested.

Peter Temple, Truth

My point is that it is into this environment that Karenlee Thompson’s collection has been released. I can point to other recent books I’ve read which mention fire – including Gillian Mears’ Foal’s bread (my review), Alice Robinson’s Anchor Point (my review), Peter Temple’s Truth (my review), and Jane Rawson’s dystopian novel A wrong turn at the Office of Unmade Lists (my review). None of these revolve around fire, but in a couple fire is significant.

Anchor Point is one of these, containing a major fire partway through the novel. It starts:

Laura looked where he pointed. A line of crimson flames was rising over the crest of a distant hill. Burning storeys high, licking the sky, starving. More than spot fires, the land was alight.

This is followed by several pages of terror. Then, when it’s over:

How depressing it was to live for months in a singular palette: grey, charcoal, black. It was strange to consider what had gone up in smoke and what had survived. There seemed no logic to it …

And fire comes to the city at the end – because Anchor Point is, among other things, a cli-fi novel.

So, things are changing. Just this year, Eliza Henry-Jones published her second novel Ache (see Lisa’s review). This novel’s subject matter is the impact of bushfire on individuals and communities. Lisa tells us that Henry-Jones wrote her Honours thesis on “the representation of bushfire trauma in fiction”. Lisa has reviewed a couple of other books in which fires feature significantly: Roger McDonald’s 1996 book about an arsonist, The Slap (Lisa’s review), Amanda Lohrey’s 2009 novella Vertigo (Lisa’s review), and Lexi Landsman’s 2016 novel The ties that bind (Lisa’s review).

Things, in other words, seem to be changing. I wonder why now? We have always had  devastating fires in this country, but is climate change increasing their frequency and therefore bringing the issue once again to the fore? I haven’t read these recent novels, so I can’t really comment on what approach they are taking to exploring fires in Australia. Are they focusing, for example, on grief and trauma, or community and nationhood, or environmental politics and climate change?  Or, is there no observable trend in this contemporary writing?

Do you have any thoughts on this topic? If you’re not Australian, do you have any comments about your country’s literature relating to – hmm – disasters that are common to your shores?

48 Comments leave one →
  1. August 21, 2017 10:44 pm

    I have reviewed a bushfire novel – and referenced you and Lisa – for posting in the morning. So that’s 12 hours for someone to steal my thunder.

    I also have a children’s book of animals fleeing a bushfire but unfortunately it’s with the grandkids. You and Lisa discussed The Narrow Road to the Deep North earlier today I’m sure but I don’t see it in this post.

    • August 22, 2017 8:34 am

      Oh, #BrainWhirringFrantically that heartbreaking Clifton Pugh edition of Death of a Wombat!
      I’ve found a recording of it on YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eg8Aj03_yrU and this is its cover https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/32287861-the-death-of-a-wombat
      I have read that to hundreds of kids (literally).

      • August 22, 2017 9:40 am

        Oh thanks Lisa. l’ll go check that out. Interesting that fire has featured more kid’s lit than adult’s, isn’t it?

        • August 22, 2017 10:19 pm

          Yes, that novel by Ivan Southall is brilliant… I used to read that to my year 5 & 6 classes and they found it riveting.

        • August 23, 2017 8:12 am

          I must pass that on to my son. I’m not sure his read Southall to his classes but that would be a good one.

    • August 22, 2017 9:20 am

      Hi Bill, I look forward to your post. No you’re right, I should have include Narrow road in my list of books referencing fire. It was in my list from which I wrote my post, but I ended up writing the post a different way to the one I intended, and I left it out, though that may not have been a good decision. It wasn’t my favourite aspect of the book !

  2. August 22, 2017 5:32 am

    Reblogged this on World4Justice : NOW! Lobby Forum..

  3. August 22, 2017 7:06 am

    Oh, this is such an interesting post, Sue. I always thought if I was to ever write a novel it would be about a bushfire. During my childhood we were evacuated twice due to threat of fire and my father has 25+ years service as a volunteer fire fighter: he always came home with such scary stories and the house would smell of smoke for days thanks to his overalls being dumped in the laundry. In my first job I had to report on all the fire calls… used to find it very exciting to be one of the first to know that a fire had erupted somewhere…

    Isn’t there a bushfire in Charlotte Wood’s The Family? Can’t really recall any other examples though…

    • August 22, 2017 9:27 am

      Oh how interesting Kimbofo. And what a childhood. I haven’t read The family, so thanks for contributing that one.

  4. Sara Dowse permalink
    August 22, 2017 7:18 am

    Amanda Lowrey’s city in The Reading Group was encircled by fires.

    • August 22, 2017 9:32 am

      Thanks Sara. So Lohrey has written about fire a couple of times then. I wonder if she’s had personal experience? Though, I suppose that’s not necessary to write about it AND most Australians have probably been touched by fire anyhow, making my query pretty meaningless!

  5. Karen Viggers permalink
    August 22, 2017 7:37 am

    Interesting that there have been few books of fiction on this topic. I have direct experience that I have been sitting on for almost a decade – my parents’ farm was burnt out in the Black Saturday fires in Melbourne 2009. I haven’t been ready to write about it, but maybe the time is coming.

    • August 22, 2017 9:35 am

      Oh I’m sorry to hear that Karen. I can understand not being able to write about it soon after. If you do, though, you’ll probably write better about it having let it sit in your consciousness for some time?

  6. Karen Viggers permalink
    August 22, 2017 7:38 am

    There was also a fire lit by an arsonist in Omar Musa’s “Here Come the Dogs”

  7. Irma Gold permalink
    August 22, 2017 9:43 am

    Sonya Hartnett’s Surrender is about a young boy who lights fires and endangers his town. It’s a brilliant, frightening book, written over a decade ago, so perhaps she was ahead of the trend.

    • August 22, 2017 9:56 am

      I haven’t read enough Hartnett, Irma. So thanks for this. Is it one of her YA novels? If so, another confirmation of the stronger representation of fires in kid’s lit than adult’s.

      • Irma Gold permalink
        August 22, 2017 8:22 pm

        I’m not sure if it was marketed as YA. I suspect so, but if it would definitely be a crossover title. Our book club read it years ago. Well worth reading. Hartnett has written so many good books. Butterfly is another favourite.

        • August 23, 2017 8:10 am

          Thanks Irma, I get the sense that a few of her books are crossovers. I’ve heard Butterfly is good.

  8. August 22, 2017 10:26 am

    What an interesting Musings. I must admit that I was really surprised to read that fire featured in The Slap, and thought I must be dementing. Of course I was thinking of Chritos Tsiolas’ Slap, rather than Roger McDonalds!

    I read much more children/YA lit than most as you know so I immediately thought of Ivan Southall’s fabulous classic Ash Road.

    http://astrongbeliefinwicker.blogspot.com.au/2015/09/ash-road.html

    And Jackie French’s more recent picture book Fire

    http://astrongbeliefinwicker.blogspot.com.au/2014/02/fire.html

    Which is part of a series that includes Flood, Fire and Cyclone.

    I’m sure there’s more, I feel something tickling my memory but can’t be certain just now.

    • August 22, 2017 4:02 pm

      Thanks Louise. It really is interesting that tires feature more in kids’ lit. It seems like everyone knows Ash Road. I didn’t know the Jackie French one though.

  9. August 22, 2017 11:11 am

    I have another title to add. ‘Small Moments’ by Harry Saddler is a short novel about the Canberra fires, published by Gininderra Press.

  10. August 23, 2017 10:55 am

    Harry Saddler’s a terrific writer. Another title I just thought of – a very different kind of novel, absorbing and unsettling – is Trevor Sheraton’s ‘Tinder’, about a female pyromaniac living in the blue mountains, and the man who is in love with her.

    • August 23, 2017 12:57 pm

      You’re a mine of off-the-beaten-path books Dorothy. Thanks so much for both these.

  11. August 23, 2017 12:15 pm

    You have inspired to pull out Mavis Thorpe Clarks “Wildfire” which I read as a teenager and never gave away because it was so gripping. As a child, I lived through a bushfire which burnt-out 20,000 acres and to a ten year old was very exciting. What upset my friends and I the most was the loss of wildlife and the suffering of those animals that were burnt but lived. These days I am strangely drawn to watching reports about bushfires, but find myself with tears streaming down my cheeks whilst so doing.

    • August 23, 2017 12:54 pm

      Thanks Jenny. The suffering of animals must be horrific. Oh, and I haven’t read that book either though I do know the writer

      • ian darling permalink
        August 23, 2017 7:45 pm

        Interesting that specific natural disasters seem to generate surprisingly little fiction- as opposed to the many Cli-fi novels out there and series genre novels that often take in weather events as the books progress in real time. I suppose the worst natural disaster in the UK since 1945 was the dreadful flooding caused by storm surge in 1953. There does not seem to have been a novel about this.

        • August 23, 2017 10:27 pm

          Yes Ian, Cli-fi seems to have attracted novelists in a way other “natural” events seem not to have. Interesting isn’t it?

  12. Meg permalink
    August 24, 2017 7:37 pm

    It is amazing that there is not more novels written about bushfires here in Australia. Maybe it is just too raw. I think many people have experienced or know of family members who have suffered from bushfires. I myself and family lived in the Dandenong Ranges and surivived two bad bushfires. We never lost our house, but be we had friends who did; and the house next door was burnt. My daughter in the 2013 Tasmanian fires didn’t lose her house, but her holiday shack and property were damaged. The novels I can remember are Ash Road by Ivan Southall. And,The Tree of Man by Patrick White. Poets Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson also wrote about bushfires.I know I read a few short stories about bushfires in my school readers, but I can’t remember their titles. Some of Mary Grant Bruce and Ethel Turner stories contained bushfires in them.

    • August 24, 2017 10:30 pm

      Thanks Meg. I think you’re right about most Australians being touched by bushfire in some way. I read in my research that Tree of man has a fire but I don’t recollect that sort of detail from it. Same with Mary Grant Bruce though I’ve read all the Billabong books. That was even longer ago!

  13. August 25, 2017 7:25 pm

    Bush fire as a topic for a post and can ‘yield such a harvest’. It’s just too real for us this summer, the wild fires (diff. term here) in B.C. our neighbouring province, sends haze and smoke covering our sky for months, and still burning. That’s the worst fires in record, and the province is still under a state of emergency. Coincidentally I just finished reading the book ‘Wildlife’ by Richard Ford, about a wild fire. Love it.

    • August 26, 2017 9:03 am

      Oh yes Arti, we’ve been hearing about your fires in amongst American and our Australian political shenanigans.

      Wild fires. Interesting term, because in some ways all fires are wild but I guess Canadians use “wild” in terms of “in the wild”?

      • August 26, 2017 9:30 am

        Yes in the wild but many of these fires encroach into human communities. Tens of thousands have to evacuate. Another term is forest fires. But as in BC now, these fires aren’t limited to forests. Anyway, Richard Ford’s book uses a wild fire as metaphor to depict the deteriorating relationship of a married couple from the POV of their teenaged son. I like it a lot. The reason I read it? Its film adaptation has been produced with Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano directing.

        • August 26, 2017 10:00 am

          Oh yes, by here top. Bushfire certainly encroach into urban areas.

          I was going to ask if there was a metaphorical implication in the title. I’ll look out for the film given your approval of the book.

  14. August 26, 2017 10:10 am

    Interesting that the book title is Wildlife, not wildfire.

  15. Moira Nolan permalink
    August 27, 2017 1:25 pm

    I was thinking about arsonists when I visited a friend whose house is very close to a volunteer bushfire brigade shed which had been totally burnt just recently out by, it turned out, a member of that brigade.
    What it must feel like to be a member of that brigade and know that a fellow fighter was dying to set things alight (only to be a rescuer? or just to cause havoc? or to see fire?). Like floods, but in a totally opposite way, bushfire is so scary and unpredictable (as a disaster, though as one book I read recently suggests, natural disasters are as it were predictable).
    One minute you think you’re going to be okay, and you drive past what may be being or turn out to be someone’s total decimation, and the next minute you yourself may be trapped and in danger.
    It is interesting how many pieces of fiction about bushfires the readers of this blog have recalled.
    Our French book groups read a great book ‘Il pleuvait des oiseaux’ – in translation – by Jocelyne Saucier, indirectly about the huge fires in northern Ontario in 1910 and the survivors of that fire and the psychological legacy – a wonderful little novel, being depicted in fllm for 2018 by Film Quebec, I read.

    • August 27, 2017 2:12 pm

      Thanks Moira. Wow, yes that would be a terrible feeling to realise you had an arsonist in your midst. There are probably almost as many whys as there are arsonists though I suppose many are variations on themes.

      That French book sounds good. I wonder if the movie will make it here?

  16. Moira Nolan permalink
    August 27, 2017 1:28 pm

    I was thinking about arsonists when I visited a friend just recently whose house is very close to a volunteer bushfire brigade shed which had been totally burnt out by, it turned out, a member of that brigade.
    What must it feel like to be a member of that brigade and know that a fellow fighter was dying to set things alight (only to be a rescuer? or just to cause havoc? or to see fire?).
    Like floods, but in a totally opposite way, bushfire is so scary and unpredictable (as a disaster, though as one book I read recently suggests, natural disasters are as it were predictable).
    One minute you think you’re going to be okay, and you drive past what may be being, or turn out to be, someone’s total decimation, and the next minute you yourself may be trapped and in danger.
    It is interesting how many pieces of fiction about bushfires the readers of this blog have recalled.
    Our French book groups read a great book ‘Il pleuvait des oiseaux’ – in translation – by Jocelyne Saucier, indirectly about the huge fires in northern Ontario in 1910 and the survivors of that fire and the psychological legacy – a wonderful little novel, being depicted in fllm for 2018 by Film Quebec, I read.

  17. Moira Nolan permalink
    August 27, 2017 1:33 pm

    I meant to write (last paragraph) – in translation: ‘And the birds rained down’.

    • August 27, 2017 2:16 pm

      Ah, I had it as It rained birds, but translations aren’t always literal are they? I always think about l’étranger in this regard. The outsider? or, the stranger?

  18. Moira Nolan permalink
    August 28, 2017 10:47 am

    I would have put ‘it was raining birds’ (I was quoting the title of the published English translation); but perhaps they wanted something more rhythmic and biblical.
    I think ‘The foreigner’ does not have nearly as nice a ring as ‘The Outsider’; but both are really good translations of Camus’ novel.
    Kamel Daoud’s ‘Meursault contre-enquete’ [published in English as ‘The Meursault Investigation’, is a recent Arabic / French writer’s retake on ‘The Outsider’ which is really interesting.
    Camus was the foreigner, the white pied noir in the majority Arab colony, his novel encapsulates his own foreignness in the Algeria he grew up in (partly because of his family’s poverty), and then his sense of being a foreigner in ‘metropolitan’ France. When I read ‘l’Etranger’ I always pictured the beach being in the south of France! … and ‘the Arab’ was the (unnamed) foreigner.

    • August 28, 2017 1:46 pm

      Actually you’re right Moira! It would be that. My memory of my French verb tenses is shaky.

      I’ve always preferred “the outsider” too. I’ve heard of Daoud’s book. It does sound interesting.

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