Stella Prize 2023 Winner announced

The 2023 Stella Prize winner was announced tonight and, for the second year in a row, it’s a poetry collection …

Sarah Holland-Batt’ The jaguar

Darn it! I nearly bought it last weekend when I was at the National Library but with my move and having stuff everywhere, I put it back down again and thought, maybe later. I guess it’s now not “maybe” but “yes later”. However, I’m pleased to share that a couple of bloggers I know have already read and reviewed it – like Kim at Reading Matters and Jonathan at Me fail? I fly! Check their posts if you are interested.

The judges said that The jaguar “investigates the body as a site of both pleasure and frailty”. The panel chair, Alice Pung, expanded on this saying that

… This is a book that cuts through to the core of what it means to descend into frailty, old age, and death. It unflinchingly observes the complex emotions of caring for loved ones, contending with our own mortality and above all – continuing to live.

It’s a response, I understand, to the death of Holland-Batt’s father. Those who have followed my blog for a while will understand, then, why I really would like to read it. Stella CEO, Jaclyn Booton, describes it as “a gift of a book” that “examines questions of grief and memory and care”.

You can read more on the Stella website, including an excerpt from Sarah Holland-Batt’s acceptance. She commented that she was “thrilled to enter into the company of the extraordinary writers who have received the Stella” and also said:

“It’s both an indescribable joy and a deep honour to receive the Stella Prize for The Jaguar. I wrote this book during an intensely challenging period, as my father was dying, and just after. It was the friendship, generosity, and camaraderie of women that not only saw me through this difficult time, but that has been the sustaining armature of my writing life.

Just to remind you, the judges were author Alice Pung, in the chair, with her co-judges bibliophile and host of The Garrett podcast (among many other roles) Astrid Edwards; essayist and literary critic BeeJay Silcox; writer, editor, broadcaster, and Walkley award-winning journalist Jeff Sparrow; and First Nations poet, essayist and legal advisor Alison Whittaker.

I have read eight of the twelve previous winners: Carrie Tiffany’s Mateship with birds (2013, my review), Clare Wright’s The forgotten rebels of Eureka (2014, my review), Emily Bitto’s The strays (2015, my review), Charlotte Wood’s The natural way of things (2016, my review), Heather Rose’s The museum of modern love (2017, my review), Vicki Laveau-Harvie’s The erratics (2019, my review), Jess Hill’s See what you made me do (2020, my review), and Evelyn Araluen’s Dropbear (2022, my review).

Thoughts anyone?

Monday musings on Australian literature: Trove treasures (5), Why waste time reading novels?

My next Trove Treasure is not, strictly speaking, Australian, because it features the English humorist Jerome K. Jerome. But, I found it reported in multiple Australian newspapers, which means that many Australians probably read it, and that makes it at least a bit relevant here. The first one I found was in The Inverell Times on June 25, 1904, so it is the one I edited. However, I then found the same piece in the West Gippsland Gazette; the Camperdown Chronicle; the Canowindra Star and Eugowra News; the The Walcha Witness and Vernon County Record; The Gundagai Times and Tumut, Adelong and Murrumbidgee District Advertiser; the Clarence and Richmond Examiner; the Narromine News and Trangie Advocate; The Cobar Herald; The Colac Herald – and, at this point, I stopped noting them. Enough already, as they say. All of these, except for the Canowindra paper, were published between late June and early July 1904. Canowindra’s was, for some reason, printed in 1907!

Jerome K. Jerome (1859-1927), as I’m sure many of you know, was best known for his comedy novel, Three men in a boat, published in 1889. This book was one of those I remember from my mum’s bookshelves when I was quite a little girl – along with M. Barnard Eldershaw’s A house is built, Eve Langley’s The pea pickers (my post), Henry Handel Richardson’s The fortunes of Richard Mahony, and her beloved “little Collins classics”.

According to Wikipedia (linked on his name), the financial security provided by his hit novel enabled Jerome to become a full-time writer. He wrote plays, essays, and novels, but, says Wikipedia, was never able to recapture the success of that first novel. Wikipedia mentions in passing his writing of satirical pieces for journals, and the piece I’m sharing here is clearly one of those, although I have not been able to identify the journal, referred to as M.A.P, from which the piece apparently comes.

Wasting time on reading!

The piece starts like this:

Our old and delightful friend, Jerome K. Jerome, in a most amusing contribution to “M.A.P.” thus discourses: —

“On a newspaper placard, the other day, I saw announced a new novel by a celebrated author. I bought a copy of the paper, and turned eagerly to the last page. I was disappointed to find that I had missed the first six chapters. The story had commenced the previous Saturday; this was Friday. I say I was disappointed, and so I was at first: but my disappointment did not last long. The bright and intelligent sub-editor, according to the custom now in vogue, had provided me with a short synopsis of those first six chapters, so that without the trouble of reading them, I knew what they were all about. ‘The first instalment,’ I learned, ‘introduces the reader to a brilliant and distinguished company assembled in the drawing room of Lady Mary’s maisonette in Park street, and much smart talk is indulged in.’ I know that ‘smart talk’ so well. Had I not been lucky in missing that first chapter I should have had to hear it all again.”

Woman reading with cushion

Haha, I thought, and read on. Of course, Jerome was being tongue-in-cheek, and goes on to argue why we should in fact read it all, not just a summary. He expresses concern that writers will be expected to write “novels in chapters not exceeding twenty words” and that ‘short stories will be reduced to the formula: “Little boy. Pair of skates. Broken ice. Heaven’s gates”.’

“Formerly”, he explains, “an author … would have spun it out into five thousand words”. Then, proposing that this “little boy” story would have been a Christmas story, he shares how he would have written it. He would have started it in the previous spring or summer to let us get to know the little boy:

He would have been a good boy; the sort of boy that makes a bee-line for the thinnest ice. He would have lived in a cottage. I could have spread that cottage over two pages; the things that grew in the garden; the view from the front door. You would have known that boy before I had done with him — felt you had known him all your life. His quaint sayings, his childish thoughts, his great longings would have been impressed upon you…

He continues in this vein, describing how he’d also develop the father and mother, the ice, and so on. “So much”, he says, “might have been done”:

When I think of that plot wasted in nine words, it makes me positively angry. And what is to become of us writers if this is to be the new fashion in literature? We are paid by the length of our manuscript, at rates from half-a-crown a thousand words, and upwards.

How, he asks, are writers to live on the income from the payment for 9-words? All very worrying, he says.

Aren’t we glad that what he feared didn’t eventuate!

D’Arcy McNickle, Train time (#Review)

Continuing my reading from Great short stories by contemporary Native American writers, we now jump a decade from John M. Oskison’s 1925-published “The singing bird” to D’Arcy McNickle’s “Train time” which was published in 1936 .

D’Arcy McNickle

As before, I’m using both anthology editor Bob Blaisdell’s brief intro and Wikipedia’s article to introduce this author. D’Arcy McNickle (1904-1977) was, like the previous authors, of mixed parentage. He was born on the Flathead Reservation in Montana to an Irish father and a Cree-Métis mother, and was an enrolled member of the Salish Kootenai nation. He attended schools on and off the reservation, then went to the University of Montana, before studying at Oxford University and the University of Grenoble.

He wrote a few novels, but is probably best known for his first, The surrounded, which was published in 1936, the same year as the piece I’m reviewing here. From the summary I’ve read, it sounds like it draws from his own life, like so many first novels. However, that same year, 1936, McNickle started working at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, a US federal agency. He worked under John Collier, Commissioner of Indian Affairs, who encouraged self-government for Native Americans. McNickle became knowledgable about Native American policies, and in 1944, helped found the National Congress of American Indians in 1944. By 1950, he was publishing non-fiction works on Native American history, cultures, and governmental policies. Later, he worked in academia as an anthropologist.

Of his short stories, Blaisdell writes that “his quiet and intense stories seem to have been informed by a deep experience of Chekhov’s and Hemingway’s short fiction”. “Train time” is certainly quiet and, depending on your perspective, intense – with an ending that leaves many questions hanging.

“Train time”

“Train time” takes place on a train station, where twenty-five Native American (“Indian”) children from the local Reservation are waiting for a train to take them to an off-reservation boarding school. This has been organised by the local white Indian agent, Major Miles, who believes he is doing a good thing. He is, we are told, “a man of conscience. Whatever he did, he did earnestly”.

The trouble with earnest people – as I know a bit too well – is that they can lack imagination. He is thinking about these children who are about to leave the Reservation “and get a new start. Life would change. They ought to realise it, somehow-” It’s hot and stifling, the children are restless, and he is stiff and soldier-like. Not a recipe for the sort of inspirational words the situation needs. Then, he spies a young boy, “little Eneas”.

The Major remembers the moment, six months earlier in the depths of winter, when he had visited Eneas’ home to find out why his grandfather had not started the wood-cutting job he’d been employed to do. Turns out the grandfather and grandmother were no longer capable of such work. Not only that, they seemed ill, and the Major felt trapped. He feared catching pneumonia; he felt unable to help personally out of his salary, as where would it stop; and government resources were limited. Then, he had spied “little Eneas” who was doing his best to help the old people. Eneas’ “uncomplaining wordlessness”, his “loyalty to the old people”, had got the Major thinking. Here was “a boy of quality”. Surely he’d be “shirking his duty” if he failed to help him. So, he had come up with a plan to have the old people cared for and send Eneas off to boarding school. The trouble was that Eneas didn’t like the plan.

But, our Major was not to be dissuaded (so much so that “against his own principles” he had even bought “a week’s worth of groceries” for the old people):

Whether the boy understood what was good for him or not, he meant to see to it that the right thing was done…

You can imagine what that right thing was. The story concludes with our returning to the Major and the children on the railway station, and the Major trying to find those words to inspire the children. The Major knew that “none had wanted to go”, so he wanted to make them see “what this moment of going away meant”. What it meant of course, in the well-meaning Major’s mind, was a bright future.

There is no epiphany for the Major but the powerful imagery in the closing paragraphs, in which “a white plume flew upward” while the “flying locomotive loomed blacker and larger” conveys what the author thinks.

McNickle does a great job of evoking the Major. We see his good intentions, but we also see his stiffness and his obliviousness to the humanity of those he wants to help. This sort of well-meaning paternalism was pretty rife amongst those who wanted to do “the right thing” wasn’t it? I’d love to know how the story was received at the time. Did stories like this get the message across?

D’Arcy McNickle
“Train time” (orig. pub. Indians at work 3, from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, March 15, 1936)
in Bob Blaisdell (ed.), Great short stories by contemporary Native American writers
Garden City: Dover Publications, 2014
pp. 40-45
ISBN: 9780486490953

Monday musings on Australian literature: Trove treasures (5), Church and novel reading

You’ll be getting sick of my time-is-short posts, but rest assured that this too shall pass – eventually! Meanwhile, here is another Trove Treasure post. It shares two different responses to reading from churches, in the first couple of decades of the 20th century.

What the churches thought

Reading novels IN church

Woman reading with cushion

On 27 August 1902, a brief story was carried in Sydney’s Evening News and the Bathurst Free Press and Mining Journal. Here is how it went:

A telegram from Nowra states that in the local Church of England on Sunday, some young men were discovered reading novels during the sermon. The preacher drew attention to the circumstances, and made some pungent criticism about the practice.

Neither of the articles gave any more information. What was the “pungent criticism”? Well, interestingly, two days later, on 29 August, the Evening News ran a sort of correction:

With reference to the telegram that the practice of novel-reading in a local church was commented upon by the incumbent, the latter explains that his remarks had no reference to any supposed practice in his church, of which he had no personal knowledge. He points out that he was simply saying, in the course of a sermon on evil speaking, that the modern novel would hardly be read if it did not deal largely with the evil in human nature.

This seems to me to be a limited understanding of “the modern novel”, but I’ll leave that for you to think about. My point here is that the story did not end here …

The following day, 30 August, The Shoalhaven News and South Coast Districts Advertiser, ran a letter to the editor from “The Correspondent” who had provided the correction that ran on 29 August. This “Correspondent” quotes the previous two news items and then goes on to say that, although the reverend Mr Newby-Fraser was speaking generally about novel-reading,

during the course of the sermon on Sunday last, novel-reading was being practised in the Nowra Church of England by certain young members of the congregation.

In fact, we are told, the names of those readers and “the titles of the novels they had spread before them” could be furnished “if necessary”. Further, those novel readers apparently felt the sermon was being directed at them because they “immediately put away the books”.

The letter then says that as the minister “had no idea that novel reading was indulged in at all by any members of his congregation, young or old … he had good reason for being indignant at having been accused of making a charge of the truth of which he had no knowledge whatsoever”. However, concludes our letter-writer:

‘Truth,’ they sometimes say, ‘is stranger than fiction.’ At all events there is an indissoluble relationship existing between ‘truth’ and ‘fiction’ in this matter of novel reading on Sunday.

You could be forgiven for thinking all this had been written on 1 April – but it seems to be true!

How to spend your Sunday

Melbourne’s The Age ran a brief article on 20 October 1922 headed “Sunday Games: Preferable to reading ‘sloppy’ novels”. It was reporting on the annual meeting of the Congregational Union in Adelaide at which the issue of Sunday games was discussed, the concern being the secularisation of Sunday. Indeed, reports the paper, “a motion of protest against the secularisation of Sunday and urging members to unite with the object of preventing the desecration of the Sabbath was carried.” However, during the discussion, the chairman, Rev. G.H. Wright said

that although he preferred to see a man playing cricket or tennis on a Sunday to staying at home reading sloppy novels and the Sunday paper, it was not the highest ideal. 

And who said Australia was a sporting nation!

Comments anyone?

Myra Morris, The inspiration (#Review, #1940 Club)

As I have done for some previous “year” reading weeks*, I decided for 1940 to read a short story by an Australian author. After a bit of searching I settled on Myra Morris, and her story “Inspiration”, because … let me explain.

My last two Australian contributions for these reading weeks were works by men – Bernard Cronin and Frederic Manning – so this time I wanted to choose one of our women writers. I found a few in Trove, but the one that caught my eye was by Myra Morris, because she was already known to me: in my Monday Musings for the 1929 year, and back in 2012 in another Monday Musings where she was listed by Colin Roderick in his Twenty Australian novelists. She also has an entry in the ADB. Clearly she had some sort of career at least, even if she is not well remembered now.

Who was Myra Morris?

ADB‘s article, written by D.J. Jordan in 1986, gives her dates as 1893 to 1966. She was born in the Mallee town of Boort, in western Victoria, to an English father and Australian mother. Her literary abilities were encouraged by her mother and an English teacher at Rochester Brigidine Convent, and she had verse published in the Bulletin. From 1930 she was part of Melbourne’s literary, journalistic and artistic circles, and “was active in founding and organising the Melbourne branch of P.E.N. International”. Her circle of friends, it appears, included Katharine Susannah Prichard.

While she wrote book reviews, novels and essays, her favourite form was, apparently, short stories. She was published in newspapers, and her short stories have been anthologised, but there is only one published collection of her stories, The township (1947). Translations of her work were published in Germany, Austria and Switzerland.

Jordan writes that she:

has been acclaimed as one of Australia’s best short-story writers. Her clear pictures of life in country and town contain a wide range of characters and reveal her tolerance and understanding of humanity in its struggles. Like her novels, her stories combine earthy realism, poetic imagery and a broad humour. Sometimes her plots are marred by the demands of the popular market, but her often beaten-down and defeated people always contrast with her lyrical evocation of landscapes. 

“The inspiration”

I picked “The inspiration” primarily because it was by Myra Morris, but I was also attracted to it because it’s set in Melbourne and its protagonist is a musician. Both of these interest me. The plot centres on violinist, Toni Pellagrini, who, as you can tell by his name, is of Italian background. Every afternoon, he plays in a 5-piece ensemble in the cafe at “Howie’s emporium”. It’s when he is happiest, we are told. When he is playing, he is “a different creature entirely from the little dark, harassed person who at other times sorted out vegetables in his father’s fruit shop”. You sense the immigrant life. Indeed, at one point Toni realises that without his music he could be seen as “a fat, oily little Dago”.

Toni is ambitious. He wants to play somewhere better than the cafe, in Kirchner’s Orchestra for example. At the cafe, however, the customers are “indifferent”, and offer only “inconsequential applause”. They are more interested in their chatter, in being seen, than in the music. You know the scene. Toni’s distress starts to affect his playing, so much that the other players notice, until one day a young girl appears. She provides him with the needed inspiration (hence the title). She listens with an “absorbed gaze” and breaks into “furious clapping” when the music ends. Toni has his mojo back. Then, they hear that the famous Kirchner is looking for players and is at the cafe. But, as they begin to play, the girl is not there, and Toni is unable play well anymore without her, his inspiration …

What happens next is largely predictable – except that Morris adds a delightful little twist that doesn’t spoil the expected ending but adds an unexpected layer.

Like Jordan, the Oxford companion to Australian literature particularly praises Morris’ short stories, saying that “her talent for domestic realism and naturalistic description, especially of rural environments, is best suited to the short story”. “The inspiration” is not one of these stories – it is urban set, and is not domestic – but its immigrant milieu (both in Toni’s family and the gypsy-inspired ensemble in which he plays) and its resolution suggest a writer interested in capturing the breadth of Australian life as she saw it.

* Read for the 1940 reading week run by Karen (Kaggsy’s Bookish Rambling) and Simon (Stuck in a Book). This week’s Monday Musings was devoted to the year.

Myra Morris
Published in Weekly Times (2 March 1940)
Available online via Trove

Monday musings on Australian literature: 1940 in fiction

As many of you know by now, Karen (Kaggsy’s Bookish Rambling) and Simon (Stuck in a Book) run “reading weeks” in which they nominate a year from which “everyone reads, enjoys, posts and shares wonderful books and discoveries from the year in question”. The current year is 1940, and it runs from today, 10-16 April. As has become my practice, I am devoting a Monday Musings to the week.

1940 is a bit of a landmark year in Australian literature because it was the year that our significant literary journal, Meanjin, was first published – in Brisbane, by Clem Christesen. Its name comes from the Turrbal word for the spike of land where the city of Brisbane is located.

My research located books published across all forms, but my focus is fiction, so here is a selection of 1940-published novels:

  • E.C. Allen, Old Eugowra
  • Martin Boyd, Nuns in jeopardy
  • Roy Connolly, Southern saga
  • Frank Dalby Davison, The woman at the mill (short stories)
  • Dulcie Deamer, Holiday
  • Arthur Gask, The house on the fens and The tragedy of the silver moon
  • Beatrice Grimshaw, South Sea Sarah; Murder in paradise: Two complete novels
  • Michael Innes, The secret vanguard; There came both mist and snow; and The comedy of errors
  • Bertha A. Johnstone, Stream of years
  • Josephine Knowles, Leaves in the wind
  • Will Lawson, Red Morgan rides
  • Eric Lowe, Framed in hardwood
  • Nevil Shute, Landfall: A channel story and An old captivity (both of which I read in my teens)
  • Helen Simpson, Maid no more (see my post on Helen Simpson)
  • Christina Stead, The man who loved children (Lisa’s review)
  • F.J. Thwaites, Whispers in Tahiti
  • Arthur W. Upfield, Bushranger of the skies
  • Franks Walford, The indiscretions of Iole
  • Rix Weaver, Behold, New Holland (A Darned Good Read’s review)

Children’s literature was going strongly at the time, with books published by four authors still remembered as writers of our children’s classics, Mary Grant Bruce, May Gibbs, P.L. Travers, and Dorothy Wall.

I wasn’t going to focus on poetry and drama, but Bill, who checked my list against the Annals for me (as my copy is in Canberra, thanks Bill) added that Katharine Susannah Prichard’s play Brumby Innes also appeared in 1940.

There were very few literary awards at the time. The ALS Gold Medal went to William Baylebridge’s poetry collection, This vital flesh, though it was announced in 1941. The award actually announced in 1940 was for the 1939 winner, Xavier Herbert’s Capricornia, so I think I can also mention it here.

Writers born this year include some favourites, whom I’ve reviewed here, Carmel Bird, Marion Halligan and Geoff Page. J.M. Coetzee who migrated to Australia partway through his literary career was also born in 1940.

The state of the art

Of course, I checked Trove to see what newspapers were saying about Australian literature, and fiction in particular. In the last “year” I did, 1929, I found great enthusiasm to support and promote Australian literature, and this was still evident to some degree in 1940. It was war-time, but interestingly that didn’t feature heavily in the book-related articles I found.

“Fictional magazines” banned

One news item that did reference the war was reported by many papers in April. It concerned the Federal government’s decision to ban the importation of “fiction magazines from non-sterling countries”. The stated aim was “to conserve our overseas’ credit” (Queanbeyan Age, 23/4/1940), with The Forbes Advocate (16/4/1940) reporting that “it is estimated that this will save £100,000 a year in dollar exchange”. Exceptions to this ban were, as Adelaide’s The Advertiser (2/4/1940) reported, “magazines dealing with current news topics or technical and instructional publications”. Many newspapers added brief commentary to their reporting. The Advertiser, for example, commented that these banned recreational magazines had “little or no literary value” and that some had already been banned “because of their false accentuation of sex, horror and crime”. But, the point made by many, and I’ll quote The Advertiser again, was the benefit to Australian writers and illustrators:

Besides its wartime value in conserving dollar exchange, the restriction of imported fiction will, it is hoped, create a wider home market for Australian writers and illustrators.

And thus Australian stories for Australians! The Forbes Advocate took the argument further, arguing that ‘”Made in Australia” on nearly everything required in the Commonwealth would bring abounding prosperity’ – and make this continent, “mighty”.


Some reviewers commented on the “Australianness” of Australian novels they reviewed. Tasmanian Bertha A. Johnstone’s immigrant story, Stream of years, was described by her home state’s Mercury (6/4/1940) as “truly Australian and truly good” while Adelaide’s The Advertiser (28/5/1940) says of one of its denizen’s debuts, Josephine Knowles’ Leaves in the wind:

A FIRST novel by an Australian writer, apart from its intrinsic value, is of importance because of the proof that it furnishes that literary talent in this country is not stagnant.

The Argus (28/10/1940), on the other hand, reviewing Rix Weaver’s pioneer fiction, Behold New Holland, concludes that “Miss Weaver has wisely avoided any aggressive Australianism. She makes it a romance of pioneering adventure, vividly told, that would appeal to an English or an American reader”.

Many of these 1940-published novels were set in the bush, or in exotic locations further afield. Indeed, Echuca’s The Riverine Herald (24/6/1940), writes that one of Australia’s “most prolific” writers, Will Lawson, had ‘”gone bush” at Tahmoor (N.S.W.)’ in order to “complete his newest novel without any city distractions”. The novel was Red Morgan rides, a bushranging story.

What about the city?

I did find, however, one reference to the city-versus-bush issue. The article, in Sydney’s The Daily Telegraph (7/4/1940), written by one Sam Walpole, was pointedly headed “Let’s buy a yearbook for our authors”, and commences:

IT is remarkable how little impression seems to have been made on Australian authors by a curious fact recorded in the Commonwealth Year Book —that nearly two-thirds of the population of Australia live in towns. A foreigner would hardly suspect this fact from some stories, a collection short stories by ten Australian writers, mostly of the elder school.

The collection was “Some stories, by ten Australian writers”, and includes some writers we’ve come across before like J. H. M. Abbott and G. B. Lancaster. Walpole continues:

There are some lively pieces in the book — and some, less lively — but only one story (by Ethel Turner, about a hot day in Sydney) makes any serious attempt to describe the urban life which millions of Australians lead. It is odd that so many of our writers either escape into fantasy, or cling in spirit to the days when a steer ripped up Macpherson at the Cooraminta Yard. These days it is more likely that a taxi ripped up Macpherson in Pitt Street. It is time we had an O. Henry to chronicle the pangs and pleasures of Marrickvllle or Balmain, a W. Burnett to write about the Sydney underworld, a Sinclair Lewis to show our more smugly prosperous citizens how ludicrous they really are.

So, we go from those supporting the banning of “fictional magazines” (which primarily came from America) to a yearning for more relevant writing like that being produced in America! A good place to end, I think, this little survey of 1940.

Additional sources:

  • 1940 in Australian Literature (Wikipedia)
  • Joy Hooton and Harry Heseltine, Annals of Australian literature, 2nd ed. OUP, 1992 (with Bill’s help)

Previous Monday Musings for the “years”: 1929, 1936 and 1954.

Meanwhile, do you plan to take part in the 1940 Club – and if so how?

Robert Drewe, Nimblefoot (#BookReview)

Nimblefoot is Robert Drewe’s eight novel, but is the first of his that my reading group has done. Drewe is a prolific and versatile writer, having written memoir and other nonfiction, as well as short stories and novels, both. contemporary-set and historical. In other words, he is not easy to compartmentalise. He has appeared before in my blog, with his 2015 Seymour Biography Lecture and in a Monday Musings Spotlight post in 2019, and now, finally, he comes in a review.

Nimblefoot is historical fiction. It was inspired by the story of Johnny Day (1856-1885), who is described by the book’s promotion as Australia’s first international sports hero. He was a “pedestrian” (the fore-runner of racewalking) and, as a 9- and 10-year-old, he won several races, becoming World Champion. But this wasn’t Johnny’s only sporting claim to fame. In 1870, at the age of 14 and by then an apprentice jockey, he won the Melbourne Cup on a horse named Nimblefoot (which was surely a “give” of a title for Drewe, considering Day’s speed-walking career as well!)

Anyhow, here was another situation where I was keen for an author’s Afterword. Drewe explains his inspiration, saying that “several years ago Nat Williams, Treasures curator at the National Library of Australia, and Dr Sarah Engledow, senior historian at the National Portrait Gallery, showed me a portrait of a small boy named Johnny Day”. They clearly knew the reason for this portrait, but continues Drewe, “research into his life after his Melbourne Cup victory proved fruitless”. He thought it strange “that the famous walker and rider had left no cultural footprint”. Hence, his decision to imagine what might have become of him. A member of my reading group pointed out that Wikipedia does complete Johnny Day’s story. However, that page was written in late 2022, after the publication of this novel. Information on Johnny Day is now findable through Trove, but this letter to the editor of Sportsman after his death suggests that there really wasn’t much written about him. Further, Drewe took many years to write this novel so it’s likely that, when he started at least, Trove did not have the content it does now.

So now, that out of the way, on with the post … except that I will say one more thing about Trove. It looks like Robert Drewe loves Trove as much as I do, because Nimblefoot is full of delicious anecdotes from the period – mid-1860s to around 1880 – in which the novel is set. They were so delicious that I checked a couple – including one about the explorer John Horrocks being shot by his camel. Sure enough, there they were. Indeed, if I have a criticism of the novel, it’s that at times it felt like Drewe let his research – let these delicious little stories – get in the way of his own story, resulting in not so quite as tight a novel as, say, Eleanor Limprecht’s The Coast.

However, I did thoroughly enjoy the novel. Nimblefoot, like much of Drewe’s work, is an evocative read about “colourful” (euphemistically-speaking) time in Australian history. Drewe mixes real personages of the time, like Prince Alfred and the Chief Commissioner of Police Frederick Standish, with fictional characters, and takes our hero, Johnny Day, from his home in Ballarat and Melbourne to Perth and southwest Western Australia where he goes on the run after some seedy happenings involving the aforesaid Prince Alfred and Standish put him in danger. Along the way, we glean much social history, particularly about life on the land and in small town Australia, where Johnny takes on many jobs, including yardman, ostler and swamper. It was in some of these sections that I felt Drewe digressed somewhat from his centre, but the picture he built engaged me, nonetheless.

It engaged me not just because of the character of Johnny, whom you can’t help liking and wanting to keep safe, and not just because of his depiction of the times, but also because of his writing (laced, I must say, with wry humour). From his earliest books, Drewe has been able to capture the essence of a place beautifully. Here is a Pedestrian race-day:

It’s a cloudless February afternoon, so still the air’s vibrating. One of those windless country afternoons with cicadas buzzing and crows gagging and whiffs of dead things in the bushes. (“This hot, humming afternoon”)

How can you not “feel” that? In this chapter, Drewe also makes all sorts of social commentary, but subtly, so that you are just aware of it as you pass through:

And around they go. Past the first billboard. Pears Soap. A black kid sitting in a tin bath, while a white boy in a sailor suit, all blond and curls and dimples, scrubs the blackness off him.

What were they thinking? We know, don’t we?

Anyhow, moving on. In the first third of the novel, the scene is set, with Drewe setting us up for Johnny’s life after winning the Melbourne Cup. It’s a story of exploitation (at best) and corruption (at worst) with Johnny being used and abused for the benefit of others, including his father who makes money on his races, Nimblefoot’s owner who manages to not pay him his jockey winner’s fee, and Prince Albert (and his cronies, including Standish) who take him like a trophy to Melbourne’s seamy and seed sites, the bars and brothels frequented by the powerful. It is after this night, when Johnny witnesses violence and murder, that he goes on the run, ending up in Western Australia.

Nimblefoot is many novels in one. It’s an adventure story with a picaresque element, which we takes to many locations and introduces many characters. It’s a man-hunt thriller. It’s a coming-of-age story in which Johnny experiences love and gains wisdom: “Never seen my father looking helpless and weak before. It’s him in another different light. The older I get, the more different lights there are”. And it’s a social history …

But why, besides the inspiration to imagine Johnny Day’s life, did Drewe write this novel? In my Monday Musings Spotlight on him, I refer to a 2009 interview with Drewe which discusses his interest in writing both novels and short stories. He essentially said that in novels he’s “interested in ideas” while short stories are easier for “relationships … and conflicts between people”. So, what are the ideas Drewe explores here? My sense is that it has something to do with exposing Australian society of the period. Larrkinism would be a generous way of putting it, but Drewe delves deeper, showing the way power, masculine power, to be precise, so easily bends to exploitation, corruption and lawlessness. Along the way, references are made to the roles played by women (in brothels, hospitals, and on properties), to Nyoongar history and culture, and to “better” men. It’s a realistic picture and one that feels authentic to the milieu in which the novel is set.

Nimblefoot is not the most perfect novel I’ve read. Besides the many historical digressions, there is also a curious switching between third and first person voices throughout the novel. They surprised at times, but they did give freshness and reality to Johnny’s experience. Overall, Nimblefoot proved to be a good read that managed to keep me engaged from its opening words to its end, despite the moving stress I was under. Not all books would have achieved that.

Lisa has also reviewed this novel.

ACT Book of the Year Award 2022 shortlist announced

For some reason – perhaps because I don’t write about every award every year – I’ve only written once before about the ACT Book of the Year Award. It is an award presented by the ACT Government. Unlike most of the state government awards, the award is limited to ACT Writers, and, like the Stella, it is not limited to genre or form. The award was first made in 1993 – shared by poet AD Hope and novelist Marion Halligan – so this is its 30th year.

The shortlist for the 2022 award – for books published in 2021 – was announced on the weekend by Tara Cheyne*, the Minister for the Arts. The seven finalists were selected from the 43 eligible nominations.

The shortlist

  • Dylan van den Berg, Milk (play, also won the 2021 Nick Enright Prize for Playwriting, in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards)
  • Merlinda Bobis, The kindness of birds (short story collection; on my TBR; Lisa’s review)
  • Tim Bonyhady, Two afternoons in the Kabul Stadium: A history of Afghanistan through clothes, carpets and the camera (social history, also shortlisted for the 2022 Mark & Evette Moran NIB Literary Award)
  • Omar Musa, Killernova (poetry and woodcuts; on my TBR, my book launch post)
  • Lucy Neave, Believe in me (novel; my review)
  • Hugh Poate, Failures of command: The death of Private Robert Poate (war history)
  • Kaya Wilson, As beautiful as any other: A memoir of my body (memoir)

The winner will apparently be announced in the coming weeks, but no actual date has been given, and I can’t find any information about the judging panel. 

In addition to these awards, the ACT also has annual awards presented by the ACT Writers Centre (now called Marion).

* Tara Cheyne first became known to me as the delightful blogger behind In the Taratory, but she stopped blogging – unfortunately but understandably – when she decided in 2016 to stand for the ACT Legislative Assembly. I love that she is our Minister for the Arts.

Monday musings on Australian literature: on 1923: 5, Novels and their subjects

On the basis that what novelists write about provides some sort of insight into their times, I’ve done a little survey of the books published by Australian writers in 1923 to see what their subject matter might tell us about Australian life and literature 100 years ago.

First, here are the books I found, mostly via Trove:

  • J. H. M. Abbott, Sydney Cove
  • Vera Baker, The mystery outlaw
  • Marie Bjelke-Petersen, Jewelled nights
  • Capel Boake, The Romany mark
  • Roy Bridges, Green butterflies
  • Dale Collins, Stolen or strayed
  • Arthur Crocker, The great Turon mystery
  • Bernard Cronin, Salvage
  • A.R. Falk, The red star 
  • J.D. Fitzgerald, Children of the sunlight
  • Frank Fox, Beneath an ardent sun
  • Mary Gaunt, As the whirlwind passeth
  • Jack McLaren, Fagaloa’s daughter
  • Mary Marlowe, Gypsy Royal, adventuress
  • Catherine Martin, The incredible journey
  • Jack North, Son of the bush
  • Ernest Osborne, The plantation manager
  • Steele Rudd, On Emu Creek
  • Charles L. Sayer, The jumping double
  • H.F. Wickham, The Great Western Road

Twenty books in total, six of them by women. Unfortunately, I am not at home so can’t check these against 1923 in the Annals of Australian literature (but I’m sure Bill will when he sees this post!) Wikipedia’s page 1923 in Australian literature includes a few others: D.H. Lawrence’s Kangaroo, but he’s not Australian though the book was set here; Arthur Gask’s The red paste murders, but Project Gutenberg Australia says it was published in 1924; and Nat Gould’s Beating the favourite, but he died in 1919, and I can’t find much on this book. Further, from his biography, he is as much English as he is Australian. However, it is worth sharing that Andrews in the ADB says that Gould “inaugurated the Australian sporting novel”. Charles L. Sayer’s 1923-published The jumping double represents this new genre.

For this post, I’m sticking with my neat 20! Of these, around a third seem to be historical novels. J.H.M. Abbott’s and Mary Gaunt’s were set in the early days of the colony, while those by Vera Baker, Capel Boake, Arthur Crocker and H.F. Wickham encompass bushrangers in some way. Roy Bridge’s Green butterflies is an interesting member of this “historical” group. J.Penn (writing in Adelaide’s Observer, 5 May 1923) explains:

There is something decidedly unusual in a story which starts in Tasmania in 1830, and ends in Victoria at the present time. The title is the weakest thing about “Green Butterflies” … In this book, Mr. Roy Bridges fulfils much early promise, and shows himself definitely one of the novelists who count.

Bridges spans this almost 100-year period by telling the story across two or three generations of a family, taking its readers from the horrors of colonial Tasmania, with its “savage blacks and even more savage bushrangers … being put down by Governor Arthur”, to the “dirty settlement” of Melbourne, and then on to the present day, when, says a character, “the war has changed everything; we’re not narrow as we used to be”. So, a recognition here of the impact of World War 1 on Australian society, although war novels didn’t become popular for another few years.

Bushrangers were prevalent in the historically-set novels. The worst of the bushranger era had ended by the 1880s, but they were clearly still foremost in the public imagination, particularly in terms of escapist adventure. Further, with bushrangers being a particularly Australian form of outlaw, their presence would have appealed to those wanting Australian stories.

The rest of the novels were, as far as I can tell, set in more contemporary times, though some of the synopses were not completely clear about their period. The majority were adventure and/or mystery novels. (We know Australians love mystery and adventure!) A couple were set in New Guinea (including New Britain). One is Jack McLaren’s Fagaloa’s daughter, which Hobart’s World (8/11/1923) described as “a tale of stirring venture among the savages of Papua and adjacent islands, with white men doing deeds of unusual daring afloat and ashore”. The titular daughter ‘is given a European education, and is clever and beautiful, and “white all through,” despite the fact (or perhaps because of it) that she is the offspring of colored parents’. She apparently proves her worth when her white trader husband is attacked by a “cannibal hill-tribe”. Meanwhile, Ernest Osborne’s The plantation manager was described in The Armidale Chronicle (11/4/1923) as “adventure on a North-Western Pacific plantation” that “gives a striking account of the difficulties a manager encounters in developing tropical estates. A bright love story is interwoven throughout the adventures with the head-hunters”. You get the picture! White colonialism, fear of other…

Of the mystery novels, Stolen or strayed by Dale Collins received more attention than most, partly because he was already a journalist, but also because this novel, like several in this post, were part of the Bookstall series. I plan to feature him specifically in a later post. Stolen or strayed moves between underworld Melbourne and the Murray River, and received mixed reviews. Another Bookstall mystery, The red star by A.R. Falk, is set in Sydney’s underworld. The Brisbane Courier (23/6/1923) wrote that Australian writers hadn’t “developed the field of detective fiction to any extent”, but that Falk had

written a far better detective story than the majority of those that are imported. The scene is laid in Sydney, and the fight between detectives and a clever gang of thieves and murderers is told in a very convincing manner. The ending, perhaps, is forced, but otherwise the story takes a high place among current detective fiction.

Bushrangers in the country and the underworld in the cities, plus the occasional offshore exotic location, were popular settings and subjects at the time, suggesting that the focus on “the bush” was at least lessening as the Australian nation developed. That said, Steele Rudd’s On Emu Creek was about a city man turned farmer, and followed his pattern of using humour rather than mystery or adventure to tell its tale.

But, I’m going to conclude on something quite different, Catherine Martin’s The incredible journey. Bill has reviewed her second novel, An Australian girl, published in 1890. The incredible journey was her last. Margaret Allen writes in the ADB:

Catherine published, under her own name, The Incredible Journey (London, 1923) which, written very effectively from an Aboriginal woman’s point of view, was about a desert journey to recover her son, taken by a white man. H. M. Green found it a most interesting and realistic novel.

Interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, I struggled to find a review of this novel in the newspapers in Trove. Far better to write about mystery and adventure novels, it seems, than one attempting to represent a First Nations’ experience. While I don’t imagine it was First Nations assessment that the novel was written “very effectively from an Aboriginal woman’s point of view”, it is at least encouraging to see someone recognising the cause. (I have now ordered the book.)

So, there you have it. I could write more on my 20 books, but I think this gives you a flavour.

Thoughts anyone?

Other posts in the series: 1. Bookstall Co (update); 2. Platypus Series; 3 & 4. Austra-Zealand’s best books and Canada (1) and (2)

Six degrees of separation, FROM Born to run TO …

April already, and I am back in Melbourne to spend Easter with the family (and feed grandchildren too much chocolate probably!) But that’s a week away. Today is Six Degrees time. If you don’t know how the meme works, please check meme host Kate’s blog – booksaremyfavouriteandbest.

The first rule is that Kate sets our starting book. In April, yep, it’s a book I haven’t read – again – Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography, Kate calls it, Born to run. I make that point about “autobiography” because so often these days the books people write about their own lives tend to be “memoirs” but I presume Springsteen’s book covers more than a memoir typically does?

Book cover

For my first link I’ve gone with something pretty obvious, a memoir with “running” in the title, Haruki Murakami’s What I talk about when I talk about running (my review). This is definitely not autobiography because it really does focus on his running. I had hoped – despite the title – for a bit more about his writing!

Book cover

As I recollect, Murakami’s book takes a bit of a log-cum-diary form, so I’m going to another memoir that really is diary form, Helen Garner’s Yellow notebook: Diaries, Volume 1, 1978-1987 (my review). She is a mistress of the form and I hope to get to volume 3 next year – if life would just slow down a bit.

Book cover

In her book, Garner mentions many authors whom she admires. One of these is Christina Stead, whom she calls “a visionary”. I’m linking to her novel For love alone (my review).

The women in black, Madeleine St John, book cover

Christina Stead left Australia in her 20s, and made her name as a writer after she left our shores. Another Australian writer who made her name as a writer after leaving Australia is Madeleine St John, but it’s to her Australian-set novel, The women in black (my review), that I’m linking.

Jane Austen, Emma, Penguin

The women in black was adapted to film, but its title was slightly changed to The ladies in black. My next link is a bit cheeky, but not, I think, as cheeky as my last link will be. Jane Austen’s Emma (one of my posts) has been adapted several times to film and TV, but one of my favourites is the one Wikipedia describes as a ““reworking and updating”, Clueless. (Now, that’s a big change in title!)

Book cover

And now for, perhaps, my cheekiest link yet! Alicia Silverstone, who starred in Clueless as Cher (the updated Emma) left the movie world and became interested in animal activism and organic eating/veganism. Australian poet/novelist/essayist/academic David Brooks wrote a memoir-cum-reflection about his journey to vegetarianism and then veganism, The grass library (my review), in which he also talks at length about his relationship with some farm animals.

So, I could argue that I’ve achieved a bit of a circle this month, taking us from Springsteen’s autobiography to Brooks’ sort-of memoir? A circle is not required for the meme, so let’s not argue the point and just move on! We have covered a lot of ground from running, to diary-writing, to Aussie expats, before taking Jane Austen over to the US and ending up on a small farm in Australia’s Blue Mountains.

Now, the usual: Have you read Born to run? And, regardless, what would you link to?