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.