A Long Way from Adelaide
NYRB 2012, Michael Joseph, 1959
Reviewed by Seana Graham
As Lee Siegel points out in the introduction to the New York Review of Books edition of this novel, Walkabout belongs to that small category of books that owes whatever fame it has to the movie that was made from it. And the 1971 Nicholas Roeg film remains more famous than the 1959 novel. In fact, until the GoodReads NYRB book group chose it as a selection, I had never known there was a novel.
The book itself is fairly straightforward. Unlike the movie, the story is really more of a children’s tale. An American brother and sister find themselves the lone survivors of a plane crash. The plane has come down at a really inopportune place—Sturt Plain, in the middle of the Northern Territory of Australia. The novel tells us that this is an area roughly the size of England and Wales combined—but a whole lot drier. Instead of waiting by the plane’s wreckage, the children decide to start walking. They have no idea that their destination city of Adelaide is 1400 miles away. Luckily, an aboriginal boy comes to their rescue. He has never seen white people. In some ways, then, this is a First Contact story.
James Vance Marshall is a pseudonym of Donald G. Payne, who is from England, not Australia. The choice is an unusual one, in that Payne adopted the name of a living person and one with whom he had a close association. The real life James Marshall Vance lived in the Australian outback and wrote articles about the people and the natural life of the region. Payne in turn used these articles as source materials for this novel. According to Austlit, a website about Australian literature, accounts vary as to which man actually is responsible for the fictional element of the book, which was originally called The Children. The website tells us that both men claimed to have written the book, but that Payne has continued to use the pseudonym for other works with the permission of Marshall’s children. So, if we include the film version, we have a story with multiple sources and variants as well as multiple authors. Confusing, no?
I had a few problems with the assumptions about gender roles that are made in the book, but I suppose they are no more conventional than those we find in, say, Peter Pan. Probably more remarkably for the time it was written, an American girl and an Aboriginal boy are portrayed as just as stalwart and courageous as the American boy. Although as a group discussing the book we agreed that the Aboriginal boy’s thoughts were largely a European conjecture, it was an empathetic one for all that. Given the terrible history of Aboriginal life in Australia in the face of colonization, it is perhaps significant that this sympathetic portrait came out at just the historical moment when these native peoples were beginning to gain their rights.
The most rewarding way to read Walkabout is on its own terms, I think.There are some very lovely descriptions of native plants, animals and geography. For adults, though, it might be a good idea to view or revisit Roeg’s movie afterwards.
Walkabout at NYRB, by James Vance Marshall