I picked up The Overlanders as my first read for 2020 for a number of reasons. It was on my TBR list last year (but never got read), it was a reasonably slim volume at 212 pages (achievable) and it was also a Virago (of which I read precisely zero last year - sad face).
Early on in my reading, I reported to my son I was already enjoying it despite being only being nine pages in; “Let’s watch the movie together. It could be fun.” I said. “Read the book first,” he intoned “The movie might spoil it.” We tend to assume the book was written before the movie was made but in this case, it was quite the reverse. Dora Birtles was originally employed as a researcher by the movie’s producer/writer Harry Watt. Her role grew to become more of script adviser and casting consultant. The movie was made in 1946 and the book published in 1947. Dora says: “The book had great success. Ten editions. I got a station wagon, one of the first six in Australia, out of it. No more bicycling.” The film was also a great success. Dora called it “The Crocodile Dundee of its time.”
I grew up on a steady diet of Seven Little Australians et al, so the writing is familiar, if sometimes politically incorrect. Aborigines are referred to as Abos or blacks. It’s set during WWII and the Japanese are called Japs. But the female characters are strong and hardy. They can catch and throw down a steer when required and head off a stampeding mob; very satisfying indeed.
Dora reminds us that “Patriots in Sydney were very fond of Russia in those days. At that time the Russians retreating from the German eastern offensive were said to be destroying what they could not carry with them.” The filmmakers wanted to create a story that would enshrine the scorched earth policy and is based on a real cattle trek that happened during the war. Apparently, the Minister for Food’s slogan was “Bully beef not bullets” but I'm having trouble finding that easily in Trove. An army marches on its stomach and all that.
So why, in this day and age, read this book? Well, for a start, it’s a cracking good read. The plot is compelling and rolls you along from one drama to the next. There’s fording of rivers, trapping of brumbies, stampedes, broken bones, daring rescues and impossible feats of bravery and above all dogged perseverance, laced with dry humour.
Birtles builds her characters up beautifully, from the somewhat gormless, shell-shocked Scottish sailor who abandons ship in Wyndham and decides to try droving, despite never having ridden a horse, to the wily old cattleman/trickster, Corky aka J. Claverhouse Corkingdale aka Jimmy the Snoot who realizes his droving days are numbered and is desperately looking for a get-rich-quick scheme.
Birtles’ language of the day had me googling furiously, looking up Rolls Royce station wagons: did such things really exist? Yes, they did! What on earth is a thorough brace waggon? And so on. But I enjoyed the hunt and I loved the writing. Here’s a particularly evocative description of the homestead:
“He went in for a last look around the kitchen, opening the shallow drawer at the far end of the white-scrubbed kitchen table. Ma’s cookery books lay in it. He took one out, the mottled-covered, thick exercise book in which she had written out every special recipe ever since they were married, with the donor’s name on the top of every recipe. It was like a garland of Ma’s friendships through the years: Rosa’s sago plum pudding and Miss Woodget’s special orange cake. “
Above all, there’s passion and love for the country which rang particularly true for me during these heartbreaking times. Here is an impassioned speech by Dan McAlpine, the drover, which you could be forgiven for thinking was taken from an Extinction Rebellion protestor today:
“Exploitation’s wrong. That’s the trouble with the whole caboodle down south. That’s the trouble with the whole of this country from the coast to inland. We’ve torn the heart out of it. We’ve lost the timber and we’re losing the soil. We’re losing the rivers and we’re losing the grass. All these get-rich-quick exploiters think of nothing but money, how to make money as quickly as possible, and now how Australians are going to live twenty, thirty years from now. Exploit men if you like, they can fight back, but the land can’t fight back. Punish it too much and it gives up. The desert creeps in. I love the Territory too much to see it go the way of a lot of the rest of this country. And it won’t take so long to ruin it. It’s a peculiar country. It’s got to be handled right by people who know it and can use it to the best advantage for the future as well as themselves.”
Australia’s population lives mostly on the eastern coast of Australia, clinging to its edge like limpets and bearing a deep love for the mysterious “outback”; rugged but beautiful terrain which is mostly inhospitable to humans. You can imagine our real terror when we face the loss of what is usually considered “safe” country – the coastal strip - and are faced with the large, empty abyss of the interior. Birtles’ tale reminds us that we have faced testing times before and that our national character will stand us in good stead in the toughest of times. Here's one more quote from her Afterword:
"War breeds a strange state of mind. There is all the anxiety, the fear, the dread, the burdens of being alive and keeping going and the sudden need of pleasure, of real friendships, of hilarity. In that climate, we made The Overlanders."
I hope you enjoy this book as much as I did.
PS I have since tried to find the movie on the net. I looked for it on Kanopy, SBS On Demand, ABC iView, Netflix, Stan etc. I could only find it on Daily Motion which is just hideous, full of ads, so I can only recommend that you try finding a copy at your local library or, in Australia, at one of the National Film and Sound Archives' Access Centres. Gold Coast City Council Library has a copy on DVD which I have ordered or keep an eye out for it on free-to-air. It's sure to pop up again sometime soon.