Sunday, January 5, 2020

Book Review - The Overlanders by Dora Birtles

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. 


Unknown said...

Next week some of my blogger friends and I will be reading and discussing books by the third generation of Australian women writers, that is from the end of WWI up to the 1950s. I'll put a link to your review. I saw the movie (with Rod Taylor and Chips Rafferty?)in school I think, in the 1960s, but had no idea there was a book
Bill Holloway

Alex Daw said...

Thank you for your comment and link Bill. I studied Australian Literature for a second at Sydney Uni yonks ago now - with the redoubtable Leonie Kramer when I was an undergraduate. I'd be interested to know who the other writers were at the time. Are we talking about the likes of Jean Devanny and Ruth Parks? We are a pretty lucky country when it comes to writers aren't we?

Patricia said...

Hi Alex
I read this book mid 2019 and really enjoyed it. I thoroughly endorse your review comments and how appropriate are Dan's comments given the weekend we have just experienced on the south coast of NSW.
I particularly enjoyed the characterization of the females in the family. Very strong, practical and durable (if that is the right word) women.
Are you aware of the the work by Debra Adelaide titled Australian Women Writers: A Bibliographic Guide? It was published by Pandora Press and is a very useful reference tool.
I am a great fan of Dymphna Cusack and really enjoy re-reading Come in Spinner set in wartime Sydney.

Best wishes
Patricia (mrspenny on Librarything)

Marilyn Sanderson said...

Inspiring review, Alex. I must source a copy. Initially I was confusing 'the Sundowners' by John Cleary with 'The Overlanders'. Made into a movie in 1960 it featured only one Australian of note in the cast; good old Chips Rafferty. Regarding female writers... Susanna de Vries pointed me towards Joice NanKivell Loch so I read 'Blue Ribbons Bitter Bread'. Early 20th century to be sure but so powerful. I owe de Vries a huge debt for her research into Australian women of all backgrounds and talents. Almost none of them featured in my early education with the exception of May Gibbs via ' Snugglepot and Cuddlepie' and Jeannie Gunn via ' We of the Never Never ' and ' Little Black Princess'. I read 'A Town Called Alice' by Nevil Shute several years ago and was interested to see how our language has changed. It was not quite as patronising and racist as the original 'Tarzan' but it speaks to the era.

Ruby Matangi said...

Incidentally Jean Devanny and Ruth Parks were both New Zealanders in their late twenties.
Dymphna Cusack and Miles Franklin were writing at the time.

A novel I really enjoyed by a writer who was born at roughly the same time as Ruth Park is "Isabel on her way to the corner shop" by Amy Wittig. It wasn't published until 1999 as she taught for most of her adult life.

Alex Daw said...

Dear Patricia - thank you for your comment. Durable is a fantastic word to describe those women - resilient is probably another very popular word these days too. I am not aware of Debra Adelaide's work but will seek it out so thanks for that hot tip.

Alex Daw said...

Dear Marilyn - Thank you for your thoughts. I have never heard of "Blue Ribbons Bitter Bread" or its author so shall hunt that one down too. I finally got to see The Overlanders the other night. A bit clunky but still worth seeing. The book was better ;)

Alex Daw said...

Dear Ruby - Thank you for reading my post. I have heard of Amy Witting but never read any of her books so thank you for adding to my TBR pile ;)Thank you everyone for responding to my blog and sorry for taking so long to publish your comments. I was delighted to see so many responses :)