Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 16, 2009

The Shiralee, by D’Arcy Niland, read by Ivor Kants

The ShiraleeIt was curious to listen to this audio book straight after reading Penelope Lively’s analysis of social changes in A House Unlocked…because I might not otherwise have realised with such clarity how The Shiralee (1955) represents a view of fatherhood that had almost become obsolete before I was born.

It is the story of a swagman called Macauley during the Great Depression.  He walks the outback looking for work but comes home to find his wife in bed with another man.  To revenge himself, he takes their daughter, four year old Buster – not because he loves her nor to rescue her from ‘moral harm’ but because he wants to hurt his wife by taking what he thinks she loves.

Having taken this child for the most reprehensible of reasons, he is then saddled with her in his travels.  He knows nothing about the needs of a four year old, and regards Buster as a burden.  ‘Shiralee’ means ‘swag’ or burden, but since a swag also holds the basics of survival and is the source of life on the road, Shiralee is also a metaphor for the paradox represented by this little girl. Betrayed by his wife, Macauley’s emotional survival depends on Buster’s love, but she is also his burden.  At times he is very hard on the little girl, and his spankings certainly jar a 21st century sensibility, but gradually this man with a tough exterior develops a love for his child that was not there before.  (The fight scenes jar too, but in the context of the period, they are used to establish Macauley as a ‘man’s man’.)

Macauley and Buster experience hardships from hunger to sickness but the worst happens when Macauley’s wife steals the child back again.  As Buster teeters on the brink of death, there is a terse and bitter scene between them when we learn that contrary to his wif’e’s cynical expectations, Macauley had been faithful to her throughout the five years that he was on the road.  The struggle between them for Buster’s affection is no different to the struggles that play out today in the Family Court, but in 1955 when The Shiralee was written, and in the 1940s when it was set, it was unusual for fathers to admit to the close bond that binds Macauley and Buster together.

Penelope Lively writes about how gender roles had altered beyond recognition in her lifetime, and within my lifetime feminism has enabled fathers to play an equal role in parenting.  Postwar however, women had been expected to abandon the jobs they had taken on during the war, because returning soldiers had a right to them.  Women were thought to be the homemakers and regarded as the natural caregivers for children, while fathers were the breadwinners and not expected to play a significant role in child-rearing.

D’arcy Niland was born in 1919 and died in 1967 aged only 48.  Had he lived longer he would have witnessed a revolution in parenting.  Today Macauley would have been actively involved in his child’s life from the moment of birth, and he would have been familiar with Buster’s needs from daily interaction with her.  On the other hand, no court today would award custody to an itinerant with no fixed address and no capacity to provide stability or educational opportunities.

It’s a rather black-and-white story because Niland is firmly biased towards the father: he makes it clear that the wife wants Buster only to hurt Macauley.  The sad reality is much more often that both parents really do love their children, and their children certainly love them both.  The wisdom of Solomon helps not at all when both parents love their children yet cannot see their way clear to living with each other…


Responses

  1. Ha, I’m not going to read this review (I don’t read reviews of things I haven’t read – spoiler or no spoiler) because I still haven’t read, heard or seen this classic BUT today I bought the Bryan Brown miniseries DVD of it for my Dad’s 89th birthday next week. I may get to catch up on this story yet…

    I gave my ma-in-law a Ruth Park audiobook for Mother’s Day. I should borrow that from her to listen to when we go to Central Australia in July as I’ve really only read her Harp in the South books, plus of course her autobiographies.

  2. Excellent review. Yes, the whole parenting thing was eye-opening in this book. I kept thinking of Fathers 4 Justice here in the UK as I read certain aspects.

    • What’s Fathers for Justice – a group aggrieved over custody/access issues?

  3. I have a question . What did Buster say at the grave ? I think it begins with 6 feet down but we can’t understand the rest of it. If anyone can enlighten us we’d appreciate it. Loved both the series when it was on TV and the movie.

    • Hello Margaret, I’m not sure if I’ve got the right place in the book, but on p40 this is Macauley (not Buster): ‘Best I can do for you, mate,’ he thought. Six feet down and dead, you’re still a better man than a lot of them up here.’ He had a lot of time for Callahan.


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