I read To the Islands for the 2010 Classics Challenge which I like to complete using all Australian titles. In this case, the book is also a Miles Franklin winner, taking out the prize in only the second year of the award and when Randolph Stow was only 22.
In some ways Stow’s novel reminded me of Graham Greene’s writing. There is the same interest in the ambivalent moral issues of the modern world, and the central character Stephen Heriot is a flawed hero, an Anglican missionary worn out by the oppressive climate and the ambiguous merit of his role in bringing ‘improvement’ to another culture. Stow shares Greene’s preoccupation with the internal lives of his characters and his economical prose never distracts from the issues at hand. His novel however is so quintessentially Australian that it could only have been written by someone who knew the country intimately. To the Islands is a masterpiece.
Set on a remote mission in the far northwest of Western Australia, the story revolves around the return of Rex, an Aborigine who has cost Heriot the major grief of his life. He wants the young man to leave because, he says, he’s a trouble-maker, and he tries to exploit the affection and regard that others have for him to achieve this. But times have changed, and the de jure authority that he used to have has not transmuted into de facto power. Extraordinarily prescient for his time, Stow (an anthropologist by training) brings the relationship of Aborigines to their country to life. They will not meekly acquiesce with the White Man’s wishes. To his surprise and disappointment, they assert their love of country to reject the demands of a man who has served them, as best he could, all his adult life:
Richard said suddenly and with released anger: ‘You not fair, brother. He not a bad man, Rex. You don’t give him no chance. He just want to live here, in his own country, and work for mission, get married might be. What for you want to send him away now?’ (p69, underlining mine)
This microcosm of society is characterised by patience, pity and mutual incomprehension. Heriot has spent his life working there, plagued by doubt that he is doing any good, but the younger mission staff who come and go are similarly introspective. It is as if they are all enervated both by the climate and the hopelessness of their work; they are all too tired to argue or be disagreeable.
Then as now the problem is how to enable Aboriginals both tribal and outward-looking to find a place that they want in the modern society that has encroached upon their world. At the camp which was a ‘refuge from all the gadea*’ Helen the nurse pours salve on the sores of the old people ‘never quite won from the bush’ (p58) and marvels at their dignity and playfulness when they have lost so much.
On her knees in front of the old woman, hearing the laughter wash in waves around her: it was such a small thing, thought Helen; and they of all people should have the least laughter. But I have less. Please God,if I ever come to such misery, I’ll laugh as bravely. (p59)
There is so much to admire in this book. Graham Greene would have been proud to pen this passage where Heriot, facing an impending cyclone acknowledges his failure:
Being so alone and in such chaos of air he could have shouted out to the wind that he loved it and worshipped it, that overnight he had become its convert, forestalling ruin by embracing ruin. The wind, at least, which knew how to tug and tease a weak branch until it slackened and cracked and fell, would understand him, who had been for a quarter of a century the sheltering tree of this small kingdom and was now, by modern ideals and modern discontent, to be brought down.
Broken, broken, broken. On the far shore of the world.
In the breaking of the crucifix he had confessed, at last and forever, the failed faith, so long a swag on his back to be humped by night over the hard countries of his privacy. (p79)
James Wells-Green has an excellent review of this book at the Australian Public Intellectual Network. He sees Heriot’s existential journey into the desert as an attempt
to immerse himself in the landscape, to make himself one with the land…..a dilemma that confronts most — if not all — European Australians … a continuing quest for psychic integration, for reconciliation with indigenous Australians, and with the land itself.
50 years before the historic Apology to the Stolen Generations in Australia’s Parliament, Stow recognised the importance of symbolism to reconciliation. Helen believes passionately that reconciliation is possible. She understands that the massacre, described so simply yet powerfully by Justin, is a wound that can never be healed, but that individuals and their representatives can make meaningful gestures to acknowledge the wrongs that have been done.
‘I don’t believe in heaven and hell, but I believe in sin, and sins that aren’t wiped out on the earth stay on the earth forever echoing among the people left behind. We’re trying to wipe out the sin of the white men who massacred these people’s relations, but we can’t ever quite do it, because we’re not the same white men. And Mr Heriot has to come back, he’s the only one who can wipe out his hatred of Rex. They’ll come to see that as hating and rejecting all of them.’ (p94)
I still can’t quite believe that this magnificent book was written by Stow when he was barely out of his teens.
You may have to beg, borrow or steal a copy. To the Islands is out-of-print. I had no luck locating a copy using WorldCat.org or my usual online booksellers but abebooks.com had some. Update 21/12/16, it’s not out of print any more! It’s been reissued as a Text Classic and you can buy it for a mere $12.95.
*the mission, whitefellas
Author: Randolph Stow
Title: To the Islands
Publisher: Penguin 1962, first published 1958
Source: Personal copy, purchased in the Op Shop for $6.00