The last time I lost myself so comprehensively in a book was about 30 years ago when I read the Lord of the Rings Trilogy. For three or four days, I didn’t do anything else except read it, completely absorbed by a world utterly unlike my own. Reading When Colts Ran, just shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award, hasn’t been quite so all-encompassing, but since I picked it up from the library yesterday I’ve been lost in a rural world of men and boys who live a lifestyle as alien to me as the world of orcs and hobbits.
There’s been a bit of fuss and bother about the female perspective not featuring in the Miles Franklin shortlist and Angela Meyer (who admits to having read only Bereft ) claims that ‘Australian life, according to the Miles Franklin judges, is still represented by the past and the outback, and is written in a male voice. Sheep stations, war, colonisation’. When Colts Ran, however, is not about sheep stations, or even horses; it’s not a blokey book or a paean to the rural lifestyle. It’s about boys and men trying to redefine themselves in the modern world.
It seems to me that McDonald is saying that the the mythic places where Australian men have formerly so forcefully defined their identity – the battlefield and the outback – are gone. More than once he refers to Ion Idriess, chronicler of bush life, and he calls him ‘an old fraud’. (p137) presumably because Idriess’s idea about the bush being a place for plenty of high adventure doesn’t fit the reality any more.
Kinglsey Colts grows up admiring his guardian Dunc Buckler, veteran of WW1, and a bush adventurer. That guardianship symbolises all that we might think fine about the mateship and larrikinism of veterans, because – on the toss of a coin after his mate’s death – Buckler takes on the care of his kids, Colts and his sister Faye. Faye has the measure of the man in no time, but it takes Colts a while to realise that Buckler isn’t all that he seems: he’s a bigot and a womaniser with a shabby way of behaving; and his ‘work’, tallying resources that could be used by the military if the Japanese invade from the north is a complete waste of time. Over and over again, to Colt’s bewilderment and fury, Buckler abandons the boy to his own devices, leaving him to flounder about with no male role model to guide him. In later years it falls to Buckler’s stoic wife Veronica to pay the bills, and that includes the school fees for the child he has with another woman, Rusty ‘Red’ Donovan. Veronica- an artist – is the one who’s successful and makes a name for herself. Not him.
Expelled from school for breaking another boy’s jaw, Colts goes off to work for Oakeshott, a grazier on a property called Eureka. There he meets up with a schoolmate, Randolph, jackarooing and doing the work of ten men because of the shortage of men during the war. That turns out to be a portent of declining rural population and the drift to the city as properties are subdivided, lost to erosion, or sometimes turned over to environmental reserves. This is a place where the great homesteads fall into disrepair, where bushfires can destroy heritage and artworks at whim.
The tenuous hold on the land is obvious. When Randolph and Colts go riding in the morning, there’s ‘nothing to show the white man has any more claim on the dirt than the little yellow bastard brandishing his sword from Timor’ (p49). The absurdity of the station’s pretentious and anachronistic lifestyle is shown by McDonald’s pithy observation that the servant at Oakeshott’s is luckier than Birdy Pringle’s Aboriginal wife Dorothy ‘because she had these good people civilising her in a lace mob-cap and pinafore’ (p 50).
What McDonald so carefully crafts is a world where men blunder about trying – and mostly failing – to negotiate successful relationships. Men go through long periods of not speaking to each other because they can’t express their feelings. Hooke, the stock and station agent who has very good reason to be livid with Merrington, severs the relationship without a word being spoken. He carries an iron bar in the car in case he gets an opportunity to get his revenge in some isolated spot on the road but in effect he leaves it to his teenage daughter to deal with it herself. Moral cowardice reigns.
There’s no place for a guy who’s gay; that has to be repressed. There’s no place for sentimental notions about animal welfare: Oakeshott culls his ewes by chucking them down a mine shaft and Colts feels a bit queasy about that, but doesn’t do anything about it. It falls to Pamela, the city wife of a school teacher exiled to the backblocks because of his leftie politics, to report the ill-treatment of animals penned in the train yards without food or water.
And men, foolishly, isolate themselves from their ‘womenfolk’. When the train comes in, male passengers disembark to guzzle schooners in the pub. It’s when the whistle blows that they belatedly grab shandies and lemonade for the women marooned on the train – they’re not ‘allowed’ in the pub. The empty loneliness of the blokey lifestyle that McDonald depicts reminded me of Jeremy Chambers The Vintage and the Gleaning where he so cogently showed the paucity of conversation in a world where there’s nothing much to do except drink at the pub.
These places are so isolated that ‘to be famous in the country you only had to live there’.(p36) The Refreshment Room only opens when the train comes in, when ‘Isabel Junction came alive and busied itself with an importance it had never known since goldrush days’. (p122).
Friendships forged in boarding school begin to founder in the competition for a scarce commodity: there are not enough girls and women to go round. The exception to this is Hooke who can’t penetrate the world of women in his home; he’s jealous of the easy relationship his daughters have with their mother and is only mollified when they make affectionate gestures such as serving him breakfast in bed.
Colts dreamed of making a mark but comes to nothing. There’s a sterility about his life which is more than just not having wife and children, and he ends up with a serious drinking problem. Gifted in the arcane art of identifying suitable sheep for breeding, he doesn’t end up working in the industry. In his late fifties he makes impulsive generous gestures that he can’t afford in an effort to attract a younger woman; he invests unwisely and ends up dependant on the goodwill of his employer. It’s his sister Faye who ends up drying him out, and it’s an entirely unexpected character from long ago who restores to him a symbol of the only person who ever really loved him.
Structurally this book seems a bit disjointed; there’s an explanation at the back about how some of it derives from short stories. That redemption at the end also seemed a little too tidy to me, and not entirely satisfactory. There’s a huge cast of characters, and book groups are advised to take notes because revisiting the plot and keeping track of the characters from one generation to the next is not easy.
Patricia Maunder has written a thoughtful review for the Radio National Bookshow, but I think her anxiety about McDonald’s demands on his readers is misplaced:
He constantly makes demands on readers, right down to the frequent references to what was common knowledge in Australia, particularly rural Australia, many decades ago: Ion Idriess, Eyetais and Onkaparinga blankets, for example. Are they important? Probably, if Roger McDonald is the author. This will challenge young and urban readers, but for non-Australians, When Colts Ran may well be frustratingly impossible to fathom.
If readers can cope with the odd hybrid of words, phrases and slang in Sea of Poppies, I am sure that they can do likewise with allusions in When Colts Ran. After all, any serious puzzlement can be resolved these days with a Google search!
This is a fine book that has important things to say about gender identity in Australia, not just in the bush but in society in general. It debunks myth-making about rural life with a sobering picture of a sense of disarray. It reminds Australians that we need to re-evaluate and support rural life for it to thrive…
It’s also very good fun to read!
Author: Roger McDonald
Title: When Colts Ran
Publisher: Vintage (Random House) 2010
Source: Kingston Library