Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 18, 2019

Island Story, Tasmania in Object and Text by Danielle Wood and Ralph Crane

This drop-dead gorgeous book came to my attention when it was shortlisted for the Tasmanian Premier’s Literary Award.  I asked my library to get a copy, and they did:)

These are the books with which it is in contention for the Tasmania Book Prize for the best book with Tasmanian content in any genre (worth $25,000 to the winner):

  • Bridget Crack by Rachel Leary, (Allen & Unwin), see my review
  • Flames by Robbie Arnott, (Text Publishing), see my review
  • Island Story: Tasmania in object and text* by Danielle Wood and Ralph Crane, (Text Publishing)
  • Towards Light & Other Poems by Sarah Day, (Puncher & Wattmann), see the review at Australian Poetry Review

Clearly the judges have a difficult task ahead.  If you haven’t already done your Christmas shopping, Island Story should be on your radar as a beautiful gift book for the thinking person in your life.

You might remember that I posted the description of Island Story: Tasmania in object and text from Goodreads, because I thought its title made it sound like a dry academic text about postmodernism.

A handsome full-colour book pairing unique items from the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery with selections of original writing about the southern island.
Indigenous dispossession, a cruel penal history, gay-rights battles; exceptional landscapes, unusual wildlife, environmental activism; colonial architecture, arts and crafts, a thriving creative scene—all are part of the story of Tasmania. And they find their expression in the unparalleled collection of Hobart’s TMAG.
In Island Story, Ralph Crane and Danielle Wood select almost sixty representative TMAG objects: from shell necklaces to a convict cowl, colonial scrimshaw to a thylacine pincushion, contemporary photography to a film star’s travelling case. Each is matched to texts old and new, by writers as diverse as Anthony Trollope, Marie Bjelke-Petersen, Helene Chung, Jim Everett, Heather Rose and Ben Walter.
This is the perfect gift for anyone interested in the island everyone is talking about.

There are sixty objects but I’ll start with the one on the frontispiece. It’s a painting by Harry Buckie, an artist whose works seems mainly to be Tasmanian landscapes, but this one is a domestic interior: a kitchen with a stone flag floor and a combustion stove, with cast-iron pots and a bellows hanging nearby.  A freestanding cupboard and a chair are made of wood, and there’s a shelf with a candle and some boxes that look like the kind of tins that biscuits used to be packed in. Through the doorway we can see that the house is weatherboard and has a water tank: it suggests that this kitchen is of the old type that was built separately to the house because of the danger of fire.

This thoughtful painting is accompanied by a poem called ‘The House Shorn in Two’, by Barney Roberts, a poet born in 1920 and brought up on his parents’ farm in Tasmania.  The poem is an homage to these parents:

The house, now shorn in two,
as if a cruel wind had cut its swath
through my old bedroom.
The chimney, tall, naked, pointing finger,
a token of the warmth that fed us around its hob;
where the old man sat
with a taper made from rushes;
and sucked the red flame
into the black bole of his pipe;
and talked of war in Spain,
and Ruskin.

And your mother,
yours and mine, who bore five children;
and loved them all with a joy,
and lived with a joy,
and gave to us all
the joy she found in flowers,
in early mornings,
in rain on the hill,
in Spring and bird-song,
in God knows what.

I saw it all today
forty years after I lost my front tooth
with a Swannie whistle, off the back step.

The poem goes on to show us parents who once tended a neat flower garden along with their cows, and a kitchen that once smelled of home-baked bread and breakfast bacon, where a woman with eyes as tragic as a dream, or gay, as a coloured scarf upon the line, nursed sick bodies and minor hurts.  She recited Shakespeare to them, and Shelley and Browning and Yeats, only to have the war, her second, /that cut her life /like the hand of Fate /that destroyed the house. The poet knows that next time he comes to see this place of childhood memories, there will be nothing to remain but a grass paddock, as progress strives to hide /the traces of a man and wife /who died.  

These relics of houses are scattered all over Australia, battered by the winds and sinking into the soil, but this combination of image and text is a reminder that a rich intellectual life in some of these houses confounds any stereotypes we might have.  This one painting and poem is reason enough to have this book on your shelves.

But there is more.  Accompanying a photo of a museum collection of skulls, there’s a wonderful account from a Mrs Mary G Roberts about ‘The Keeping and Breeding of Tasmanian Devils (Sarcophilus harrisi)’ in which she tells a surprising fact to those of us who’ve seen these ferocious creatures: she tells us how gentle and still a mother is when nursing her little ones, and even lets a trusted human fondle her head.  This article comes from the Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London in 1915.

Accompanying images of molten plates and a serving plate is a harrowing story called ‘Ash Tuesday’ from Joan Woodberry.  It’s especially poignant now, with the fires ravaging NSW and Queensland.  Equally distressing is the poem about road kill that accompanies a photo of a stuffed wombat.  It brought to mind Death of a Wombat by Ivan Smith and Clifton Pugh; wombats are such lovable creatures, but so slow, and so vulnerable to speeding vehicles…

A sweet sampler embroidered by Hannah Dyer is accompanied by an excerpt from The Broad Arrow by Caroline Leakey, evoking the horrors of the Cascade factory for female servants; while that infamous Proclamation Board to the Tasmanian Aborigines—yes, the one that promised them British justice—is paired with Jim Everett’s ‘A Short Trip with Shorty O’Neill’, which begins with a protest involving burning a New Zealand flag that’s been mistaken for the Australian one. The ingenuity with which images are paired is amazing…

There are texts from contemporary authors I’ve reviewed on this blog: Helen Hodgman, Carmel Bird, Heather Rose and Christopher Koch; from historic documents; and by authors new to me.  It’s a marvellous collection.  I don’t want to give the book back to the library so I’m going to drop hints to Santa. If you want to do the same, availability details are below.

Authors: Danielle Wood and Ralph Crane
Title: Island Story, Tasmania in Object and Text
Publishers: Text Publishing, 2018, 256 pages
ISBN: 9781925603965
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: Island Story: Tasmania in Object and Text or direct from Text Publishing 

PS The winners of the Premier’s Prize will be announced on 5 December.  For more information see their website.

PPS You can read more about the book at The Conversation.


Responses

  1. Hi Lisa, I have reserved Island Story at my library. The books sounds fantastic. My daughter and her family live in Tasmania, so it may be one of their Christmas presents!

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  2. I think we’ll have to note our different tastes in regards to this one. I’m not a fan of … well a whole list of things, but excerpts and poetry and contemporary painting are up there.

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    • LOL Bill, are you in training for a curmudgeonly old age?

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve made a note …. This book looks fabulous.

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  4. Off topic Lisa but I didn’t know where else to comment – there’s an interesting article on The Conversation today about why more Australian novels aren’t taught in schools.

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    • Thanks, Sue, I’ll check it out:)

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      • Ok, have read it…
        Its headline is catchy, and attention-getting, but reductive. Some of the most sublime works of literature were written by “Old white men” who “dominate school English booklists”, and I think we are selling students short if they don’t have meaningful exposure to Shakespeare, or 1984 and Animal Farm, or To Kill a Mockingbird, or Lord of the Flies. To enter adulthood without knowing Macbeth or Hamlet or Julius Caesar is IMO not to know about human nature in a sophisticated global way.
        I am, of course, a great supporter of OzLit, and I’d like to see more in the way of women authors being included in reading lists as well, but not more lightweight YA texts. At Year 12, students on the verge of adulthood and possibly reading the last books they may read in a lifetime, should be exposed to books that explore racism and totalitarianism and the banality of the evil that lies within us all, and they’re not going to get that from Jasper Jones or Tomorrow When the World Began, entertaining as they might be.
        I had a look at the Stella reading list, and the reading list seems to consist of two books. So now I am searching my memory for another schools’ reading list of OzLit, which is put together by someone else… maybe the Copyright Agency?
        *pause*
        Yes, it’s called Reading Australia https://www.copyright.com.au/about-us/what-we-do/reading-australia/ and https://readingaustralia.com.au/
        Even a cursory glimpse at what they offer shows that they are promoting Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu, and they are featuring Alexis Wright as an author (though I have my doubts about how any of her major works which are all chunksters would go in a secondary classroom.) The site has hundreds of suggested books for primary, secondary and tertiary students, is (from the numerous books I’m familiar with) inclusive of gender, ethnicity, Indigeneity, and classic works (e.g. Barnard Eldershaw) and, linked to the national curriculum and to the AustLit site where applicable, has a host of useful teacher resources as well.
        It seems to me to be counter-productive for the Stella crowd to be duplicating what is already being done, particularly since they are relying on the voluntary work of busy teachers to make it happen.
        I think that article is just making a noise.

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        • Such a good answer wasted on us 2 or 3 commenters. I agree totally. Alexis Wright certainly the best writer of her generation but for year 12, too big. I’d say The Natural Way of Things first then another Indigenous woman – Munkara of the Dept could stand the flack, Coleman, there’s heaps.

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          • Well, I’ve added a little bit of it to the commentary at The Conversation.
            But reluctantly, because really, most of that is just ranting…

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  5. I don’t disagree with you Lisa – I think students should be exposed to the finest English literature – if you explore what a lot of great writers read in their youth it was books such as the King James Bible, Shakespeare, etc etc.

    However I’m all in favour of including some Australian writers – Ruth Park for one – as well as indigenous writers etc. I don’t think I was exposed to a single Australian writer at High School except Patrick White (but I did love Patrick White, I was a very keen English student!)

    My mother was determined that all us kids would be exposed early to good literature and classical music and I’m sure it formed our tastes, as my brother is a concert pianist, we are all musical and all read voraciously. Early exposure is the key I think!

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    • I think that our opinions about these things is probably linked to the era that we went to school. (You can tell that many of the most strident opinions at The Conversation are my vintage or more! They either hated EngLit or loved it and they have no idea what schools are like now.)
      I remember a lot of OzLit from my primary years: Henry Lawson’s unforgettable Drover’s Wife and Sunrise in the Blue Mountains by Louise Mack, and more, all l from the Victorian Readers which are derided these days for being ‘imperialist’ but they introduced me in my first years in Australia to my new country. Sure, I learned Wordsworth’s famous poem about that ‘host of golden daffodils’ but I also learned Clancy of the Overflow and The Fire at Ross’s Farm, where the squattocracy and the battler forget their differences to fight the fire that threatens them both.
      What I remember from secondary school was Shakespeare, because it was so memorable, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t read anything else. If there were Australian books in our curriculum, maybe they weren’t memorable… I do remember Eleanor Dark, but that’s because I won No Barrier as a prize and I still have it on my shelves. I also have Nancy Keesing’s By Gravel and Gum, and Phyllis Power’s Legends of the Outback, but though they’re on my shelves, I don’t remember either of them so maybe they weren’t memorable. But they show that OzLit was on my teachers’ radar.
      What I remember from when I went back to school as an adult to get my HSC, was Bertrand Russell’s Authority and the Individual; Animal Farm; The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene; One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich; The Go-Between; and To Kill a Mockingbird. There may have been others, but these were what was memorable. These shaped my ideas about political power and human behaviour, and I’m really grateful that I wasn’t fobbed off with YA stories about teenage relationships that are chosen because people think that students relate to that.
      But after my time at school, there was a stage in OzLit where nationalism in books was old-fashioned and there were even people arguing that Miles Franklin’s award provisions should be overturned so that authors could submit anything they liked, rather than books that were about ‘Australian life in all its phases’.
      I think the gender wars are a furphy in curriculum reform, and there are more important things to discuss…
      It is true that books by Indigenous authors weren’t included in the old curriculum, but that’s partly because the flowering of Indigenous Lit is a recent phenomenon. When I first started reading it in the 1990s, it was all memoir, now there are stunning novels that would make a great addition to senior reading lists. I know that watching Rabbit-Proof Fence is on many lists, and if I were ever going to get involved in curriculum reform, I’d be adding Marie Munkara’s A Most Peculiar Act too. It’s a short but brilliant satire about the hypocrises of mission life, and perfect IMO for senior students to get their teeth into. And despite the difficulties of doing so, I’d also be including something in the way of gaylit, and this is where YA might find a spot in my curriculum: I’d choose Songs That Sound Like Blood, by Indigenous author Jared Thomas, because it’s not just about identity, it’s also about the difficulties of coming out to parents whose culture is less accepting.

      And yes, how lucky we were to grow up in families where books and music were valued!

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  6. I was in primary school in the 1960s and finished my HSC in NSW in 1974 and the only books I actually remember are The Member of the Wedding, King Lear, Pope’s poems, Pride and Prejudice, Harper Lee of course and my memory stops about there! I don’t remember a single Australian writer if we studied any other than Patrick White’s The Tree of Man.

    I have no idea what teaching English and English Lit is like in schools now but the appalling grammar and spelling of some young people has me wondering…

    Interesting that I remember my English teachers more than I remember what they taught us!

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    • King Lear…no other Shakespeare play has ‘spoken’ to me as much in the last few years! I did that one at university, but I’ve never seen it performed. We did The Member of the Wedding too, I think, or it might have been The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and I read TMOTW afterwards.
      Somewhere in all that dross of commentary at The Conversation someone says that students read only one book per term, and someone else corrected that to one book per year. Whichever is right, that reminded me that there is a big difference between English, which when we did it was basically a university entrance exam for the 3% since most students left with Leaving or less, and what today is English for the 90% of students who complete year 12, and English Lit which is for students who love reading.
      The curriculum *has to be* different today…

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  7. Do they have different types of English Lisa – in my day it was all just English and included literature and everyone did it who continued to 6th Form (HSC). So we had learned grammar and punctuation and spelling back in primary school but still had two years of spelling lessons (one lesson per week) for the first two years of high school as well. This was invaluable in making us adept at spelling (very important in that pre-computer age).

    I topped the state in English and German – I loved languages and was a total bookworm as well and read voraciously – assisted by my mother who was a gifted writer and great reader. However my parents did not approve of higher education for girls so I went nursing (after being admitted to study medicine at USyd) because that was pretty much what you did back then. Later went on to study philosophy at Uni as an evening student. I’m still can’t do without reading!

    So I’m unsure how different the curriculum is now…

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    • Well, I’m speaking for Victoria, but I think it’s the same everywhere. There has been a seismic shift in the percentage of students continuing onto Y12: in general you can’t get a job without it now unless you take the apprenticeship route. So whereas the Matriculation curriculum was pitched at the top 3% of students who were going to go to uni, with a demanding compulsory English for everyone, now Year 12 has to be achievable for a much more more intellectually and culturally diverse cohort of students. So there’s English for everyone, and English literature.

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  8. Thanks for that explanation Lisa – I hadn’t thought of that but of course lots of students left after 3rd year or 4th year at high school back then. I’m showing my age!

    Liked by 1 person

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