Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Journey of James Vance Marshall’s Walkabout

Walkabout, a short novel by James Vance Marshall (pseudonym for Donald Payne), is a peculiar trip through the outback with two children from a “comfortable home in Charleston, South Carolina” who are stranded after a plane crash. They set off on foot for Adelaide, meeting a lone Aborigine boy as they walk. I saw Nicolas Roeg’s film version of Walkabout in a sociology course in college so knew the basics—the trio of kids and the outback—but was surprised (though why!?) at how much tones differed, with the film stranding the kids through an episode of violence rather than a plane crash.

What I remember best about the film, which I saw, oh, about thirty years ago, is the contrast between meat for sale in an Australian city—prekilled, pretrimmed, for sale in bulk—and do-it-yourself meat in the outback. I don’t know if my memories are correct but that’s what stuck with me: urban life that’s far removed from nature, food sources, and metaphorically, a knowledge of self. Little of the “civilized” side of the food aspect of the contrast is contained in the book beyond a stick of candy that the girl, Mary, carries in her dress pocket. Once it’s gone, she and her brother, Peter, starve until they meet the boy on walkabout.

Marshall emphasizes differences in culture and behavior codes—or “sacred orders,” as we called them in my sociology course—with passages like this one about Mary, who’s rather inhibited:
The things that she’d been told way back in Charleston were somehow not applicable any more. The values she’d been taught to cherish became suddenly meaningless. A little guilty, a little resentful, and more than a little bewildered, she waited passively for what might happen next.
Beyond being embarrassed by nudity, Mary’s internal crisis has a racial element:
It was wrong, cruelly wrong, that she and her brother should be forced to run for help to a Negro; and a naked Negro at that.
But here’s Peter, who is younger and more able to adapt than his sister:
Peter watched him. Inquisitive. Imitative. Soon he too started to brush away the leaves and pluck out the blades of grass.
Marshall uses such obvious language often in Walkabout, occasionally taking an anthropological tone to tell us, for example, “Physically, the Australian Aboriginal is tough,” and describing walkabout in terms of tribal traditions.

The Biblical overtones in the book felt obvious, too, with the Aborigine boy taking a Christ-like role—he even teaches Peter to fish—and sacrificing his life. There’s also this line about a billabong, “The river that ran out of Eden couldn’t have been more beautiful.” And that brings me to the book’s biggest strength: descriptions of the landscape and its birds, plants, and non-human mammals, and observing how the children learn to use and respect nature so they can survive. Walkabout felt most successful when Marshall stepped back and let his characters be characters. I didn’t need him to tell me about their differing value systems, particularly given all he’s able to show through their differences in language, (in)abilities to find food, and comfort wearing clothing.

Up next: Herta Müller’s The Hunger Angel, which has a strong Russian theme.

Disclosures: I read the New York Review Books edition of Walkabout, which I bought myself. I always enjoy speaking with NYRB about translated fiction.

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