Long before I did any traveling in person, I traveled through the books I read. In fact, one of the big reasons I wanted to go to Australia in 2005 was that I’d enjoyed reading some books set there. And when I arrived, one of my first questions to the locals I met was about Australian books and authors. So here are my five favourite Australian books.
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Favourite Australian Books #1: We of the Never-Never
This autobiography is the story of Jeannie Gunn’s year in the “Never-Never,” the Northern Territory. A city girl, Mrs. Gunn arrives as a newlywed, accompanying her husband to his job on a cattle station. One of the first white women in the Territory, Jeannie is viewed with suspicion and doubt by those she meets. Slowly, with determination and grace, she wins them over. As she falls in love with the Never-Never and makes the cattle station her home, its people come to love her as well.
Mrs. Gunn writes with lyrical beauty. We of the Never-Never has always made me sad that I didn’t make it any further north than Alice Springs in my summer in Australia. She brought alive the people and the land of the Northern Territory. This book is one that lives in my memory, particularly for its achingly sad, beautiful final paragraphs.
“All of Us, and many of this company, shared each other’s lives for one bright, sunny year, away Behind the Back of Beyond, in the Land of the Never-Never; in that elusive land with an elusive name… Called the Never-Never, the Maluke loved to say, because they who have lived in it and loved it, Never-Never voluntarily leave it. Sadly enough, there are too many who Never-Never do leave it. Others—the unfitted—will tell you that it is so called because they who succeed in getting out of it swear they will Never-Never return to it. We who have lived in it, and loved it, and left it, know that our hearts can Never-Never rest away from it.” ~ Mrs. Aeneas Gunn, Prelude, We of the Never-Never
Favourite Australian Books #2: Alice… on the Line
Out of all the places I stayed while in Australia, Alice Springs holds my heart. This small town in the middle of the outback wasn’t even on my radar when I left Canada. A job offer took me there and then fell through, and I ended up working at the Telegraph Station just outside town. Alice… on the Line is the story of the Telegraph Station from 1899-1908, written by a girl who grew up there.
Alice… on the Line is filled with the anecdotes of Doris and her siblings, as well as her perspective as an older woman looking back. She shares the history and tales from her 8 years there, what her father did, and other stories from up and down the Line. Like We of the Never-Never, Alice… on the Line is a delightful, readable glimpse into this part of Australia.
“In spite of the annoyance, the inconvenience, and the discomfort when things went wrong, the Line was our best friend. It was our one link with civilization in the event of sickness or accident, even though we knew that any help we called in an emergency would arrive too late. There were no aeroplanes, and therefore no flying doctor services; no radio, and therefore no rescue at all for people who lived away from the Line; yet it was comforting to know that the two wires running from the Arafura Sea to the Southern Ocean, stretching straight ahead through gibber plains and sandhills, through wide creek beds, mulga scrub, and great rocky ranges, on and on through the Empty Land… well, we were pleased they were there, i only to tell our friends that we were in trouble.” ~ Doris Blackwell, Alice… on the Line
Favourite Australian Books #3: Sun on the Stubble
Sun on the Stubble was another book left behind by the previous roommate in Alice Springs. A thin paperback that proved to be a quick, easy read, it made me think of my twin brother so I mailed it home to him.
Sun on the Stubble is set in South Australia, during the years between the World Wars. Bruno is a German farmer’s son who gets into all the antics one can expect of a boy of that era.
One of the chapters, “Names and Initials,” stayed with me as an example of an excellent teacher. Bruno’s initials are B.U.G., for which he gets teased by his classmates. When a new teacher starts at the school, Bruno begins to imagine what her initials might be. He makes long lists of possible acronyms… only to be discovered by the teacher. Instead of punishing him, Miss Gent confides a secret to him: her name is Kathryn Evelyn and her nickname in school was Guzzly.
Favourite Australian Books #4: The Turning
While I heard Tim Winton’s name during my summer in Australia, I actually discovered his writing during my degree at UVic. In a fiction class, we read one of his short stories. I liked it so much that I promptly bought the entire book of short stories. The Turning: Stories is set on the coast of Western Australia (another part of the country I never reached).
Favourite Australian Books #5: Past the Shallows
Past the Shallows was given to me by one of my profs at UVic. This novel takes readers to Tasmania. According to the Herald Sun, it is “Wintonesque” (an assessment I’d agree with). Like Sun on the Stubble, it’s a story of brotherhood and coming-of-age and a working class family.
Joe, the oldest brother, is done with the island and his father’s fishing boat. As soon as he can get his grandfather’s house packed up, he’s sailing his boat to warmer seas. Miles has to work on the boat with his father, fishing for abalone. Harry, the youngest, gets seasick on the boat, so he’s left to roam the house while the others are out.
The story is told through the eyes of Miles and Harry, grappling with the big events swirling around them. Miles, as a teen, is caught in the middle, yearning to be free like Joe, yet feeling responsible for Harry. Harry, as a kid, is still mostly oblivious to his father’s abuse and illegal activities. Both boys earned my sympathy and respect and I desperately wanted things to get better for them.
Have you read any Australian books? Which would you recommend?
If you like these books, you may also enjoy The Man from Snowy River, a movie based on a famous Aussie poem.