I didn’t know what to expect from Rush Oh! Whaling is frowned on these days and somewhat gory. But I am so pleased I read it. Shirley Barrett has drawn a setting which comes alive. Australia, New South Wales, 1908. It is the story of Mary Davidson, the daughter of a whaler, it is her memoir of one year in her family’s rural life at Eden. It is not simply a story about whaling.
The historical context is so rich, so believable. The first page introduces the vivid setting: Mary’s home with its scent of boiling blubber for five months of the year, the rib cage of a 90ft blue whale sits in the front garden surrounded by jonquils, and a footpath laid with the pulverised vertebrae of whales. In this house in Eden lives Mary with siblings and their widowed father, the famous whaler George Davidson. During the whaling season her father’s whaling crew also live with the family and Mary and her sister cook meals and do the laundry. It is a hard life, harder when the whales do not appear in the bay and the general store will not further extend the credit line. Into this scene walks John Beck, former Methodist minister, offering his services as an oarsman. So this is a family story, a whaling/nature story, and a tale of teenage love.
George Davidson is a true character, his exploits were recorded in the local newspapers of the time and whale skeletons are on display at the Eden Killer Whale Museum. The ‘Author’s Note’ explains how Barrett combined history with invention in the writing of Mary’s memoir. As it is a memoir we know Mary is writing it years after the events she depicts, and there are hints of what may befall Mary and her family after the book has finished. The last two chapters are set later in her life and fill in some of the gaps.
I don’t like gory stories and don’t like whaling, but I found the story fascinating. Man v Beast fighting for survival, with an added twist: the whaling crew is aided in its hunt of the right whales by a group of Killer whales. Any catch is shared between men and killers. Again, factually correct. So, a story of Man + Beast interacting for the benefit of both.
Oh, and I loved the illustrations too. An unusual novel, but definitely worth a try.
If you like ‘Rush Oh!’, try these other Australian novels:-
‘All the Birds, Singing’ by Evie Wyld
‘Amnesia’ by Peter Carey
‘The Secret River’ and ‘Searching for the Secret River’ by Kate Grenville
‘Rush Oh!’ by Shirley Barrett [UK: Virago] Buy now
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