Thursday, 26 January 2012

D'ARCY NILAND The Shiralee (1955)

Reader's Book Club, c. 1957

He had two swags, one of them with legs and a cabbage-tree hat, and that one was the main difference between him and others who had to take to the road, following the sun for their bread and butter. Some have dogs. Some have women. And they have them as mates and companions, or for this reason and that, all of some use. But with Macauley it was this way: he had a child and the only reason he had it was because he was stuck with it.


The Novel:  Macauley is a man with a problem. The Depression is on and the only way he can earn his living is as a ‘swagman,’ travelling by foot through the harsh Australian bush and taking any kind of job he can find along the way –– shearing, droving and sometimes helping to do the heavy work on farms.

Unlike most ‘swaggies,’ however, Mac doesn’t travel alone. His young daughter Buster –– his burden or his ‘shiralee’ –– travels with him and has to be factored in to every decision he makes about what sort of jobs he accepts and even where it's best to set up camp for the night.  Mac wishes he could be free of his daughter, live his own life the way he used to before he came home from work one day to find his wife in bed with another man and took the kid away to spite her. Buster talks too much.  She gets tired too quickly and complains all the time.  Mac thinks of her as a weight upon his back, gabbling away about her pet caterpillar, demanding to know when they’re going to stop for the night as any small exhausted child might do.  He feels responsible for her because he got her mother, Lily, into ‘trouble,' but he's never really loved the kid the way parents are supposed to love their children and doubts he ever will.  He only keeps her with him because he thinks that by doing so he’s somehow taking his revenge on the woman who betrayed him.

At least this is how he feels until Buster gets sick.  Her illness, which proves to be serious, changes everything.  Forced to confront his true feelings about his daughter for the first time, Mac realizes that while she might be a self-imposed burden to him, she’s also a necessary one, a now crucial part of his life which he can neither abandon nor deny. Buster teaches him what it means to be a parent and, more importantly, what it means to be a man and put someone else's life and happiness before his own. 

Penguin Modern Classics, 2002
The Shiralee was D’Arcy Niland’s first novel, based in part on his experiences as a ‘swaggie’ travelling through northeastern New South Wales with his own father during the 1930s. He knew the bush and the people who lived in it and wrote about both with an unsparing and unsentimental eye for the truth. But he also knew how soul-destroying it could be to live in the city and wrote about that experience just as skillfully, highlighting the contrasts between the ‘real’ bush and the usually romanticized view of it popularized by famous 'bush poets' like AB ‘Banjo’ Patterson and Adam Lindsay Gordon in a way that few Australian novelists before or after him have ever attempted to do.  'Going bush' was a common Australian practise up until the end of World War Two and Niland’s bush is a tough place to live in, its climate cruel and unforgiving, the drunks, eccentrics and heavy-handed bosses who populate its towns and highways all too often cut from the same unyielding cloth.  It’s a place Mac escapes to rather than a place he visits for the love of it or because he thinks it represents some bohemian ideal of 'freedom' he needs to defend for its own sake.

Niland’s clear unsentimental style (which he claimed was influenced by Chekhov among others) manages to capture the beauty of the bush while never trying to skirt the issue of what a strange and lonely place it could be.  Mac and Buster only have each other to rely on while they’re living out there. They have nobody else but each other to turn to if one of them gets sick or things go wrong.   Like all great roadtrip stories from that of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza to Kerouac's On the Road (1957), what they discover on their journey turns out to be far more important than the journey itself or the number of miles they cover.

D'ARCY NILAND, c. 1940
The Writer:  D’Arcy Francis Niland was born in the NSW town of Glen Innes in 1917. His parents were Irish immigrants and he was actually christened ‘Darcy’ (he later changed the spelling to ‘D’Arcy’) in honour of the Irish-Australian boxer Les Darcy who died in suspicious circumstances in the USA the same year he was born.  The Niland family were extremely poor, forcing Niland’s father to take to the road to look for work in the Depression, where he earned a living –– as Macauley does –– any way he could. Niland, who left school at fourteen, often accompanied his father on these journeys, gathering the material that would later serve as the subject matter for so much of his fiction.

At sixteen, Niland became a copyboy for the Sydney Sun, hoping eventually to rise to a cadetship as a reporter.  This was not to be the case, however, as he was retrenched soon after joining the newspaper, his employers telling him before he left that he'd ‘never make a journalist.'  This rejection only strengthened his lifelong resolve to become a writer and he set about teaching himself to write short stories, submitting dozens to various newspapers and magazines until one was finally accepted and his career was successfully launched. 

Kept out of World War Two due to a pre-existing cardiac condition, Niland married the New Zealand-born writer Ruth Park in 1942.  (Her most famous novels The Harp in the South and Poor Man’s Orange were based in part on the families they met while living in what was then the poverty-stricken working-class Sydney suburb of Surry Hills.) They would go on to have five children together, two of whom, Kilmeny and Deborah, would grow up to become renowned children’s book illustrators.  Niland was a prolific short-story writer and eventually published four collections of his stories as well as five novels, the most famous (and commercially successful) of which was The Shiralee. The book, which has never been out of print, was made into a 1957 film starring Peter Finch and adapted again for television –– with Bryan Brown playing the role of Macauley and Rebecca Smart playing the role of Buster –– thirty years later.  Niland also wrote radio and television plays and song lyrics that were collected and published as Travelling Songs of Old Australia in 1966.

D’Arcy Niland died of heart failure in 1967.  A selection of his best stories, chosen and edited by his wife, was published as The Penguin Best Stories of D’Arcy Niland in 1987 to mark the twentieth anniversary of his death.  Park and their son-in-law Rafe Champion also completed the Les Darcy biography he’d been working on for most of his life, which was published under the title Home Before Dark in 1995. Ruth Park herself died in Sydney in 2010 at the age of ninety-three.

Click HERE to visit the official website of D'ARCY NILAND. 

You might also enjoy:
ELIZABETH HARROWER The Watch Tower (1966)
MALCOLM KNOX A Private Man (2004)

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