Book review

Walkabout by James Vance Marshall (1959)

What you see when you stand in the Australian bush depends on who you are.

Mary and Peter are stranded in the middle of the unforgiving desert after the plane they are travelling in crashes. They aren't Australian. They are American and used only to town life. Although they survive the crash, Mary knows their problems have really only just started. How is she going to feed herself and her younger brother?:

They looked in the stream for fish; but the fish, such as they were, were asleep: invisible in the sediment-mud. They looked in the trees for birds; but the birds had vanished with the dawn. They looked in the bush for animals; but the animals were all asleep, avoiding the heat of the sun in carefully chosen burrow, log or cave. They looked among the riverside rocks for lizards; but the reptiles heard their clumsy approach, and slid soundlessly into crack or crevice.

Well, they've already eaten their last stick of barley sugar, and I'm not sure how they would have made the fourteen hundred miles across the salt pans of the great Australian desert, if they hadn't met the Aboriginal boy.

He's on walkabout. It's a test taken by boys of thirteen or fourteen years old. They make a journey around the waterholes of the desert, entirely alone. It takes them six to eight months. If they survive, they can progress to manhood in their tribe. He's doing very well, so far, because he knows what he is looking at when he stands in the Australian bush:

Among the secret water holes of the Australian desert his people had lived and died, unchanged and unchanging, for twenty thousand years. Their lives were unbelievably simple. They had no homes, no crops, no clothes, no possessions. The few things they had, they shared: food and wives; children and laughter; tears and hunger and thirst. They walked from one water-hole to the next; they exhausted one supply of food, then moved on to another.

If you are out wandering around in a desert the size of England and Wales combined, then I suppose it is quite a shock to suddenly meet someone. The three children stand looking at each other for a very long time. The Aboriginal boy has never seen a white-skinned person before. And Mary is shocked by the boy's nakedness. So there is quite a gulf in understanding here.

Mary is ill at ease with the boy, so it is up to her young brother, Peter, to try to bridge the gap between the two cultures. He does it very well. In a few days he and Mary learn some basic Aboriginal vocabulary and learn hunting, firelighting and cooking techniques. They learn how to recognise and forage for roots and fruit. The Aboriginal boy is gentle and patient and teaches them how to survive in the inhospitable desert.

If you want to know what he gets in return for his pains, you will have to read the book. I can tell you that there is a misunderstanding between the boy and Mary which has terrible consequences. If you read the book, perhaps you will be left wondering, as I was, how such a terrible event could have happened. Should Mary have tried harder to understand the 'primitive' boy? Or was there no hope for the boy because he was bound by his tribal beliefs? Could Mary have done anything to save him?

What can I read next?

If you really enjoy reading about how the Aboriginal boy survives in the desert of Australia, then you might like to look at this book by Peter Dickinson:

Or possibly this book by Theodore Taylor, about being marooned on a desert island:

Scott O'Dell has also written an account of survival in a barren place:

If you fancy a real adventure, have a look at this one by Eric Campbell:

Also, the Bookchooser has found these books with a similar profile:

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