This is the second – yes, only the second – review for my 20 Books of Summer Challenge
Excepting some engravings and that postage stamp portraying One Pound Jimmy, I had never seen an Aboriginal. They were all far away in dusty history, or in hot places where they threw stones at passing cars … They had waked where I was cycling now when Jesus hung upon the cross.
“two hundred lunatics circumnavigating the continent of Australia, more than ten thousand miles over outback roads so rough they might crack your chassis clean in half.” (85)
Peter Carey, the award-winning author of Oscar and Lucinda, The True History of the Kelly Gang, Bliss and Amnesia among others, has written his fourteenth novel, A Long Way From Home. Set in his native Australia in the 1950s, it tells the story of the Redex Trial, a legendary 10,000 mile car rally that circumnavigates the continent. The novel is both about a race and Race, a journey into the dark, brutal history of colonialism and racism. A Long Way From Home is an heady mixture of history, personal and national identity, mapmaking and mythmaking.
Irene Bobs (“I was married the same day I got my driving license”) and her husband Titch have plans to open a car dealership in Bacchus Marsh, a small town outside Melbourne. Irene is a woman who knows more about cars and engines than most men (her expertise is often dismissed by men), although her husband Titch thinks she is a bad navigator. Her husband is a great car salesman, but his fatal flaw is living under the thumb of his larger-than-life father, car salesman and notorious huckster ‘Dangerous Dan’. – “Dan had a lifetime of cuttings in his scrapbook. He had the first pilot’s license in Australia. He had flown planes and got reported when he crashed them. He had raced Fords from Melbourne to Sydney.”
Irene and Titch are both physically short, something the novel comes back to again and again (their neighbour and navigator Willie is extremely tall, so that when they are driving, his legs are cramped in the car as it has a bench seat). Irene is devoted to Titch:
My new husband was ideal in almost every way, and I knew that even before I understood his genius, which was the last thing you’d look for in a car salesman. He did not know how to lie, or so it seemed. He never exaggerated, unless to make a joke. He was funny, he was cheeky.
Willie Bachhuber, the tall, fair-haired neighbour is a quiet man living a bachelor existence having walked out on his marriage. He has no tolerance for alcohol. He is an amateur cartographer. Previously he had worked as assistant to the map librarian at the State Library. He has a severe scar on his shoulder, which he thinks is from when he was a kid he fell from a window (in fact as a baby he was snatched by an eagle and sustained the injury falling from the sky, but he doesn’t learn this until much later).
Willie is a 26 year old schoolteacher (‘a chalk and talker’). “I had a degree but no teacher training. To my surprise I was a successful teacher of the untouchables.” Willie teaches the notoriously tough second form. He has recently been suspended from his job after grabbing an unruly boy and dangling him out of the window (the boy accused him of favouring ‘Balts’, refugees from the Baltic States.)
I could have escorted him to the map of the world, that is the pink British Empire, and the other bits. I could have shown him that Balt was short for Baltic, or a person from the Baltic States … How could I possibly even teach him that the Australian government had deliberately misnamed the displaced persons Balts? That was the path by which the word had entered his vocabulary. How many weeks might it take to have him understand that the Australian government were selecting white-skinned ‘Nordic types’ as future citizens and that they had, for the sake of obfuscation, named them Balts?
The scene introduces two major themes that run through the book: racism and maps. Maps play a huge role in the race, of course, as Willie calls out hazards to driver Titch, but maps are also a way of colonising a space. Much later in the novel Willie will find himself a schoolteacher once again, this time to a group of Aboriginal children, and he will draw a map of Australia (with the English names) on a cave wall, only for the children to help him repaint it with the indigenous names and legends.
With no teaching work, he accepts the task of rewriting the school curriculum on the history of wool (which of course leads to discussions on the Aboriginals who were displaced from their land to make way for herds of sheep). Willie is the sort of person who finds himself ‘happy to have once again destroyed my scaffolding, to be hanging from another window, tremulous and giddy on the brink of my real life?’
His real life will be revealed to him (and us) later on.
The reason he has left his wife Adalina is because she gave birth to a black baby, product of what Willie assumes (wrongly) was an affair between Adalina and their Black American friend Madison. He is wanted for unpaid child support, and unopened summonses litter his porch.
In fact, Willie Bachhuber, although believing himself to be of German stock (he has an obsession with Germany, and would obsess over German placenames, looking at atlases) and raised by a Luheran pastor, is actually an Aboriginal, a half-caste, his mother having been raped by a white Boss.
When Willie is not teaching he appears on a weekly radio quiz programme, his nerdy love of learning making him the recurring champion. In fact the show is rigged, and the cash prizes he ‘wins’ amount to nothing, as the host of the show is merely trying to increase the programme’s popularity in hopes of getting bigger and better sponsors.
Meanwhile, Irene is engaged in a battle of wits with her father-in-law. Dangerous Dan shows up with a propeller from a plane he once famously flew. He delivers it to Irene and Titch so they can place it outside their business to attract customers. Of course he’s really there to see why his son would want to go into business competing against him. Irene and Titch have applied to be Ford dealers, and Dan has done all he can to block his son’s application. Irene is surprised however when Titch stands up to his father, rejecting the gift, and actually throwing it across the yard. “The propeller dwarfed my husband, and seemed to overpower him, but no, he lifted it like a barbell. And hurled it against the fence … ‘Thank God I was not born a strong man,’ my husband said, ‘or I would have killed someone by now.”
The rebellion is short-lived, however, and it is up to Irene to get rid of the propeller (“I loved Titch but we were not returning to our former servitude.”) . She convinces Willie to help her drive it to the town dump, which also marks the beginning of their mutual attraction. Willie finds her ‘shockingly becoming’ in her coveralls. “I glimpsed a white singlet like a baby might have worn, crocheted around the neck.” She drives the car “with her nose just above the wheel, checking her mirrors, left, right centre. I was reminded of a sparrow eating.”
Irene drives FAST by the way (which will come in handy during the race). When Willie is confronted by the father of the boy he held out the school window, he is unnerved and tells Irene the story, and then “she took my hand and in a gesture that surprised us both, raised it to her lips.”
Irene tells us the kiss was out of pity
I meant, you are a good man no matter what you did. I never was permitted to have a horse but i thought he was like a horse with his ears back, locked inside a stall.
Fearing that their application to Ford is going to be rejected, Irene has a contingency plan: General Motors. They will become dealers for the Holden, the ‘Australian’ car (the Holden is an important car in Australian identity).
Titch returns from one of his sales outings with a Jaguar bought from a motley crowd of gamblers who hang out in a seedy bar (a bar which women are forbidden to enter), which he intends to sell on, in the meantime it will draw customers to the showroom.
This was Titch’s only fault, the belief he could have anything he wished. This is how birds fly into window glass, how women fall pregnant. There is no sense to it, only wanting what you are not allowed to have.
Willie is becoming infatuated with his fellow quiz show contestant, Miss Cloverdale. “There are very sensible reasons why a man might be attracted to women who are inherently unstable. Their faces are more interesting to watch, their eyes so unpredictable. They are always more complex, dynamic, dangerous.” Clover always loses the quiz, not knowing that Willie has to tear up the big cheque that he ‘wins’ each week.
“If you really liked me, you would let me win a round.”
“If you win the next round,” I asked, “will you come out dancing with me?”
“If I win the next round I will do all sorts of things.”
Willie and Clover have a short-lived relationship, one that brings him bliss while the two of them plan a trip to Italy. While sitting with her in a hotel he witnesses Dunstan kissing Irene.
The sponsors for the radio show get bigger and so do the prizes. Willie and Clover spend the weekends together, work on the show once a week, and the rest of the week Willie spends at the library in Melbourne (always going there when his old companion Sebastian Laski is on lunch – he doesn’t want any connection to his previous life). He studies maps of the area (“I was able to call for maps of the pastoralist properties which lay like a lethal patchwork on top of the true tribal lands.”)
Later he will become involved with Irene’s overbearing sister, Beverly (Beverly will also be persuaded to sell her share of the family inheritance to finance the Bobs’ car dealership.
Willie cycling home encounters Titch, drunk after failing to sell the Jaguar (‘in the land of potato farmers, you can never sell an XK Jag’) Titch is despondent; the two men have an accident; Irene is furious with him for buying the Jaguar.
However, things seem to be working out. They get the GM dealership, but only as a backer of the two of them competing in the Redex Trial.
There was no money in the Redex Trial. It was all for skites and show-offs, men who got drunk off printer’s ink and headlines, public heroes who could afford the luxury of fame. It was for publicity hounds like Dangerous Dan. It was a so-called ‘reliability trial’ which punished ordinary cars and made them do things they were never meant to do…. two hundred lunatics circumnavigating the continent of Australia, more than ten thousand miles over outback roads so rough they might crack your chassis clean in half.
When Willie meets Desperate Dan he lets slip that Irene and Titch are going to enter the Redex in a Holden. Dan will enter the race to spite his son.
Irene’s sister Beverly and her kids come to stay. Beverly immediately strikes up a relationship with Willie, which saddens Irene.
At night we could hear them through the fibro walls across the drive. Of course it was nothing to do with us but we were the married couple and all the stress and tension of the Redex had dampened our affection. How sad it was to lay there, on our backs, not touching. I thought he had betrayed me.
Later in the trial Dan will use gelignite to blast his way through difficult portions of the route. It’s when Dan gets his Plymouth stuck that Willie sees his first ever Aboriginals It’s also where we first encounter Lochy Peterson, AKA Doctor Battery (“perhaps sixty, broad shouldered and barrel chested, with a deep furrowed brow, hooded bloodshot eyes, grey stubble and a mischievous disposition”), the Aboriginal mechanic who will become a hugely important character in the rest of the story, as this midpoint part of the book is where the narrative begins to shift from being a story about a round-trip road trial and becomes a story abut a person discovering their true identity and the historical atrocities that were committed to his people. The first thing that Lochy does when he meets Willie is tug at his fair hair and call him ‘a proper whitefellah’.
Just after this encounter, Irene discovers the skeleton of an Aboriginal child, and it’s clear from the hole in the skull that the child was shot. “It was just a tiny thing, as fragile and powdery as an emu egg. I was a mother. I knew what it was to hold a tender child and I knew this must be a little boy … “
Even though Irene ‘never knew this piccaninny’, she puts the skull in a box and takes it with her as they continue the trial. She brings it to a police station, with Willie accompanying her. The racist policeman recognises that Willie is half-caste (‘up here we have what you might call an educated eye.’) Later Willie is refused a drink in a bar because he’s Aboriginal.
Irene and Willie leave, and Doctor Battery sneaks into the back of the car just as they’re heading away. (“Lord, what has happened to me, I thought, I have a crippled blackfellah in the rear and a weeping white woman driving at speeds beyond the law.” ) They drive through a creek and flood the battery. Lochy takes the battery out and puts it over a fire to recharge it. The scene also illustrates Irene’s fear/mistrust of Aboriginals. Doctor Battery leaves then.
They carry on, Irene aware that Willie desires her (‘you cannot be so close to a man and not think about these things. I had lain in bed and listened to him with my sister and imagined things I should not have.’) while she ruminates on where exactly her marriage to Titch went wrong. At one point she and Willie are under the car together repairing a spring …
We were close by necessity, shoulder to shoulder, siding the shackle bolt from the oily spring … and then my mouth was on his mouth. Dear Jesus, thats enough, not even thirty seconds of my life. ‘We’ll never speak of this again’
Titch telegrams to say that she should wait at a particular airstrip. When they get there, instead of Titch, it’s Dunstan who appears. He travels with them and explains that they’ll meet Titch later in the route and the organisers will be none the wiser. He objects to Willie, though, knowing that Willie is wanted by the law.
In Darwin Willie is again refused service in a bar, as is Lochy (who somehow has caught up with them). The two men go outside and join other Aboriginals around a campfire. Willie gets very drunk; he is taken back to his hotel room by Dunstan and Irene – Irene curls up next to Willie – there’s no infidelity, but Dunstan tells Titch that there is (Dunstan of course is only concerned with how it will look to have a Black man competing in the Trial). Doctor Battery accompanies Irene and Titch once again, requesting to be dropped off in Quamby Downs.
When Titch does finally reappear he attacks Willie.
Willie leaves the Redex Trial at that point (not willingly). He plans to get back to Bacchus Marsh where he assumes nobody will think he’s anything but white. He takes a lift from a passing car and ends up at Quamby Downs, and it is here that A Long Way From Home finally becomes a novel about Aboriginal identity. He becomes a schoolteacher in the Aboriginal community, all the time planning to get away (he is stymied in this because the petrol is rationed out by the boss, Carter). He lives in a dusty redbrick teacher’s residence, ‘a pioneer’s ruin with a corrugated roof thrown up across its eroded walls’ … he meets Doctor Battery again, and Alice, the ‘house-girl’ .
Alice rested her Bible in her lap and touched my cheek and pinched my arm and watched to see how the blood fled the skin and came rushing back. Her own black skin did not act like this, she showed me. That is, we were different. Obviously. Many people came to demonstrate this truth.
What Willie will come to learn is that he isn’t in Quamby Downs by chance. He is actually from there. His mother Polly was raped by the station boss, a notoriously violent thug called Big Kev Little. Alice is her sister.
Doctor Battery said that Big Kev did not care about right ways or wrong ways. He was the King of the Castle. He did exactly what he wanted. He shot a union organiser ‘by mistake’ and nothing happened. Likewise, it seemed, he had seduced or raped my mother … everywhere, missionary fellah, schoolteacher, didn’t matter. Whitefellah too greedy for our women … the next day, Doctor Battery told me, Big Kev sent for my Dedi, my mother’s promised man. He said he had a sick steer over by the number 60 bore and he needed his assistance … the boss then ordered my Dedi off his horse and shot him dead in front of witnesses who would not dare to tell … he ordered an uncle to cut the dead beast open and hide my Dedi’s body inside the carcass. My relations got him later during the muster, when they had to separate human bones from cattle.
Doctor Battery tells him how when he was a baby he was snatched by an eagle, a bird that one of the tribe shoots, releasing baby Willie (this is how he gets the scar)
You were special, but look out. There is still the Welfare fellahs, worse than any eagle. They come into camp and the kids would get hidden … they took you away from Polly, and growled her because your shoulder was hurt and they washed off all the good medicine and put you in the dray. Removal of a half-caste child. They said they would took you to a doctor. Your mother walk behind all the way to Derby. Cruel buggers. They end up let her carry you, but only so they got some peace. For two hundred miles she must of hoped she get to keep her baby after all, but when you got to Derby they stole you proper.
Willie whitewashes the wall of a limestone cave and draws a map of Australia on it; he later erases it after Doctor Battery explains that the children don’t need a map, letting the kids fill it in with ‘the paths of ancestral beings from one place to another. I would not call it a map.’
He still contemplates how he will leave Quamby Downs even though: “When I had believed I was German I suffered a phantom homesickness that gave its distinctive colour to my life. Now I was in my real birthplace and finally knew my father’s name, that nagging feeling had become a searing pain. I slept badly. I woke in fright. Panic, like sheet lightning, continued through my day and night and soon it was better to sit at Carter’s table than think of who I was.”
Willie is visited by Doctor Battery and two other elders, Tom Tailor and Crowbar. They have come to convince him to stay; and deem it time for him to learn a new truth about Aboriginal history, how Tom Tailor was taken by Welfare to a foster family, was repeatedly raped and abused, and when as an adult he finally made his way back to Quamby he had lost his language.
“I had to stay at Quamby Downs, he wanted me to know. I was not too old for Law the translator said. The Law was forgotten by the young fellahs. He was the boss of a new Law. He would teach me, but he would need that car.” Tom Tailor has a battered copy of Oceania magazine, which includes an article by a famed anthropologist that discusses how Aboriginals ‘had raided the Christian Bible, taken possession of Noah’s Ark and turned it into an instrument of resistance against the white oppressors.”
… Tom Tailor believes himself to be the ‘boss of the Law of the Ark’ and how a mighty rain will come ‘a rain of Holy Water which would make the skins of blackfellahs turn white. The blackfellahs would be ready for the deluge and would climb aboard the ark and all the kartiya would drown. This ark was not a made up story. It was attested to by sacred boards. It was a real ark in a real place and it was a secret, so dangerous that if you saw it accidentally you must be killed.”
A boy, Charley Hobbes, tells the class the ‘real’ story of Captain Cook – a horrific massacre of Aboriginals that causes Willie to think “I was not thinking of anything but my own rage and so blinded by self righteousness I had completely forgotten that I had inscribed CAPTAIN COOK 1770 and that it now lay hidden, like a landmine, beneath the kalsomine.”
But what is a rock without a story? Without its Law? Its ritual? … he had written about an ark, I was so slow to understand that he was not referring to the secret locus of Punkah Wallah’s cult, but rather his own hoard of notes, diary entries, tapes, accounts of culture he has now spent a life protecting from malevolent destruction.