I’ve wanted to visit Australia for years. After growing up in Florida, I figure it’s the only place on Earth weirder than here. But, as I can’t afford the thousands of dollars and weeks of time off it would take me to do the trip justice, I’ll settle for stories set in the world’s last wild frontier. Fortunately, there are plenty of Australian books (that have also been adapted into films) allowing me to get a taste until I can make my way to the main course.
Tracks by Robyn Davidson
A rare and unforgettable adventure. In the mid-1970s, 27-year-old Robyn Davidson set out to cross the Australian desert, on foot, with no assistance beyond a string of camels. She trekked 1,700 miles over nine months, contending with some of the most perilous creatures and conditions found on Earth. I’ve long admired how Australians manipulate the language to create such imaginative turns of phrase. Davidson’s vivid description of her deeply personal reasons for embarking on such a perilous, and even ludicrous, journey are every bit as inspiring as the landscape.
Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence by Doris Pilkington
This book depicts one of those spans of history white people would rather not contemplate at length, because it makes us feel icky. Much like the 19th-20th century governments of the United States and Canada, Australia sought to solve its “indigenous problem” by abducting the children of Aboriginal families from their homes, and sending them to be educated at government-run schools. The idea was to assimilate them into Anglo society as much as might be possible. The children were typically psychologically, emotionally, and physically abused by the administrators, and many died while in their care.
During their attempts to “settle” Western Australia, the government also built the 3,256 kilometer-long State Barrier Fence. It stood in three sections, and was intended to bar rabbits and other “pests” from overrunning regional farms.
The author’s mother, Molly, was one of the “lost generation.” While at one of the government schools in the ‘30s, she escaped, along with her sister and their cousin. Without the aid of a map or compass, they set out to follow the rabbit-proof fence that would guide them the 1,600 km back to their home.
The Secret River by Kate Grenville
I’m a huge historical fiction nerd, but I actually was not a huge fan of this book. It just didn’t grab me. But I realize that everyone has different tastes, and seeing as how it was shorted for the Man Booker Prize in 2006, obviously lots of other (more important) people felt differently.
For American history buffs, this will be something different– it’s about an English convict who is sentenced to transportation for the rest of his natural life. What is so surprising is that his wife and children go with him. The book explores the contrast between protagonist William Thornhill’s desire to work his own patch of land, and the local aboriginals’ total unfamiliarity with the concept of land ownership. Grenville said the book originally started as an attempt to write a nonfiction account of when her ancestor Solomon Wiseman, also a transported convict, set about scraping a life for himself in Australia. The book was adapted into a two-part miniseries that debuted in June.