I picked this book up for free on Amazon, and decided to take a walk down memory lane with it, and also read it as part of my contribution to the AWWC 2013. I first read it as a child in the seventies, when my mother introduced me to Mary Grant Bruce’s Billabong books. I was intrigued to see if the book would live up to my memories of it.
As I read, I was impressed by the quality of the writing and also the story telling. One of my concerns in re-reading it as an adult, was whether I’d be annoyed by either sexism or racism, as revisiting some of my old favourites from years ago has been an uncertain process. Mates at Billabong was first published in 1912 – one hundred and one years ago. When you take that into account, I came to the conclusion that Mary Grant Bruce was an amazingly advanced thinker for her time. Obviously there are some significant differences in character portrayal than there would be in current writing – I’m thinking about Norah, the main character in particular. She’s a fourteen year old girl, who despite riding astride (still somewhat revolutionary at that time), chasing bullocks, cracking a whip and being able to handle a revolver, she is still considered too fragile for attending to veterinary tasks. Having said that, for a woman of her time, she’s portrayed as much more independent than the average female.
There are several characters of different races portrayed in the novel, but Mary Grant Bruce has characterised them as real human beings, even if some of the comments in the story sound “wrong” to a twenty first century reader, and would actually be considered offensive by today’s standards. If you consider the cultural thinking of the time, then the author was probably quite brave to write as she did. I actually enjoyed reading her descriptions and I did wonder if she had ended up in any trouble as a result of them.
So did the story hold up as well as I thought it would? Absolutely. I found myself swept up in the story, and I read until later at night than I’d first planned. I was just as saddened (OK I confess – I cried) when Bobs died, as I was at the age of twelve. I loved the descriptions of the Australian bush, and probably because “boiling the billy” has been a major part of my life, I could almost smell the woodsmoke and eucalyptus (with a hint of spinifex and mulga!) wafting through the room as I read. I found myself wanting to re-read all of the books again. Will I go looking for some more of her books? Yes, I think I will. I’ll wander down memory lane and listen for the sounds and smells of the bush, and for a few hours be transported back to my childhood.