Feature image from PANMACMILLAN
RUSH OH! by Shirley Barrett
In the place where I grew up, Rush Oh! needs no advertising campaign. Here it has received a great deal of traditional Eden gossip and word of mouth advertising. Everyone has heard about the book about our whalers.
I am from the Eden, the town in which RUSH OH! is set. Well, I went to high school in the whaling town of Eden, I watched the Whale Festival Parade meander down Imlay Street year after year. I walked up the hill to the Whale Museum for science lessons. I touched the bones of Old Tom on display in the museum and scratched whale oil from the carpet where it drips lethargically from whale bones bolted to the ceiling.
I knew this story. I knew it well.
I was actually quite nervous to read this book. Living so close to the real Davidson Whaling Station and knowing members of the still living Davidson Family, I was nervous about how much liberty Shirley Barrett had taken with such a treasured tale.
‘I have not spoken to the family yet, but I hope they won’t mind.’ SMH, The killer whales are all named after the real-life pod that lived and worked with the whaling family in the area, most notably Old Tom who is a key character in the story.
Mary Davidson, the (fictional) eldest daughter of the (real life) whaler George Davidson tasks herself with documenting the 1908 whaling season, in which not a lot really happens. Whales are caught and lost, characters come and go, and by the end of it, there is a sense that no great tragedy or achievement came about.
The story is set in Eden at the land-based whaling station of Kiah Inlet (The buildings that still stand today are now historically protected sites, though many were lost to fire).
Like many of the reviews I have read – this book does have a very slow start – it takes a while to figure out what the book is actually about.
Mary is a bit of a dork, a good sort of girl who’s formality in storytelling left me on the other side of a socially correct wall, quite distant from the action. It is her sister Louisa who is the spunk of the novel and for most of the book I would have much rather been in her head.
Mary falls for the mysterious new whaling man John Beck, though why I could not say. There is some kind of romantic tension between them, for reasons known only to each other and they tumble through some weird courtship like interactions on land, while lots of exciting things happen out on the water of Twofold Bay.
Here is the problem with the story. The story is told from the view of Mary, as it says on the blurb copy. Yet every now and again the story is told from an omnipresent third-person perspective out with the whalers, as though the author realised the limitations in having a shore bound narrator telling a story about sea-based whaling. Mary actual does not witness much action at all, and a lot of things happen out of sight. Things happen around her.
The beauty of this work, for me was in the Australian landscape, the locations and historical immersion in a long ago time. The way the girls spoke and lived was a part of the whaling story often over looked. Their isolation and the way it changed their behaviour was also very well done.
I loved reading about the food and the journey into to fetch supplies. There are traveling salesmen, town gossips and fruit cakes. I felt really immersed in the time.
As the story is told by Mary, looking back over thirty years, it was the insights she gave, about what would eventually happen to those in her tale that where also heartwarming and captivating. Definitely the most moving scene from the book was when, many years later Mary’s aging father attempts to capture a whale on his own.
I laughed out aloud at the Riff-Raff from Pambula and wondered how Barrett knew about the hilarious rivalries between the towns that still exist. It was nice to see the focus on my part of the world. Though Merimbula never rated a mention.
I tried very hard to read RUSH OH! for the story is was, but I think perhaps I was too close to the heart of things to see the book clearly. I wasn’t hooked to the narrative, but I persisted until the end. Something about loyalty, a fellow Australian Female writer drawing international attention to Eden. I needed to see this through.
I am left pondering the question, who is entitled to tell who’s stories, and at what point is it important to contact the real families and stay true to the facts? To me, it felt like this story either needed to remain honest to the truth, or steer much further away from it.
RUSH OH was published in 2015 by Pan Macmillian.
Shirley Barrett is better known as a director. Personally I am in love with OFFSPRING, and I am so grateful for her work with that show. It really is a love of mine.
RUSH OH! is Shirley Barrett’s her first novel. She is an emerging writer. Her publishing story goes against everything an Emerging Writer is told about publication. We are all told that nothing good comes from the slush pile, that no one reads it, that publishers hate it, that you must get around it at all cost. ‘RUSH OH! was picked up out of the slush pile after two years of Barrett writing at her kitchen table.’ SMH