Only now did I understand why John Beck had returned from his first whale capture straining to recall that passage from the Bible. I imagine he was trying to find some way to live with what he had just witnessed.
~~here be (a few) spoilers!~~
The first thing that struck me about Rush Oh! was: this is a happy, happy book. That doesn’t mean it’s a book with a happy ending (although I would say that this isn’t a book with an unhappy ending, either). It means simply that the writing was obviously done with great pleasure and good humour, and the effect is contagious. In an industry that can seem saturated by serious, hard, important reads, Shirley Barrett’s glorious debut—about a whaling family in Australia at the turn of the twentieth century, based on a true story—is a breath of fresh air. She doesn’t shy away from difficult reality, but she doesn’t let the plot twists diminish the joy and the comedy that suffuse its pages. It’s unbelievably lovely.
Its narrator is nineteen-year-old Mary Davidson, the oldest daughter of the Davidson whaling family of Eden in Western Australia. The year is 1908. Davidsons have been whaling in Eden for the past two generations, but last season was the worst in living memory: only one whale was captured in the entire six months. Now her father, George, needs more men in the boats; otherwise, his family of six will be in dire financial trouble. Their mother is long dead, and Mary has been forced to take on her shoulders the responsibility of feeding not only her siblings and father, but the dozen or so whalemen whom her father employs.
John Beck, then, is something of an answer to prayer. He appears at the whaling station wondering if Mr. Davidson might need an extra oarsman, and although he has no rowing experience whatsoever, his arms are strong enough and he’s willing to work a hard job for low pay, so of course he is hired. Mary almost immediately begins to develop a crush on him that she initially doesn’t recognize as such, although we do. She’s a great creation: spirited and indignant, bookish, very funny, and very hardworking. Her initial conversation with John Beck occurs before he even applies to her father—he comes to the house when the men are out in the boats—and at one point they discuss one of Mary’s paintings, a depiction of a whale hunt entitled Stern All, Boys!, which failed to secure first prize at the Eden Show:
I suspect the real reason Stern All, Boys! was deemed unworthy of a prize is that the subject matter was considered unsuitable for a young lady. Far better that I had employed my talents depicting three cows in a paddock at sunset, as did Miss Eunice Martin of Towamba, for which effort she received the coveted blue ribbon.
…”Well, sir,” I ventured at last, turning to the stranger. “Are you still up for adventure, or has my painting put you off?”
“No,” he said. “I mean, yes. In truth, it has scared the bejesus out of me.”
The dynamic of their relationship is marvelously like this: he quietly accepts Mary for who she is, while she finds herself (much to her dismay) occasionally exhibiting behaviour of the sort that she remembers being listed in a newspaper article on “The Woman Who Ought Not to Marry.” Fortunately she seems to put very little store by what the newspaper article has to say on the subject, and her interactions with John Beck—which could easily have been of the whimsically-scatty-heroine-is-immediately-understood-by-Mr.-Right variety—are instead pleasingly nuanced. John Beck himself is not all he appears to be; he has arrived claiming to be “a former Methodist minister”, but this, as you may gather immediately, is not the whole story.
The descriptions of whaling, and of whaling culture, are fantastic, and the book has many of them. I read Moby Dick in my Finals year at university and was deeply frustrated by it (though this may have been because I had chosen to read it for pleasure at a time when my non-pleasure reading was purely composed of academic monographs); Rush Oh! succeeds in returning my interest to the subject. It is, after all, basically incredible: that twelve men in a thirty-foot open rowboat could and did succeed in chasing and killing whales the smallest of which were at least the length of the boat itself, and the largest of which was nearly twice that. The Eden whalers are aided in their task, however, by a pod of orca whales, known as the Killers, who live in the area and who form a kind of guerrilla team, working with the men in the boat to worry and weaken the whale as dogs might a wild boar. Barrett hasn’t made any of this up: three generations of Eden whalers did work in conjunction with this orca pod. It’s not clear why they did this, apart from the fact that they were traditionally allowed to consume the whale’s lips and tongue after a kill. In any case, Barrett’s descriptions of the hunts are excellently paced (unlike, say, Anthony Trollope’s hunt passages, which are charming but tend to bog down) and completely gripping:
Once stung by the harpoon, the whale—who had seemed a placid creature up to this point—put up a ferocious battle for its survival. At once, it executed a series of short, sharp turns, as if attempting to dislodge the boat now suddenly attached to it; then, when this tactic did not achieve the desired result, the creature stopped suddenly and elevated its great tail flukes to a height of some twenty feet above the water, before sweeping them most deliberately across the length of the boat. Fortunately, my father, who was of course standing at the bow, and Arthur Ashby (at the steer oar) had had the wherewithal to hastily duck down, thereby avoiding what could undoubtedly have been serious injuries. (By all accounts, the whale’s tail span was twelve feet across, and of exceptional thickness.)
Arthur Ashby, the abovementioned harpoonist, is Aboriginal, as are four other men in the boats. The way Barrett deals with race relations throughout the book is one of its best aspects. As far as whaling is concerned, the Aboriginal crew members are equal. They are as good as, if not better than, the white Australians; the youngest one, sixteen-year-old Darcy, has exceptional eyesight, while Arthur Ashby is known to have the best aim and the strongest arm. They eat with the white men, sleep with them, bathe with them, and are paid the same as them. In the social circle of Eden town, however, things are different. There’s no violent racism: Darcy, his father Percy, Arthur and the Albert Thomases both Senior and Junior, are all present outside the Arts Club during the dance that precipitates the book’s crisis, and no one has a problem with them being there. But the key to this apparent harmony, of course, is that they are outside, and never attempt to come in.
All of this is brought to a head by the Arts Club dance, for Louisa, Mary’s sixteen-year-old sister (a great beauty who is, fortunately, not sketched as a complete imbecile, though she is somewhat self-centered), is in love with Darcy, and they run away together. Introducing something this serious into a book that has, so far, been fairly light-hearted is a big risk, but it pays off because of how beautifully Barrett handles it. The family is devastated; there is no sense in which everything will be all right in the end, because interracial marriages, while not unheard of, are still essentially unthinkable. Mr. Davidson’s grief at the loss of his daughter is portrayed with subtle sympathy; Mary notes that when a well-meaning neighbour pays a visit and begins to discuss the iniquities of the Aborigines (“these people are several rungs below Palaeolithic man”), her father simply leaves the room and does not return until the visitor has departed.
Similarly, the Davidsons’ slow decline in fortunes is dealt with gently, but poignantly. The loss of the two boys—to war and estrangement—and the long-ago death of their mother is conveyed in language straightforward and sad; it makes you pause and reflect and feel moved, and because these asides are sprinkled throughout the narrative, you can then go back to a description of the farm dog ruining a cake or what-have-you, without feeling utterly weighed down by sadness. My favourite of these asides is a story Mary tells about her father, who, after selling the whaling station in 1912, does little more than putter about in the old try-works. Evidently, several years before he dies, he spots a whale off the headland, takes an old dinghy out, and actually harpoons it himself. (It floats up a few days later near a local lighthouse.) When Mary finds out, she is furious:
“Why did you do that?” I repeated, and I realised I was angry. I was so angry I felt I could fling something at him, especially since he sat buttering his bread and not responding to my question. He wore a faint, silly smile upon his face, and I noticed his hands were trembling; I suspect he may also have been privately wondering why he had done it, and was unable to provide a satisfactory answer.
Oh, it’s heartbreaking.
The book ends with the possibility of reunion with Louisa, many, many years later; I won’t spoil it entirely for you. There is loss and sadness (it’s made clear from the beginning that Mary doesn’t end up with John Beck, though finding out why is half the fun), but there’s also hope and perseverance and absolute hilarity. It is a wonderful book (especially for the February blues); wholeheartedly recommended.
Many thanks to Poppy Stimpson at Virago for the review copy. Rush Oh! is published in the UK on 4 February.