Friday, February 14, 2014

Australia on My Mind

I have always wanted to go to Australia. Any country that has animals with names like bandicoot, numbat, wallaroo, tasmanian devil, hairy-nosed wombat, and squelching froglet clearly must be seen to be believed. (Seeing pictures on Facebook of relatives frolicking on sunny shores Down Under is a bit of an inspiration, too.)

Taking a Qantas leap to Australia is not, however, in the budgetary cards anytime soon, so I'll have to content myself with reading about the place, which for some reason has been happening all winter as one book has inspired the reading of another in domino fashion.

It started when I was nosing around online to see if I could get a DVD of the movie Phar Lap for the Resident Teen. Phar Lap was a magnificent Australian racehorse who raced during the early years of the Depression and died under mysterious circumstances after coming to the United States.

This research caused me to disappear down the rabbit hole of Google to find out more about Phar Lap when I was supposed to be doing other things.

I started getting giddy notions of purchasing various and sundry books but sternly reminded myself that I was already guilty of tracking down books online, receiving them with glee, then stockpiling them for future reading, and that perhaps I should read some of those books first before taking up with other titles.

The Christmas season seemed a perfect time to curl up with some fiction. (Why do we curl up with books and nothing else, I wonder?) So I pulled down the stack of books by Australian author Elyne Mitchell that I'd ordered for the Resident Teen back when she was the Resident Horse-Crazy Girl.

Elyne Mitchell's best-known works are her stories about Australia's wild horses, called brumbies. The movie The Silver Stallion, starring a young Russell Crowe, is based on her beloved series about Thowra, the Silver Brumby. The series kicks off with this horse's birth in The Silver Brumby, continues with four more books featuring this horse, his mares, and his offspring's adventures, and canters off into the sunset through a number of follow-up titles about the horses in his range.

Mitchell wrote the stories from the horses' point of view, complete with dialogue--not an easy style to pull off when you're trying to make your animals believable as animals even as they give voice to their thoughts.

But she does it very well. The animals are all far more clever and deep-thinking than their real-life counterparts ever could be, which can make a jaded adult reader raise an eyebrow, but if you are still a horse-crazy girl inside, and if you can suspend disbelief enough to read them as twentieth-century legends (with the whole "horse kingdom" aspect of the Australian mountain ranges being something like an equine Olympus in these books), they're a lot of fun to read. (And I would venture to say they're the only books I'll ever read that contain the phrase "Venerable Wombat.")

The movie (called The Silver Brumby in Australia) blends the first book in the series with bits of the author's life. Mitchell created the stories for her own children's entertainment and education. She stocked them not only with horses and adventure but also lush depictions of the flora, fauna, and geography of Australia. In the film, the horse's story unfolds as an ongoing narrative being created by the author for her daughter.

It's kind of funny to see the original video-box cover for the film, which features the horse front and center and also gives prime seating to the actresses portraying the author and her girl--

and compare it to the one that came after Russell Crowe rocketed to stardom:

Crowe was still a gangly youth when Australian author Miles Franklin's book My Brilliant Career became a film in 1979. Franklin wrote the book as a teenager, and it was published in 1901. The movie popped out of my memory after I'd finished up the brumby books and had the words "Australian" and "icon" etched in my mind.

My Brilliant Career was based on Franklin's life and is often referred to as "semi-autobiographical." It became wildly popular across Australia when it was published and remains a source of pride today. Franklin herself was a determined, strong person and an ardent feminist. The girl in her story rebels and fulminates against the repression of women and their role in Australian society.

Franklin followed up by writing My Career Goes Bung (published in the U.S. as "End of My Career"), in which the semi-autobiographical character endures post-publication trials involving having published My Brilliant Career. (My head spun a bit as it tried to keep this all straight: "OK, so the first book features a girl named Sybylla and tells her story, but the second  book is about Sybylla and none of what happened in the first book really happened to Sybylla, it was just a story that Sybylla made up and published and in this book she's dealing with the fallout.")

In real life, Franklin's second semi-autobiographical book was not well received by publishers, and so was not published until 1946. (She meets with one of the most damning rejection letters I've ever heard of: one editor who was an early champion of her work responds with a note that begins "You've made me jolly glad I didn't meet you...not even 200% would induce me to publish.")

I found Sybylla fascinating, but a bit tiresome at times, in the first book. I liked her quite a lot in the second one, though, in which she lets fly with some great insults, such as "You conceited lord of creation!" and "old frogabollow" and "feeble nauseating creepers" and "flap-eared weakling." (She tosses in a great word, too, that I haven't turned up anything on by googling: "There was no end to the annoyance caused by that feraboraceous book.")

Sybylla also recounts her wild experiences riding horses in this book. (My husband, in the first year of our relationship, accused me of planning vacations in such a way as to always include horses at every stop. But I cannot help it that horses somehow come to the fore in almost everything I pick up to read. The world truly does revolve around horses, you see.) Here is Sybylla/Miles on being an equestrienne:
"There was one great recreation open to me, even at Possum Gully, which was a sop to energy. I could ride. I could ride tremendously. I loved horses and seemed to become part of them. In the district were any number of good horses, most of them owned by bachelors. As one of these bachelors said, 'A lovely high-spirited girl is just the thing to top off a good horse.' All kinds of horses, from racing stallions to hunting mares, were brought to me with the owners included as escorts and the source of chocolates in wonderful boxes."
Franklin really did rampage on horseback as a girl in her actual life, not just her semi-autobiography. She grew up in a valley called Brindabella and started riding as an infant, recalling that "the rhythm of horses came to me earlier than walking." According to the introduction of one edition of My Brilliant Career, she was known throughout the valley as "a precociously fearless and accomplished rider."

She brought an equally fearless attitude to the rest of her life, going on to work as a nurse, travel and live in the United States, publish novels, speak out as a feminist, and endow a literary award that is still granted in Australia today.

I am pretty sure that, after reading the first five of the Silver Brumby books, I don't feel the need to devour the rest of that series, but I'm pretty eager to get my hands on Franklin's actual biography, a memoir of her first ten years called Childhood at Brindabella, as well as some of her other works. I wonder what snippet in them will then point the way to the next book or topic of interest, quite likely one that has absolutely nothing to do with Australia.