When NYRB Classics announced they were releasing an edition of Walkabout (1959), I discovered one of my favorite films — Nicolas Roeg’s distressing 1971 film Walkabout — was based on a book, and I’d no idea. In April, the Goodreads NYRB Classics group (which you can join here) read the book together. If you’ve seen the film, then you know that I was wary going into the first chapter. As it turned out, the book is quite different from the film, which made reading it a unique experience rather than just a different version of the same story.
I’ll bring up one difference right away. When the book begins, we find our two young protagonists, Mary and Peter, walking away from a plane crash in the vastness of Northern Australia. See? Quite a different situation than the one we find as the film opens. Not nearly as disturbing, in my mind, and, if you go in with preconceptions (like me), this should quickly strike them down. This, you see, is a kind of children’s book.
It was silent and dark, and the children were afraid. They huddled together, their backs to an outcrop of rock. Far below them, in the bed of the gully, a little stream flowed inland — soon to peter out in the vastness of the Australian desert. Above them the walls of the gully climbed smoothly to a moonless sky.
The little boy nestled more closely against his sister. He was trembling.
She felt for his hand, and held it, very tightly.
‘All right, Peter,’ she whispered. ‘I’m here.’
She felt the tension ebb slowly out of him, the trembling die gradually away. When a boy is only eight a big sister of thirteen can be wonderfully comforting.
May and Peter are from South Carolina, and they came to Australia to visit their uncle. They are completely unprepared for any kind of trek through the wilderness. It’s only a matter of time before they die. Whether the animals attack while they sleep exposed, whether they cannot find food and water, or whether exhaustion kicks in and they simply fall down in the sun, there is simply no way these two lost children can survive alone.
They are shocked — and Mary is alarmed — when not long into their wanderings, though long enough that Mary knew they would not survive much longer, they run into a young Aboriginal boy who is out on his walkabout, a rite of passage. At first he thinks nothing much of the two children and goes to leave. He realizes quickly, though, that he is their only hope, and he tries his hardest to get them to safety.
The book takes a few different tracks at that point. One is a nice adventure story as the three children work to survive. Another deals with Peter’s relationship with the unnamed Aboriginal boy (whom Peter calls “Darkie” throughout). Another deals with Mary’s maternal instinct, her impressions to care for Peter. An important track is the culture clash, particularly as Mary tries to preserve her preconceptions in this harsh new environment with a naked black boy.
The darkest track, though, and the most interesting to me, is a death haunted track as the Aborigine interacts with Mary. Mary is terrified, and not just because she is likely to die: she thinks there’s something demonic in the Aboriginal boy, brought on in large part from the institutional racism she grew up with. She watches with quiet desperation as Peter becomes closer to the boy, following him more than he follows Mary. Yet Mary knows that the boy is their real hope.
I don’t want to go much further because the story’s darkest moment is one that is also meant to be light, and I do not want to give it away. Suffice it to say that James Vance Marshall is drawing a clear Christian allegory, and Mary is looking through a glass darkly. It’s about her spiritual survival as much as it is about her physical survival, and each come at the unlikely hands of an Aboriginal boy.
It’s not as strong as the movie (or maybe it’s just that I find art that distresses me “stronger” than art that comforts me), but it is definitely worth reading.