The Shiralee - D'Arcy Niland

The Shiralee tells the story of the itinerant rural worker Macauley - sometimes described as a 'swagman' or 'swaggie' - who suddenly finds himself taking responsibility for his child. Having returned from 'walkabout', he finds his wife entwined in the arms of another, and so he takes his four-year-old daughter, Buster, with him. The child is the 'shiralee', an Aboriginal word meaning 'burden'. In their time together, father and daughter explore new depths of understanding and bonding. The barren landscapes of the outback are central to the swagman's love for his country and provide a backdrop to the richness of his developing relationship with Buster.

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Macauley has always had a reputation for being a bit of a ramblin' man, the rough & tumble drifter type, traveling all over New South Wales, going wherever the jobs are. Now 35, he still struggles to stay in one place any serious length of time but now has the added complication of having his daughter with him, his "shiralee". Shiralee being an Aboriginal word translating to "burden", Macauley's 5 year old daughter, who just goes by the name of Buster, is the result of a brief marriage that ended the night Macauley came home to find his wife in bed with another man. This moment, combined with numerous scenes hinting at maternal neglect, Macauley decides Buster is better off on the road with him than being left with a flighty, disinterested mother.

 

Macauley takes Buster through some sketchy areas, providing for her the best he can. He tries to clean up his act as well but still finds himself in the occasional scrap in the pubs. Macauley can also sometimes come off as harsh in the way he talks to Buster, but through his inner thoughts the reader sees he really does care about her deeply, and his decisions are always with her best interests in mind... even when that means sacrificing some of his own needs or interests. This becomes especially evident whenever Macauley (through his inner monologues, nothing said aloud in front of his daughter) mentions his dire need for sexual release. Yes, our protagonist is quite hard up for some lady friend interactions. Like, REALLY pent up. But he does his best to push that carnal business back, because how's that going to work with a 5 year old as your shadow and no immediate babysitter handy most nights? Besides, Macauley wants to be a gentleman about it whenever a good opportunity DOES come along. 

 

I liked Macauley for this :-) He has a wanderer's spirit, he may curse and drink more than some might like..  but he's also a gentleman when it comes to right and wrong. He may have not ever planned on being a father, but he accepts that whatever he thought his plans were, the reality is that he IS a father. He slept with a woman, she got pregnant, and he takes full responsibility for that and does his best to give his daughter a good life with his meager resources. He has moments of doubts about his fathering but reasons that at least he loves her, and that has to count for something when put up against the alternative (giving her up to someone else who may not). 

 

A man like you, said Tommy Goorianawa, he either dies quick with a knife in his gizzard or he lives to be a hundred.

 

Macauley was startled only for a moment. 

 

Which is it for me?

 

I don't know. I'd tell you if I did. But I'll say this. You're a man, every inch of you, and there's a lot of good in you, but it's buried deep and it's twisted. It's like a wild animal that needs to be coaxed into the light and tamed; an animal that does not come willingly because it is frightened for itself. It will have its challengers and will rise in you like a secret. Try and not smother it. It's the stars and wild wind for you, and the roads that tie the towns together, all right, but I'll say this -- watch out for big trouble. Don't lead two lives or both will be unhappy; lead one and lead it well. And don't be too hard on them weaker than you. That's all I can tell you.

 

Niland is honestly not a bad writer. The guy could definitely turn a phrase when he was feeling inspired. I like the usage of "from head to hocks" instead of "from head to toe" or the use of "koala headed bastard" when Macaulay is referencing the guy who slept with his wife LOL. The one knock I would give this story, as far as the actual writing, is Niland's tendency to write a number of his female in a rather caricature-like way. There were some likeable female characters who had a believability and realness to their personalities, but the majority of the ladies Macauley interacts with seem to either be described with emphasis put on their physical attributes or sexual nature OR they were ridiculously, highly emotional -- either raging or crying, appearing to be incapable of just normal speech in a situation-appropriate tone of voice. 

 

The other knocks I gave this one had to do with the plot itself. While I liked the bond between Macauley and Buster, and there are some pretty comedic moments throughout the novel, I felt myself getting periodically bored with the pace. I felt like too much of the story ended up being in Macauley's head. Some readers love that sort of thing but it made me restless, just wanting the story to get on with things already! I was also bothered by the subtle racism that sometimes peeked through Macaulay's thoughts and dialogue, especially against black women. One of the most bothersome scenes for me was after he has a dalliance with a black prostitute but once the deed is done he is quick to kick her out, even as it's clear his behavior is visibly hurting her feelings. I was disappointed that this -- when he had shown signs of being a gentleman so many times earlier in the story -- THIS moment is when Macauley decides to go cold, even thinking the thought, "had to settle for black velvet when I couldn't get white satin." OMG MACAULEY! WTF!

 

I understand this is considered an Australian classic, but it had its problematic points for me. Still, I wouldn't turn my nose up at trying some of Niland's other works in the future, because the man did something nice about the way he put words together.

 

** I originally became interested in reading this book a few years back when I happened to see the film adaptation of this book starring Bryan Brown -- yeah, just now getting to the book, I know. Personally, I would recommend the film over the book. It stays pretty true to the book and keeps in the heartwarming bits while editing out the more unsavory or boring parts. 

 

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EXTRAS

 

D'Arcy (pronounced DUH AR SEE) Niland (his birth name Darcy Francis Niland) was an Australian author born in 1917, the eldest of six children. Niland had dreams of a professional writing career from an early age. His first job was that of a copy-boy for an Australian newspaper, with the hopes of one day being bumped up to a reporter position. When that job didn't pan out, he spent some years traveling about from job to job as he found them, his employment being as varied as opal miner, sheep shearer, railway porter and circus employee. It wasn't until 1942, after marrying New Zealand journalist Rosina Park, that he took up his writing aspirations again. With the encouragement and support of his wife, Niland once again dedicated himself to the written word and in time began to win awards for some of his short story collections. He achieved international success in 1955 with the publication of The Shiralee and went on to write more novels, short stories and radio productions before passing away in 1966 at the age of 49 from a chronic heart condition. Niland's twin daughters, Kilmeny & Deborah, grew up to become successful book illustrators. Kilmeny passed away in 2009 from non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma. 

 

You can read an interview done with Deborah discussing the works of her parents here.