Saturday, September 11, 2010

A Little Bush Maid and The Billabong Series by Mary Grant Bruce

And now for something Australian!

A Little Bush Maid tells the story of a young girl, Norah Linton, who lives on a big cattle station (named Billabong) somewhere in rural Victoria in the early 1900s. Only eleven in this book, Norah is thrilled when her elder brother Jim comes home for the school holidays with his friends Wally and Harry. The holidays are filled with fun and adventure, and there's even the mystery of the hermit Norah finds living upriver to unravel.

A Little Bush Maid was a bestseller when it came out, and quickly led the way to a whole series, the Billabong books, which are:

* A Little Bush Maid (1910)
* Mates at Billabong (1912)
* Norah of Billabong (1913)
* From Billabong to London (1914)
* Jim and Wally (1915)
* Captain Jim (1916)
* Back to Billabong (1919)
* Billabong's Daughter (1924)
* Billabong Adventurers (1928)
* Bill of Billabong (1933)
* Billabong's Luck (1933)
* Wings Above Billabong (1935)
* Billabong Gold (1937)
* Son of Billabong (1939)
* Billabong Riders (1942)

The first three books are fun adventure stories about Norah growing older; in the next three (From Billabong to London, Jim and Wally, and Captain Jim) deal with World War I, and the Norah, Jim, and Wally trio get to foil some some German spies. From the dates of each book you can see that they were in fact written during the War.

In the next three books Norah, Jim, and Wally are all grown up and the tone of the books becomes slightly more mature. These three are my favourites, with plenty of adventure and romance as all three find love and settle down, and enough bushfires and opal thieves to keep you interested.

Bill of Billabong deals with the advent of Percival, a sulky boy who hates his name and also expects to hate his school holidays at Billabong. Percival--or Bill, as he prefers--never gets over his name, but he learns to love Billabong and becomes a regular main character from then on. The books go on to deal with the discovery of gold on a remote back paddock at Billabong, the development thereof and the resultant gold rush. Finally, in Billabong Riders, the whole cast goes droving.

The Billabong books are a staple of the children's section at any Australian library, especially rural libraries, and I and my siblings read and re-read them often. They are generally light in tone, and you might as well know that none of the main characters are ever going to to anything despicable or be described as anything but mature, capable, achingly chivalrous, and loads of fun to be around. It might not seem like the height of English literature, it might bother some people, and in fact it sometimes bothers me, but only because I'm jealous. I should like to be so noble, yet so funny and charming, that everyone instantly loves me.

Unfortunately, because Australians are not (alas) all as easy-going and live-and-let-live as the Lintons of Billabong, more recent readers have criticised the books--to quote Mary Grant Bruce's Wikipedia page:

Some of Bruce's earlier works are considered to have had offensive and dated content, particularly in regards to racial stereotypes of Australian Aborigines and Chinese and Irish immigrants, and her earlier belief in the theory of Social Darwinism. More recent reprints of the Billabong series have been edited to remove controversial material.

This footnote appears in the Afterword of all the Angus and Robertson Blue Gum Classics reprints (beginning with "A Little Bush Maid" reprinted in 1992). The Afterword is written by Barbara Ker Wilson.

Obviously the opinions of a hundred years ago are not the opinions of today, and in many ways we have moved forwards. But it's a crying shame that the reaction to those dated bits is to edit the books in paranoia for fear of offending someone. To be quite honest, I have read hundreds of books written in the nineteen-teens--this blog is devoted to them--and Mary Grant Bruce's attitudes appear to be rather fair for her day; minorities are occasionally patronised, but always respected as human beings.

But none of this should prevent you (or probably, at this stage, your kids) from reading and keenly enjoying these stories, chock full as they are of fun and adventure. Fortunately, many if not all of them are now in the public domain in their original and unabridged state. Go forth and read!

Gutenberg etexts
Librivox recordings


Jamie said...

I wanted a story set in each country my kids will study next year, and for Australia's story I chose A Little Bush Maid. I based my choice entirely on this blog post, and after reading the book for myself, I've decided to blame you...because now I want to collect the whole series (and my kids haven't even read it yet)!

Thank you! :)

Suzannah said...

Oh, I'm so glad you enjoyed it!


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