Monday, December 4, 2017

Walkabout, by James Vance Marshall

This review contains spoilers, although the nature of the story gives most of them away early. Let the reader beware.

Walkabout is not a complicated book, on the surface. It is written sparsely, a lean adventure story that a 10-year-old could read and (mostly) love. And even below the surface, the subtext is not especially subtle or hard to tease out--the wilderness, whether the American West or the Outback, as here, has long been peopled in fiction by characters exploring who they really are beneath the facile trappings of civilization. Walkabout makes this explicit early on:
In them, the primative had long ago been swept aside, been submerged by mechanization, been swamped by scientific development, been nullified by the standardized pattern of the white man's way of life. They had climbed a long way up the ladder of progress: they had climbed so far, in fact, they had forgotten where the climb had started... the realities of life were something they'd never have to face.
And this is driven home even more by our protagonists, all children. There are, in fact, no significant adults in the entire book until the tail end. Mary and Peter, 14 and 8, don't even have to become yuppies to lose touch with their primitive/real nature. All it takes is a plane crash in the Australian desert to expose their vulnerability in the "real world". Looking for food and water and only days from death, Mary and Peter meet a young aboriginal, never named, who helps them survive and acts as their guide toward civilization. The boy is on "walkabout", a ceremony--which Vance may have invented--in which a young boy must brave the wilderness alone to become a man in primitive cultures.

This trio's relationships form the core of the book, and bring about the thornier things that come with a book starring an aboriginal written in the 50s. There's plenty of noble savage stuff, of course, lots of casual racism--but there's a core of humanity and simplicity that keeps it from ever tipping over into truly offensive territory. This is largely a function of the story's mode: it reads more like a fable or an extended parable than a realist novel, which the ending makes a little more explicit. It could even be taken a sort of off-kilter utopia, with the boy leading the way.

But of course there is conflict, and much of it comes from Mary and Peter's differing reactions to the boy. Where Peter is immediately onboard with their guide--they bond early, over a sneeze--Mary is offended by the boy's nudity and lack of shame. Prim and civil, she reluctantly follows him, gradually growing more and more apprehensive as Peter starts to shed his apprehensions (and his clothes). But, this story being what it is, there is a crisis moment that pulls Mary out of "civilization"--a common cold, transmitted from Peter to the boy (MAJOR SPOILERS FOLLOW) that eventually kills the boy. Some of the loveliest writing is in this section, as well as some of the heaviest symbolism. Mary, afraid the boy will die and go to Hell, is moved with compassion to baptize him:
She sat down. Stunned. Then very gradually she laid the bush boy's head on to her lap; very softly she began to run her fingers across his forehead.
The bush boy's eves flickered open; for a moment, they were puzzled; then they smiled.
It was his smile that broke Mary's heart: that last forgiving smile. Before, she had seen as through a glass darkly, but now she saw face to face. And in that moment of truth all her inbred fears and inhibitions were sponged away, and she saw that the world which she had thought was split in two was one.
He dies in her lap, described to sound like a pieta, cementing that no, this isn't particularly subtle stuff but yes, it still packs a bit of a punch. The end of the book is a slow comedown and a gentle ambiguity--but this is the heart of the thing.

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