This might be my favourite book read for this challenge. In the Australian idiom, a shiralee is a swag or a burden. Macauley was a swagman who walked around the backroads of western New South Wales, who suddenly found himself encumbered with his small four year old daughter on the road. She started out as his Shiralee, but became much more.
The author of the book, D’Arcy Niland, grew up in Glen Innes, in NSW. His father was a cooper and wool classer. Following a brief stint as a reporter, the Great Depression saw D’Arcy travelling the countryside turning his hand to a variety of jobs: farm labourer, opal miner, circus hand, potato digger, and shearing shed rouseabout. Niland had an intimate knowledge of the lifestyle that Macauley, too, led.
Later, when Niland married renowned author Ruth Park, they travelled over many parts of western NSW, too. They had 5 children. Their youngest, twins, Deborah and Kilmeny Niland wrote and illustrated children’s book. I loved Mulga Bill’s Bicycle, and When the Wind Changed, with my own children.
D’Arcy Niland died tragically young at 49 from a heart conditions. His wife wrote two books which were autobiographical of her childhood in New Zealand their lives together respectively: A Fence around the Cookoo (1992); and Fishing in the Styx (1993).
Some of the towns and place names mentioned in the book are:
Coonamble; the banks of the Castlereagh; Gilgandra; Dunedoo; Guyra; Dorrigo; Ulmarra; Collarenabri; ”walking across the Gallatherha Plains in the black soil country; Walgett; Potaroo, Moree; the Barwon (river); the Murrumbidgee (river).
A lot of the idiom and thinking used by Macauley is iconically Australian. For example:
No rain at the right time, too much at the wrong. Macauley forced the door shut. He ate a meal out of a tin with bread and butter. He drank the lukewarm tea. He made up his bed and lay on it. He wished the tick were filled with gumleaves. There was nothing better. Straw had a stink, and it broke up and the fluff irritated your nose.
There was a notice on the wall from last year; it was scribbled in pencil and headed up: Craphouse Duties. It gave a list of men’s names and their rostered days. It ended up with the injunction in snaggled capitals: Kangarooing it Not Allowed. And in smaller letters: Remember others have to sit where you shat. The notice was signed by the shearers’ rep. Chalked on a weatherboard slab at the far end of the room was an inscription: Fang Davis shore here in ’37. Underneath it was a postscript added by some other hand: Yes, the moaning bastard.
he was surprised that the old man, too, had seen Buster as a burden to him: a swag to be taken, and often carried, wherever he went.
all she had to do was keep an eye on the billycan and tell them when it was boiling.
This was the man Macauley wanted, this hit-run driver, the dingo of the highway.
From her I found this out: to live is not easy and often by the time a man has learnt how to live his life is over. She had a home with me. It wasn’t much, but she didn’t grumble. She put the hobbles on me. She had a rope round my neck and she wouldn’t let go. I didn’t have to be frightened of her getting away from me. She was frightened of me getting away from her.
Beautiful use of complex English:
He found the sulky among a sargasso of derelicts in the blacksmith’s yard. (Sargasso – banks of tropical seaweed)
All that flightiness was gone, and the cultured guyver. (affected speech)
He told him of the stories the river had told him: of the drover’s horse that whickered in the moonlight, galloping along the river bed, under the surging waters that played music in its nostrils and teased out its tail like a golden bush.
The black earth was a lurry (a confused jumble) of cracks.
I get to give you the best that money can buy buckshee. (free).
I think this book will stay with me always, a deeply rewarding read. I would love to see the two film versions of the story: the 1957 movie starring Peter Finch as Macauley and the 1987 mini-series starring Bryan Brown as Macauley.