"In Poor Fellow My Country, Xavier Herbert has returned to that region made peculiarly his own in Capricornia, Northern Australia. Ranging over a period of some six years, the story is set during the late 1930s and early 1940s; but it is not so much a tale of this period as Herbert's analysis (and indictment) of the steps by which we came to the Australia of today. Capturing the Spirit Of The Land, Herbert has paralleled an intimate personal narrative with a tale of approaching war.
"Prindy, the young quarter-caste Aborigine identifies with Bob Wirridirridi the witch-doctor and the Rainbow Snake Cult. He grows from adolescence to manhood through a series of events, some of which are hilariously comic and others tragically violent, but he does not lose sight of his final goal: that of initiation into full manhood in the Cult of the Rainbow Snake. His natural grandfather Jeremy Delacy, The Scrub Bull, infuriates people with his attitudes, especially that of his apparent lack of interest in influencing Prindy. At times he is harsh and brutal, but he is also shown to love with rare compassion. Rifkah, the Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, who eventually identifies with the Aborigines and becomes Prindy's tribal mother, is brought into conflict with Aelfreda Candlemas the reformer and writer who tries to make a superman of Jeremy and in her failure turns from scorching love to violent rejection.
"These characters, together with a host of others drawn from Herbert's large cast will undoubtedly become great portraits in Australian fiction. However, it is not only the people who make this story live; the author has painted a living scene of Northern Australia. The dust and flies, the rain and floods are a vivid reality to the reader, who is swept along in a torrent of writing which sustains itself through the entire length of this incredible epic.
"This book is the decisive story of how in those vital years, Australia threw away her chance of becoming a true commonwealth. The dream of Australia Felix, The Happy South Land. The book will long remain in the memory and is undoubtedly Herbert's supreme contribution to Australian literature."
The small boy was Aboriginal - distinctly so by cast of countenance, while yet so lightly coloured as to pass for any light-skinned breed, even tanned Caucasian. His skin was cream-caramel, with a hair-sheen of gold. There was also the glint of gold in his tow-tawny mop of curls. Then his eyes were grey - with a curious intensity of expression probably due to their being set in cavernous Australoid orbits where one would expect to see dark glinting as of shaded water. His nose, fleshed and curved in the mould of his savage ancestry, at the same time was given just enough beakiness of the other side to make it a thing of perfection. Likewise his lips. Surely a beautiful creature to any eye but the most prejudiced in the mater of race. Indeed, but for knowing the depth and breadth of prejudice against the very strain that gave him perfection, one might well be amazed to know that such a thing could stand up to the sight of him. Yet most people, at least of this remote northern part of the Australian Continent, would dismiss him as just a boong. He was aged about eight.
From the Book Club Associates hardback edition, 1975.
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Last modified: September 25, 2001.