"Up the Country."
The modest title of the book is confirmed by the preface, where the author says that "if only half a dozen genuine old pioneers commend the verisimilitude of their story as here writ down I shall be rewarded extravagantly in excess of my desserts." Brent of Bin Bin surely has his reward. Old pioneers, both in his own lovely district, "where the winds and the streams are made," and in all places like it by aspect and history, will surely say he has achieved "verisimilitude." More than that, he has achieved something like ecstasy, a communicable delight in fine memories.
The book could be called, like some old-fashioned romances, by the names of its chief families. "The Pooles and the Mazeres, or Laughter and Tears" (such books always had a sub-title). But, no, I am wrong in suggesting that "Up the Country" is an old-fashioned book, with its characters seen as if through the wrong end of a tele- scope. Its characters may wear crinolines, but their hearts and speech are young, contemporary. Here is some of their talk:
"You've mourned long enough for poor Emily now. You oughtn't to waste your life any longer. It's a pity for you to be an old bachelor when you see the kind of husbands many women have to put up with."
"That's all very fine, but who'd I marry? I can't go mashing after one of those little squeaking girls that I see about."
That very modern horror of flappers! The second speaker was the hero of the book, Bert Poole. A glorious figure of a bushman, from boyhood to middle age, capable, alert in all his senses, the mainstay of the country-side, Bert Poole was adored by every one of the girls (little squeaking ones and older), and imitated by all the men. If Brent of Bin Bin had done nothing but render the personality of Bert Poole, and make it credible, his book would have been worth writing. But such a man is incomplete without his environment, and that is given, too, his environment, human and physical.
There is a rather new branch of science called "ecology." It must have existed long years ago without being defined: it was the basis of every bushman's power. An English scientist described ecology recently in this way:
An ecologlst is a field-naturalist, who concentrates attention on the relations between one species and another, on their reactions to their environment, on their numbers, birth rates, death rates, and movements. He has to know a little of everything. When an ecologlst says, "There goes a badger," he should include in his thoughts some definite idea of the animal's place in the community to which it belongs, just as if he had said, "There goes the vicar!"
So much for ecology in general. Now let us see what the ecology of Bert Poole and his friends amounted to:
Every nook of Eagle Hawk Gullies was familiar to them, it having been their playground ever since they bestrode a horse. They were not to be deceived by any beast or bird that ran, flew, swam, crawled, or burrowed in its environs. Brands were a superfluous means of identification: one glance at a cow or colt and they could make an affidavit as to its dam or sire on points.
Or again, of Bert himself:
He could glance at a forest giant and tell which way it would fall to his axe, and how many slabs it would yield to fashion his habitation. ... He could canter over a stretch of country and estimate how many acres it contained, and how many beasts it would graze. . . . There wasn't a beast from the Upper Murray to the Murrumbidgee that he didn't know by the cut of its jib, and no bird could call to its mate, nor outline its wing on the sky at dusk or dawn, without his reading it like the alphabet.
Not an ecology quite satisfying to the pure scientist, perhaps, but something much nearer to it than that of the average specialist, for the bushman had to "know a little of everything"; often he knew a great deal.
A Book of Adventures.
Being a chronicle of two families and their more significant neighbours, the book's high lights shine on those events that would be most inevitable to whole clans. It opens on the waters of the Great Flood, when brave, charming Mrs. Mazere insisted on crossing the river to help a sick woman. Bert Poole and a young mate rowed her over; strong men stood on the banks imploring her not to take such a risk. She won through quietly, and her consistent courage has been part of the district legends ever since. Another high light shone on an attack by bushrangers, in which Bert Poole, at first misunderstood, then glorified, came out very strong indeed. Then there was the tragedy of lovely Emily Mazere, drowned in her golden youth, a blow for the whole district. These events bind the district-life together, but the background is even more strongly drawn. There is the account of the rival clergymen when they first came to the district. Kind Mrs. Brennan was ill when the priest was to come, so Mrs Mazere, an Anglican, threw open the Mazere homestead of Three Rivers, and every one came to the service. Mrs. Brennan sobbed with joy, saying to her husband:
"There niver was nor could be such a woman agin as my dear Rachel Mazere. Now, ye listen to me, Timmy bhoy, whin next her heretic bishop comes to the district he spinds a noight in all honour at Brennan's Gap..."
She had to wait years, but it is part of the history of Bool Bool that the bishop was nearly smothered in the Brennan's goose-down bed, the only one of its succulent floculent proportions up the country. Thereafter it became customary for the chief of the Church of England when he came to spend a night in great state at Brennan's Gap, and for his colleagues to return the courtesy at Three Rivers.
"Up the Country" is a book of homesteads, huge, growing places with as many inhabitants, year in year out, as one of the country houses in Tolstoy's books. But there were no peasants:-
When war, gold rushes, or over-speculation affected the price of stock or wool, the squatters would be flush of money, or strapped for it, according to the swing of the pendulum. But they always had plenty of blood-horses to ride, prime beef to eat, fruit, eggs, cheese, butter, and vegetables, and were able to do their own work if put to it, whether building a new habit or habitation.
It seems necessary to quote at some length like this to show the racy idiom that pervades the book, alternating, unfortunately, with some heavy journalese now and then. "Flush of money or strapped for it" -- that runs very well; such phrases have been lived with.
Finally, it may be mentioned that, as "Bool Bool" is an old settlement in the Mother State, its frontier district is Queensland, whose gold rush takes in its wake many undesirables. So that was Queensland's function then! She has outlived it.
First published in The Brisbane Courier, 2 March 1929
Note: it was not until the 1950s that the author of this, and subsequent novels, was identified as none other than Miles Franklin.
[Thanks to the National Library of Australia's newspaper digitisation project for this piece.]