From Billabong to London by Mary Grant Bruce (London: Ward Lock, 1915)
About 320 pages with a few full page illustrations
Subjects: World War One, Australia, England, London, ships, family, junior fiction (Year 8-10)
I had to borrow this book from the Dorothy Neal White collection at the National Library, and it’s the earliest book that I’ve yet reviewed. It’s number 4 of the 15 books that make up the Billabong series; others include (1916 & 1919).
Billabong is the house and the station, 2 miles from the nearest road and 17 miles from the nearest town. No other home is visible, “only peaceful paddocks”. The main characters are gradually introduced, but readers of the series would already know them: David Linton, the widowed station owner, and his children Jim (19) and Norah (nearly 15); their friend Wally (17); Mrs Brown, the housekeeper; the station hands, and Black Billy, the “native boy”.
The first quarter of the book is taken up with station life: a tame wallaby, snakes, a bullock stuck in a swamp, breaking in a new colt, as shown on the cover. But two topics overshadow everyone’s thoughts: the drought, and the war in Europe. Many of the local young men have already signed up. Wally (who is still underage) and Jim are desperate to go as well. A fortuitous inheritance calls Mr Linton “Home” to deal with the paperwork in England, and the decision is made that they will all go – Jim and Wally, so they can sign up there, and Norah so she’s not left on her own.
By pg. 91, they are on board the Perseus in some degree of comfort, about to leave from Port Melbourne. Their 6-week journey takes them via Adelaide and across the Indian Ocean to Durban, Cape Town, then Las Palmas to arrive in Falmouth, Cornwall, from where they take a train to London. Ordinary shipboard pursuits such as deck quoits, boat drill, whale and porpoise spotting and listening to the Captain’s gramophone life are enlivened by the capture of a German spy (not really a spoiler as it’s so heavily foreshadowed), an alarming passage through the fog and their own capture by a German warship. Not surprisingly, they are rescued in time and make it to England safely.
This is a well-written story with lively dialogue and warm family relationships, but reading it 100 years after publication, it’s hard to overlook the book’s treatment of Aboriginal and black South African characters. The Zulus are viewed either as picturesque rickshaw-pullers, or as dangerous robbers. The Aboriginal people are dismissed as “useless, shifty, lazy” and “thieving”. Black Billy is ridiculed for his use of English, rather than admired for having learnt another language, and there is no acknowledgment of the original inhabitants of the land. The writing is of course a product of its time, but the attitudes jar today.
Here you can read a contemporary review from the Port Fairy Gazette of 15 October 1915, which compares Norah’s stories to that of Little Women in their widespread appeal.
About the author
Mary Grant Bruce (1878-1958) worked as a journalist after leaving school and started the Billabong stories as a newspaper serial; she became a best-selling and much loved Australian children’s author. In WW2 she wrote patriotic talks and sold her autographs at charity auctions for the war effort.
Here’s my favourite part of her bio from the official website: “Mary began writing when she was six and, from age 16, she entered and won the annual examinations of the Melbourne Shakespeare Society three times in a row whilst still a schoolgirl.”
You can read more about her here in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, which says that she was known as Minnie but “Mary” was thought to be a “more marketable” name. It also points out that “Australians, and not only children, looking at Billabong, could see themselves as they wanted to be – mates in fortune and adversity, sturdy, decent and fearless inheritors of a tough, but rewarding land.”
About the illustrator
The Port Fairy Gazette review above credits them to Fred Leist, “an Australian artist now in London”.
Other books you might like:
The Belgian twins by Lucy Fitch Perkins (1917) and Rilla of Ingleside by L.M. Montgomery (1921) are two other books written during or just after WW1.
New Zealand connections:
Does NZ get a mention? Possibly not – anyway, I didn’t spot any!
Have you read it?
Have you read this book? Let me know what you think!