Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Summer Reading: Walkabout

They came to the humble bushes first, the twitching, quivering leaves
tumbling to the sand as they approached. Then came the straw-like mellowbane,
and growing amongst them grass of a very different kind--sturdy reed-thick
grass, each blade tipped with a black, bean-shaped nodule: rustling death rattle, astir
in the sunset wind. (Walkabout, page 56.)

Nearly eleven years ago now, I made the move from teaching eighth grade in the middle school down (physically to a lower floor) to the high school. Currently, I teach five sections of eleventh grade English, and having concluded all of my assigned summer reading books, am on to other reading. Last week I once again came across a title I'd salvaged from the school's discard pile many moons ago, Walkabout (1959) by James Vance Marshall. My recovered copy is in near pristine condition, having not (if ever) been read by students, it's internal coding (86-1) revealing that the school acquired the book in 1986.

My familiarity with the novel comes from prior numerous viewings of the 1971 film adaptation by the same name directed by Nicolas Roeg that it eventually spawned. The movie version of Walkabout has since become a personal favorite that I enjoy watching annually. Given the film's mature subtext, subtle nudity, and themes, I was very surprised to find it in a middle school book room. With the political climate in some schools, I would be surprised to find it in the stacks of more conservative high school libraries, let alone on some approved reading list

Marshall's Walkabout is much more of a traditional young adult survival novel than the film, though a number of the coming-of-age themes explored with greater depth in the film are present. The basic plot elements are the same: two children get lost in the Australian Outback and are helped by an Aborigine on his walkabout. The specifics, such as how the two find themselves in that predicament, as well as their nationalities, among other things, however, result in two very different narrative experiences. Just a few are considered in the quick table below:

The brief excerpt at the top of this post is illustrative of Marshall's vivid and poetic descriptions of the Australian outback; a necessity when the setting is itself a significant character. Though a survival story, the environment is presented less as overtly hostile and more as an aggressively nurturing co-facilitator of experience. Even once they are joined by the "bush boy," Peter and Mary embrace the beauty of their prison even as they search for a way home. The direction Walkabout's plot takes also marks it as an unusual reading choice for middle-schoolers. Unlike other adventure survival reads, The Cay by Theodore Taylor comes to mind, Marshall offers little clear resolution to the subtle internal turmoil between Mary and the boy; no satisfying bridge is built across the cultural divide. As an adult reader, however, one is likely more well-equipped by experience to see some connections being drawn.

The novel Walkabout by James Vance Marshall is a breezy read at a tightly written 158 pages. A descriptive writing style and carefully researched cultural information about the fascinating Aboriginal people make this an easy novel to recommend. I also highly recommend Nicolas Roeg's 1971 film of the same name for a very different, and decidedly more mature, exploration of some themes only touched upon in the book.

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