Walkabout by James Vance Marshall
Walkabout is a novel by James Vance Marshall. It follows the life of two white American children and their survival in the Australian outback. It shows how two different cultures come together and how their beliefs change. The American children, Mary and Peter, have grown up around formal education and wealth, with luxuries at the tip of their fingers. Living in a technologically advanced country they have had many advantages. These however, mean nothing on the middle of the Australian outback. They have been brought up to believe black people inferior to themselves.
So when they find themselves alone in the Australian outback with not much to eat, they find themselves ill equipped. Whereas the aborigine boy has grown up in a native environment with no formal education. His life is simple with no worries, there is only one major worry that his people think about and that is death. In his culture they believe that when a boy comes of age they must go on a mission called walkabout. A six mouth walk across the Australian outback, where they have to care for themselves and hunt for their food. He had never seen white people because the white people lived in urban countries and towns and not the outback.
So when the boy finds himself in front of two white children, he’s horrified but kind and sacrifices his walkabout to save the lives of the two children. The children and the bush boy can’t communicate or understand each other, only simple hand signals. So when events happen that would not have been important, they get misunderstood which leads to tragic consequences. When they first meet, Mary was shocked and horrified by this naked black boy stood in front of her, so she decides to stare him out, but the bush boy is not in a rush so stares back.
‘The desert sun streamed down. The children stared and stared. Mary does not like the bush boy as he is black and naked so does not move and stares thinking it will scare him and he will leave but he does not. Then suddenly Peter sneezes witch shocks the bush boy and makes him laugh which Peter joins in with him. ‘It was a mighty sneeze for such a little fellow ……. A gust of laughter: unrestrained: disproportionate: uncontrolled. ‘ This shows that Peter and the bush boy automatically found a common ground between them. This first meeting is all about first impressions; Mary’s impression of the bush boy is that he is rude, disgusting and completely unbelievable.
Peter is not bothered by the boys’ nakedness and thinks of him as a funny person. The bush boy was amazed, he thought the white skin was powder and tried to rub it off, but when it did not he was stunned, he knew that they were harmless and he was confused on what they were wearing as he had never seen clothes so felt and examined them. ‘The bush boy’s dark tapering fingers plucked gently at his shirt, following the line of the seams. ‘ The bush boy liked Peter as he made him laugh but wasn’t to sure on Mary. Mary’s patronising attitude to the bush boy shows little sign of changing.
She thinks of him as a disgusting boy who lacks civilised manners. This is made worse by the fact that he is black and, in her eyes, inferior ‘The idea of being manhandled by a naked black boy appalled her. ‘ Unfortunately for Mary in order to survive they are reliant on his help for he is familiar with the environment. Peter shows a higher level of understanding and a greater willingness to befriend the aborigine boy; ‘That’s it, darkie. You’ve got it. Arkoolooya. That’s the stuff we want. And food too. You sabby food? Foo-ood foo-ood. ‘
Her lack of comparison and understanding eventually have tragic consequences. Mary thinks that she has had a stroke of genius! She will clothe him just like a missionary. She feels kind and charitable but doesn’t understand how misguided she is; ‘Missionaries, she knew, were people who put black boys into trousers. ‘ He thinks that Mary has seen the spirit of death in his eyes, so feels he is doomed to die. Whilst the western world has scientific explanations for things his culture believes in the power of the spirit world. If death has come to claim him there is nothing he can do.
For the lubra had looked into his eyes and seen the spirit of death. ‘ His death therefore becomes inevitable but what is nearly moving in his attitude towards the ‘lubra’ and her brother. He knows that, without his help they, too, are destined to die. He must save them. ‘So there’d be not one victim for the spirit of death but three. ‘ Dying slowing but surely the aborigine boy’s life is slipping away. His moment of death is hugely symbolic for he dies under the weeping mugga-wood tree. ‘The mugga-wood, to the aboriginals, is the tree of sorrow, symbol of the broken heart;’
Mary finally shows the understanding and compassion previously lacking for she strokes the aborigine boys head and comforts him in his dying moments. At this point the mood of the novel changes; a feeling of darkness and depression casts its shadow over the children. Even Peter becomes aware of the changes: ‘Afraid, his recently acquired confidence quite drained away, he reached for his sister’s hand. Then, unexpectedly, he started to cry’ The death of the boy is almost haunting for he does nothing to fight this ‘spirit’. ‘….. assively waiting; wondering, as he stared across the moonlit valley, how and when the spirit of death would come to claim him. ‘
Even though the bush boy knows he’s about to die he carries on and helps the children to safety. This gives the reader an insight into his warm and generous nature. This is particularly poignant when considering Mary’s lack of understanding in her dealings with him. He decides that before the spirit of death claims him ‘he sets a fast pace. ‘ Moreover, a strong bond seems to develop between Peter and the Aborigine boy; And strangely enough the Aboriginal seemed to be understanding – and answering – his questions. ‘
Peter, despite his youth, shows a deep understanding of culture and how to adapt; ‘Peter had decided to learn the black boy’s language – it would be far more useful than the French his sister was always boasting about. ‘ His death becomes inevitable for he seems to love the will to live. Yet with quiet determination he helps the naive children and equips them with the skills to survive. ‘When he died, they would die too. That was certain, for they were such helpless creatures.
So there’d be not one victim for the spirit of death but three. Unless he could somehow save them? ‘ The moment of death is dealt with quietly and compassionately. ‘He died in the false dawn: peacefully and without struggle: in the hour when the desert is specially still and light is specially clear. ‘ In his moment of death, and because of it, the two cultures are finally united and Mary’s inbuilt prejudices are dispelled. ‘But in the same moment that she said it, suddenly and unexpectedly, she believed it. More than believed it. Knew it. Knew that heaven, like earth was one. ‘
What is particularly poignant is that in his moment of death he has the generosity of spirit to forgive Mary ‘it was the smile that broke Mary’s heart. ‘ Mary completes her own Walkabout for after his death she accepts the environment and even embraces it. ‘And as the piccaninny cemented friendship between white girl and black, so the warrigal – the dingo pup – served as a link between man and boy. ‘ James Vance Marshall has effectively sent a message which is still relevant today. Everyone is not the same – but we are all equally valuable and are adapted to suit our own environment.