Firstly, if you haven’t seen Shirley Barrett’s film, Love Serenade, stop everything and see it. It is truly one of the best Australian films. Best. Ever.
If you appreciate the humour in Love Serenade, I’m quite certain you’ll love Barrett’s novel, Rush Oh!.
Rush Oh! tells the story of Mary Davidson, the eldest daughter of a prominent whaling family living in Eden on the rugged south coast of New South Wales. Mary narrates her family’s tumultuous experiences during 1908, a year that brings a tough whaling season (and ultimately the decline of the whaling industry in Eden), as well as drama off the seas.
“I imagine the prospect of having to go out in all weather and row back and forth across the bay in endless pursuit of enraged leviathans must have seemed exceedingly grim…”
I was thrown by the fact that a story about the gruesome, cruel practice of whaling can also be so charming and funny. Equally, I was not expecting to come across a heroine in Mary of the Jo March variety.
Rush Oh! is compelling on many levels. Although the story is told by Mary, it belongs to the whales and in particular the pod of ‘Killers’ that live in Twofold Bay. The Killers are in fact Orcas (who the Aboriginal crew members greet as reincarnated ancestors), and amazingly they herd Humpback and Sperm whales into the Bay where the whalers and their harpoons await. The cooperation between the whalers and the Killers is drawn straight from Eden’s whaling history, but Barrett gives new perspective on the true facts with sketches, newspaper clippings and glorious descriptions of the individual Killer ‘personalities’, in particular, the leader of the pod, Tom –
“There was no more welcome sound than the resounding smack! as Tom’s mighty tail crashed down upon the water. The men would cry, ‘Rush oh!’ and run to the whaleboats. Once the boats were put out, Tom (an impatient fish by nature) would lead them directly to the spot where his chums had corralled the whale.”
Tom is wilful but frolicsome, and Barrett makes much of his shenanigans (for example, the superb aside on why Canberra was chosen as the capital of Australia instead of Eden). Of the great baleens making their way past Twofold Bay, Mary says they’re no match for the Killers –
“It is necessary sometimes to remind oneself that these passing whales are undertaking an epic journey of many thousands of miles, for in fact they seem to dawdle and meander in the manner of recalcitrant schoolboys on their way to school; if there was a bottle, they would kick it. It is truly a wonder that they ever get anywhere.”
Left motherless, Mary is in charge of caring for her younger siblings and cooking for the whalers. Times are tough and supplies are limited, so Mary makes do with mutton, bandicoot and a gruesome piece of salted beef that she rids of larder beetles before serving. While domestic duties dominate her time, winning the affections of mysterious new crew member, John Beck, occupies her mind –
“I may not have yet mentioned that our visitor was remarkably handsome, and whalers as a rule were not celebrated for their good looks.”
Barrett creates an exceptional character in Mary – she is practical, yet not immune to dreaming; she is naive in matters of the heart but, as the story progresses, you realise that her understanding of the world and what is just, is far deeper than you first assume. But it is in Mary’s sharp wit and unapologetic insights that Barrett elevates this character from good to truly outstanding.
I loved the handful of scenes where Mary admits her (sometimes extremely petty) grudging of others –
“Her hair was a pale straw yellow colour, her features dainty and her figure slender, with an overall effect which many found pleasing. (I myself value qualities such as kindness and consideration for others above mere symmetry of form; however, it seems I am out of step with public taste in this regard.)”
Historical fiction truly succeeds if it has me searching the interwebs for more and I was astonished to discover that much of Rush Oh! is based on fact – Tom and the Killers existed, George ‘Fearless’ Davidson existed (although Mary is fictitious), and the landmarks that Barrett describes also exist. The use of newspaper clippings and Mary’s sketches give the story additional depth, as do particular historical touchstones such as the First World War and attitudes toward Indigenous Australians. But it’s the fine detail that sets Rush Oh! apart – we learn why a scarred whale should always be feared, the meaning of ‘boat-breakers’, how being neck-deep in rotting whale guts can ease rheumatism, why the black whale is the most valuable of all, and how to make a stubborn horse walk.
Barrett does not shy away from the brutality of whale hunting but the details are tempered by Mary’s re-telling. Of her drawing below, Mary says –
“You can see from the position of the whale’s enormous flukes that its tail will crash down upon the boat at any moment. It is spouting blood; also, there is a fountain of blood issuing from the point where the lance enters the whale’s vitals, spraying over the men and giving them a most ghoulish appearance. One of the striking features of the painting is the look of abject terror on the faces of the crew, with the exception of my father, who is known locally by the sobriquet of ‘Fearless’.”
It is through Mary and the fact that she is painfully aware that her family’s survival depends on the killing of whales, that Barrett delivers an appropriately pitched moral message.
“For although I understood in principle the technicalities of whaling – the harpooning, the chase to exhaustion, the necessity of swift and vigorous lancing – I had never conceived, never understood, never imagined for one moment the horror of it all.”
This book is not without faults but its charm outweighs any quibbles. I was completely immersed in the township of Eden in 1908 – its rallying for a big whale; the drama of the chase; the speculation and expectations that accompany first love – and Rush Oh! is one of the most memorable and unique books I’ve read.
5/5 Everything you don’t expect from historical fiction.