I find it hard to believe that anyone found it necessary to resurrect Walkabout, the 1959 novel by James Vance Marshall, that was mostly forgotten until adapted into film in 1971 by Nicholas Roeg. Yet for some reason the usually discerning New York Review of Books has ordained it a “small, perfect book.”
The only thing that is perfect about this book, besides the short-lived pain of reading it, is how easy it is to tear apart.
It tells in pseudo-parabolic form the story of two American children, Peter and Mary, who are stranded in the Australian wilderness after watching the rest of the passengers on their airplane dissolve into fire. As they walk away from the ashes of civilized technology, a primordial world of otherness opens before them in all its horrifying expanse.
Just as their situation becomes dire, and we’re starting to think maybe this book could get interesting and the kids will die, an aboriginal boy on his adolescent rite, the “walkabout” of the title, discovers and leads them to food and water. Upon their meeting, in his typically overwrought tone of explanation, Marshall painfully demarcates the differences between whiteness and Indigeneity. While the primitive in Peter and Mary “had long ago been swept away…by the standardized pattern of the white man’s way of life”, the aboriginal “knew what reality was” and lived a life that was “unbelievably simple” and “utterly uncomplicated.”
Thus begins a thanksgiving myth for the Australian landscape in which the Peter is taught how to fish and Mary struggles with her own disgust over a naked black body. In the tragic clash of civilization and savagery, Mary’s contorted grimace at the boy’s nudity is interpreted as the perception of the spirit of death in him. Here, Marshall’s total lack of knowledge, research, and respect rears it head, his ignorance providing the central drama of the book. Brushing past tribal beliefs about death by magic, performed by a ritual executioner not a scared white girl, Marshall explains that the boy will soon die…. from superstition. And die he does but not before forgiving Mary and she, realizing her cruelty, accepts him as one of god’s children.
Besides the story being so blatantly colonial in its premise and plot, the style is the combination of dolled-up bible prose and a PowerPoint presentation. Marshall, in his desire to be the dispenser of moral parables, tell us exactly what and how to encounter everything in the world he has created. When Peter begins to do a dance mimicking the platypus, just as the aboriginal had mimicked the lyre bird, Marshall at the end of his description must spell out “shades of the bush boy and lyre bird” lest our memory fails to extend back twenty pages. To further the transfer of Indigenous identity from Aboriginal to Peter, Marshall has Peter marvel at the darkening color of his skin. Nothing in the book is subtle, nor is it innocent.
Later when Mary tells Peter that the aboriginal boy, referred to as “darkie” throughout the book, has gone to heaven, Marshall turns on the sentimentality of a multicultural poster. “…She believed it. More than believed it. Knew it. Knew that heaven, like earth, was one.” But of course while we may all be one, half of that “oneness” has to die for the other to live.
In the introduction to the new edition, written by Lee Siegel, much is made of Marshall’s spiritual message while his “romantic excess” (i.e. racism) is glanced over and forgiven. To Siegel, who is guilty of such excesses himself, Marshall’s “modestly subversive variation on the Christian myth is simply another version of the necessity of people to care for one another.” In this case, it is necessary for an Aboriginal to care for white children and then only necessary for those white children to care for him after he’s dead.
And what is so subversive in killing off the Aboriginal? That is the oldest trope in Euro-American culture. Does the subversion come from the fact that Marshall is writing about Aboriginals at all? There is certainly nothing subversive about white writers bringing the Christ complex to a continent that doesn’t belong to them. This impulse to bring biblical stories to sites of contact with indigenous peoples is the literary equivalent of bringing priests along on your conquests, and it too has been happening for hundreds of years.
But of course this is about more than mere salvation. It is very much about the process of settlement. The savior at the end of the story is not actually the Aboriginal but the house of a white man waiting for the children after their journey. It is the literal settlement of foreigners, not a continued life in nature, that is the true end goal of the book. Though Peter and Mary cannot remain in the Garden of Eden, the paradise of primitiveness being forever lost to them, they can incorporate that experience into their identity in order to be better white settlers. The death of the Aboriginal boy because of his primitive superstitions suggests that they are in fact even better Aboriginals than the Aboriginal himself because of their Christian beliefs.
The walkabout all along has been the initiation rite for the white children. It requires the death of their primitive childhood and embodied in the literal death of the aboriginal boy, in order for them to take up the mantle of mature white settlers. It is as if the two children have gone away to a more dangerous version of summer camp. At the end of the book, Peter turns to Mary and says in the Aboriginal’s language, “Kurura,” meaning follow. It is supposed to be a touching moment. But for me this final transference of Indigeneity into a white boy is like when Michael Jackson’s eyes glow at the end of the Thriller video. The monster has peeked out from behind its mask of innocence and walks away to continue the, in this case metaphorical, consumption of vulnerable bodies.