Well, no thanks to my primary or indeed secondary school education, I am finally developing an interest in Australian history. They used to refer to the centre of Australia as ‘The Dead Heart,’ and that’s kind of what the whole subject produced in me after decades of neglect. There was simply nothing there. Whenever I tried to focus my thoughts, I’d find them slippery and half formed. For the majority of my life, I’ve focused my learning elsewhere. This habit is also reflected in my reading material and my travels. I’ve confessed before to the big ‘Australia’ shaped hole in my bookshelves and photo albums; bar a few exceptions, I’ve avoided Australian literature like it carries some kind of taint, and I’ve stuck to the coast fairly faithfully as I’ve covered but the slightest fraction of this vast Australian ground. Bizarre, really. You could say I’ve made a point of ignoring it, although I would never have thought to describe it that way myself. There was just a lack of excitement, which is never a great start.
Belatedly, I am beginning to appreciate just how extraordinary and fascinating Australia’s history is. And of course that includes the fact that Indigneous communities managed to thrive in utterly hostile parts of the country for the none too shabby term of tens of thousands of years. This the same country that confounded and cursed early white settlers. Everything was going along pretty swimmingly before white men showed up and starting dragging oak dining tables and silver serving dishes into the desert to make themselves more comfortable during various doomed explorations. No kidding. They actually did this.
I don’t know when exactly my interest started to shift. Maybe it had to happen. But there’s no question that interest has been inflamed by Sarah Murgatroyd’s quite excellent non-fiction account of the Burke and Wills story, The Dig Tree. That Murgatroyd herself – a 35 year old Brit – passed away just a few weeks after her book was published is one more total tragedy to add to the litany she records with such verve and detail.
I knew sketchy details at best about Burke and Wills. I knew the bare bones of their accomplishment and their ordeal. I don’t think I’d ever consciously taken note of anything called ‘the dig tree,’ but it’s one hell of a story. And the idea that all these mistakes and miseries and mishaps are all true – and the number of missed chances makes EXCRUCIATING reading – well, it’s a real turn up for the books, no pun intended. We have book club tonight to discuss The Dig Tree, and I’m really looking forward to it. This book is the first non-fiction title the group has read since we formed, and it may single-handedly transform the structure of the club. Before I read it, I was pretty attached to the idea of keeping our club fiction-based. I am, after all, predominantly a fiction reader. On the strength of Murgatroyd’s engaging narrative style and what is undeniably a bloody great yarn, I’m rather inclined to change my mind. If all history, and all non-fiction books, were written as well as The Dig Tree, well, who knows? We might have even learnt something of Australia’s wild and demented history in school.