I have also long been intrigued by similarities between the literature of my Canadian frontier home and the Australian version on the other side of the globe (in the early days of the blog I expanded on this with some examples of comparable works in an essay here). On that Antipodean front, I was introduced earlier this year to the work of Australian Alex Miller with his 2012 novel, Autumn Laing, and impressed enough that I resolved to read his entire back catalogue, in order.
Watching The Climbers On The Mountain (1988) is book one in that nine book project and, while it is not one of his prize winners, it is a frontier story of the first order — more than worthy of comparison with my North American favorites.
One of the traits that all these novels have in common (and it is a reflection of reality) is that frontiers attract misfits, people with serious character flaws or challenges that make them unhappy denizens of the “settled” world, eager to find a new home in a world where “order” has not yet acquired a formal definition that makes them uncomfortable. Miller’s excellent debut novel, set in the Central Highlands of Queensland, revolves around three such misfits:
At fifty-sx Ward Rankin was a disappointed man and was easily aroused to extremes of irritation and even — especially in his dealings with the animals — to outbursts of violence. But he was not predictable in this and could be gracious, even charming, so that his family treated him with caution, forever hoping for the best. He stayed indoors as much as possible and loathed the work of the station, doing the minimum needed to keep the place going. He was a short brittle man, nervous, well-read, priding himself on his civilised habits. An only son, for many years he had managed the property for his aged mother. It was not what he had intended for himself.
Ward is a collector of “brown stamps” — when someone, or the world, treats him like crap, he feels it gives him the right to treat someone less powerful than himself (even an animal) with even greater cruelty.
Ward was forty-one by the time his mother died. A year or two before this he had married Ida Sturgiss, a girl from a neighboring station who had volunteered to help out. She was eighteen. A few months later their first child, Janet, was born. Eighteen months after Janet came Alistair. Ward Rankin never got away from the station and with time he grew to resent the circumstances that bound him to it.
Ida’s resentment over her lost chances is every bit as deep.
At first they teased him about his shyness but soon recognized that it was something more than this. There was a closed solitariness about him that was not natural in a young man. He brought this solitariness with him. It was deeper than theirs — it had nothing to do with geography — and they hadn’t expected it. Robert Crofts was also very beautiful. His body was strong and well-muscled, he was slim and upright and his movements were finely coordinated. His rather Germanic features were slightly elongated and his lips were full and red. In the expression of his eyes, which were a deep and luminous brown, there seemed to be an observation on his surroundings that he could not be brought to utter.
The rigors of surviving frontier life may be enough to cause a couple to bury their differences and unhappiness — the introduction of a third party (two’s company, three’s a crowd) brings those feelings poisonously bubbling to the surface.
The ages of the three are important to author Miller’s structure. At fifty-six, Ward is old enough to be Ida’s father. At thirty-three, she is closer in age to Robert than to her husband. And at 18, Robert is a daily reminder to Ida of her own self when she arrived at the station.
In the early chapters of the novel, this plays out as a desperate attempt to define new roles. Ward dislikes Robert from the start. Instead of admiring his capacity for work, he reviles it — perhaps a reflection of his own guilt for laziness and forever starting projects that he never finishes. His response is to make even more unreasonable demands in an attempt to break the young man.
Robert, for his part, discovers that any attempt to escape into a new routine is constantly denied by the owner’s irrational demands. Fifteen-year-old Janet develops a bit of a crush for him, which complicates matters for a youth who is trying to act older than his own years. Life at the station for Robert is based on shifting sand rather than a firm foundation — indeed, an incident featuring a literal sinkhole brings the tension between himself and Ward to a head.
And Ida, who ended up chained to the station by choosing marriage as the path of least resistance, watches all this with growing frustration. As matters get worse, she more and more sees how Robert’s difficulties as a reflection of her own when she arrived there at the same age — all of which re-awakens the dreams and hopes she had for her life fifteen years back.
Incomplete misfits may be able to get by in normal times — the introduction of change tends to make their flaws even more predominant. Once he has established the limitations of the three, Miller carefully shows how grasping at straws to seek a resolution makes things even worse. (Vanderhaeghe, Williams and Stegner all explore this same phenomenon of hopelessness — I’d say it is another constant of frontier fiction. There is a reason why misfits have sought refuge in the un-ordered world.)
Like Williams and Stegner, who have not been getting the attention they deserve, Alex Miller is not a familiar name to Northern Hemisphere audiences. Autumnn Laing attracted positive attention, so hopefully that will soon change. Publishers Allen & Unwin (who kindly provided my review copy) have begun re-issuing his earlier novels — those with a taste for well-written fiction set in the developing North American frontier would be well advised to add this Aussie to their reading lists. He is a wordsmith of substantial talent and while his stories may be set on the other side of the world they have much to say to North American audiences.