Peter Carey is one of the great Australia writers, though he has lived in New York for 25 years. Anyone who can immerse himself completely in both 1950s automotive Australia and the horrifying connections between Europeans and the indigenous population and intertwine these two strands, well, maybe only he can do that. And he did it with this book published in 2017.
The story is told in chapters alternating between the voices of a determined young woman named Irene Bobs and her neighbor Willem Bachhuber. Irene stays very busy encouraging her successful car salesman husband and caring for her two children. Her goal is to make her beloved husband Titch independent of his father and land him a Holden (“the Australian car”) dealership. Mr. Bachhuber was suspended from his teaching job, having held a student out the window by his ankles. He is the reigning contestant on Deasy’s Radio Quiz Show but the announced winnings were “delayed” until Mr. Deasy had a national program with a real sponsor. Willie had a complicated background story, most of which we don’t learn until we are well into the story.
The two become connected when Irene, Titch, and Willie undertake the Redex Reliability Trial, an actual 1950s Australia event. Two hundred ordinary production cars circumnavigated the continent, “more than ten thousand miles over outback roads so rough they might crack your chassis clean in half.” Willie, having worked in a map library, was the navigator while Irene and Titch drove.
Esoteric bits of Australia are in evidence throughout the book, many of which escaped me. Having read about the Redex Trials on Wikipedia, I recognized the references to Jack Murray and Jack Davey who drove in those Trials. Lisa at ANZLitLovers.com describes her own experience with one reference. Bachhuber is asked to create the “wool syllabus” while he was suspended, a bureaucratic undertaking “to remedy the total ignorance of high school students on the issue of wool and its vital history in the history of the state.” Lisa remembers doing a “deeply tedious project about wool” when she was in school. That brought to mind the complications surrounding teaching a section on communism to seniors in my high school. It was clear this was a fraught topic which made me think it surely would be interesting. The wrestling coach was designated to teach it and I remember it as “deeply tedious.”
Until he wrote this book Carey heeded the advice he heard in the 1980s from an Aboriginal actor not to write about them to avoid adding to the misinformation. With this book he takes on the issues of that racism, focusing in this case on the stolen generation. This refers to that unthinkable practice of taking children, particularly those with light skin, from their families and raising them in missions or allowing them to be adopted.
I think it wouldn’t be too much of a plot revelation to say that despite his belief that he would only find himself in Germany, Willem Bachhuber turns out to be one of the stolen ones. He learns this as he nears his birthplace in the Kimberleys when the Redex Trial goes through far northwest Australia. He undertakes teaching children there and the tables are lovingly turned as the students and elders teach that map lover about “maps.” He spent years then trying “to preserve and pass down what he found while, at the same time honoring his obligation to guard secrets.”
The rich fabric of this story is enhanced by the tangential characters that we hear about from our two narrators. The beautiful but diminutive Titch, his relentlessly intrusive father, Dangerous Dan Bobs, and Doctor Battery, who appears out of nowhere to fix the battery for the Redex and then to educate Willem are a few of my favorites.
One last bit I want to remember: the retelling by the Aboriginal students of Captain Cook’s story is taken from an actual account by Hobbles Danaiyarri, recorded by Deborah Bird Rose. This was reported in the author’s Acknowledgements.
Peter Carey, A Long Way from Home, Alfred A. Knopf, 2017, 327 pages (I read the Kindle version). Available at the UVa and public libraries, and from Amazon.