To the Islands – Randolph Stow


A week without work, that has to mean, not only, more time for reading, but a time to get the outstanding reviews in order. With close to twenty books read and not reviewed here, it is time I got my act together, and I’m not procrastinating until the New Year, so I can make some resolution to not fall so far behind, only to break it within a week or so.

By recently reading David Ireland’s haunting “The World Repair Video Game”, I became aware of my ignorance of older Australian literature. Whilst each year I try and read a few Stella Prize nominated novels, and I occasionally pick up a longlisted fiction work from the Prime Minister’s Awards or one the State Awards, my delving back to 1950-1970’s Australian books hasn’t really happened. This could be due to a very staid English Literature teacher in the 1970’s who believed Australian writers had nothing to offer, they didn’t have a unique voice and therefore he told us to avoid the local writers if we were to study “true” literature. Although rebelling (of course) at the time and reading Jack Hibberd plays and attending theatre events at La Mama and The Pram Factory, my novel reading was extremely limited. Time to fix that and fill up on a few Miles Franklin Award winners from the early years.

As the Trustees of the Award point out, “The Miles Franklin Literary Award is Australia’s most prestigious literature prize. Established through the will of My Brilliant Career author, Miles Franklin, the prize is awarded each year to a novel which is of the highest literary merit and presents Australian life in any of its phases.”

First presented in 1957, to Patrick White, Australia’s only Nobel Laureate in Literature, for Voss  “the Award helps to support authors and to foster uniquely Australian literature. Miles Franklin believed that “Without an indigenous literature, people can remain alien in their own soil.”  She also had first-hand experience of struggling to make a living as a writer and was the beneficiary of two literary prizes herself.”

With my edition of White’s Voss running to 454 pages, the inaugural Miles Franklin winner has been put to one side for a few weeks. Keeping in mind the Afterword of David Ireland’s “The World Repair Video Game”, and although the content was specific to Ireland, it nagged at me the “cultural moment” where working class white voices gave way to “women, migrants and indigenous Australians”. Here’s a section of the Afterword in Ireland’s latest book;

His writing had not altered considerably across time but the hierarchy of values by which such work was judged had. During a period when Ozlit was mainly concerned with the recuperation or celebration of once-marginal literary voices belonging to women, migrants and indigenous Australians, Ireland’s transgressive tales of working-class white blokes rubbed against the weave of the cultural moment.

Randolph Snow’s 1958 novel, winner of that year’s Miles Franklin Award and the Australian Literature Society’s Gold Medal in the same year, “To the Islands”, deals with a subject not often approached in 1950’s Australian literature, the missionaries and their work with Aboriginal Australians. Although slightly dated in some of the indigenous character portrayal, it is still a landmark work, where the subjects of Aboriginal massacres, and their connection to country were thoughtfully portrayed, not as an oddity, but using sympathetic voice.

From the opening paragraph, you get a sense of place, social realism, although in the vast desert lands of northern Western Australia the remoteness and the isolation is there from the off;

A child dragged a stick along the corrugated-iron wall of a hut, and Heriot woke. His eyes, not yet broken to the light, rested on the mud-brick beside his bed, drifted slowly upwards to the grass-thatched roof. From a rafter an organ-grinder lizard peered sidelong over its pulsing throat.

Heriot is our protagonist, and early on we have an understanding that although a missionary, for many years, he is struggling with the clash of the Aboriginal culture. Their “Sorry business” practices and their belief of not mentioning the names of the dead, the spirits may come back to haunt you as you call them “Or might hang around the bush and come if someone say his name.”

‘I won’t say anything more. But it was a great – a great sorrow to me, to hear what you’d done. Your father was my good friend, my brother, He would have been very much ashamed.’

At this reference to the dead, Stephen moved uneasily. ‘Yes, brother.’

Our protagonist Heriot, begins to question his role as a missionary, what has he achieved during his many years in remote Australia? Seen as ageing, harsh and unsympathetic by the other workers as well as the Aboriginal inhabitants of the missionary, he loses all faith and belief in his life’s work;

‘I believe in nothing,’ Heriot said softly. ‘I can pull down the world.’

Heriot is not the only one who has wizened away here in the remote Australian desert, the shopkeeper, ration master Harris, “after twenty years in the country, he longed at times for death, but could not die until someone has been found to replace him.”

As the story unfolds we learn of Heriot’s loss of his wife, his daughter, those who are close to him, and this becomes a tale of Heriot’s exploration to find himself, it uses the physical journey as the metaphor for his self-awareness, our protagonist leaving the mission, after a violent incident with an Aboriginal man who has recently returned, a journey to the islands;

‘Oh, inlands in the sea. Where spirit goes. Spirit of dead man, you know, bungama.’

The interior of Australia, the harsh landscape, a backdrop for Heriot’s exile and reconciliation with himself, his life’s work;

When he woke again there was a rock hanging above his head, and he remembered all his journeying past cliffs rising out of their ruins, the huge size of the boulders that strewed the valleys, and the debris of vast and ancient landslides. Because of this his eyes fastened apprehensively on the cliff overhanging his sleeping-place; he saw cracks in it, thought he saw them widen, thought he heard the grating of moving surfaces and sharp sounds of fission. He hauled himself upright on his aching bones and ran out into the camp area, shouting: ‘Justin!’

The book contains an author’s preface, where Rudolph Stow explains his edits and how “in the original edition” he “was consciously making propaganda on behalf of Christian mission-stations”. There are still sections explaining the practices;

‘Well, you know, I pledge myself to do the usual things as far as I possibly can. And I hope that in my time and in my successor’s time we’ll see some development in – well, in the relations between ourselves and the people. I hope we’ll come closer and have the time and the staff eventually to make ourselves understood to them, teach them something of their own position in society, and their obligations, and their future. We’re coming to a very bad time in the history of their development, and if we don’t succeed in making contact with them and giving them some – orientation, the results could be unhappy for everyone. But with faith in them I think we’ll come through. I ought to say that these ideas are as much Heriot’s as mine, and when he spoke to me he was more or less handing over the problem to us. So if we succeed, we can feel that we’re carrying out the plans that he hasn’t the – opportunity of putting into action. That’s really all I have to say.’

This work was written by Stow when he was only 22 year’s old, an amazing achievement as the work reads as one from an old wise man, one bitter with the failure of his mission, his own failure, his journey into self-exploration. With inciteful quotes such as; “White man always talking and never listening”, and the white people saying “as long as we live here we can never be ourselves, unless ourselves – break out, like Mr Heriot’s.”

A thoroughly enjoyable work, an Australian journey into the centre, or harshest parts, of this land, revelatory for the literary treatment of indigenous Australian’s in the 1950’s. A work that comes with an ending that resonates, stunning that it came from the pen of a mere 22 year-old. I will be attempting to read a few early Miles Franklin Award winners, the best laid plans….

5 thoughts on “To the Islands – Randolph Stow

  1. Wonderful review, and I am so glad you admired this book too. It’s interesting that although we have come a long way with the portrayal of indigenous people and now have the work of many indigenous voices in literature, this book still holds its own. I read it in a Penguin paperback, and now have a first edition for my collection, but I think I might see if I can check out this new Text Classic edition so that I can read his preface… and the critical introduction as well…

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Pingback: Patrick White – Voss – Read Along March 2017 | Messenger's Booker (and more)

  3. Pingback: Patrick White – Voss – Read Along March 2017 | Messenger's Booker (and more)

  4. Top review. I loved this book. It was what a Miles Franklin winner should be, a unique piece of Australian Literature.


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