Book reviews

Walkabout by James Vance Marshall

In segregationist, white supremacist America and elsewhere, Walkabout must have challenged the assumptions of many.  Fifty years later, we haven’t eliminated racism, but we’ve come a long way from the socio-political mindset in which James Vance Marshall’s beautifully written story is set.  Hopefully, in that regard, Walkabout will continue to feel like a relic.

Mary, a thirteen-year-old white girl, and Peter, her eight-year-old brother, are the lone survivors of a plane crash in the Australian outback.  They set out on foot in a southerly direction, aiming for Adelaide and civilization.

A rescue would be a simple matter if someone had installed a telephone, but everything is primitive and backward here.  No one has rigged up a water system or installed electricity, or even put in a road.  Where they’re from, Charleston, South Carolina, they could at least count on a gas station or perhaps a hamburger stand for assistance.

Also they are getting hungry.  Mary doled out their last bit of candy to Peter earlier this morning.

Then a darkie boy appears.  His skin is blue black and he is naked.  Mary tries to stare him down, but he does not lower his eyes.  This is most aggravating and a bit unnerving.  In Charleston he would be lynched for such impertinence.  Where are his manners? Hasn’t he learned the hierarchy of races? White people are at the top, superior in every way.  Black people are below.

The Aboriginal ponders the pale strangers.  They appear harmless, carrying neither spear nor stick, so he may take his time appraising them.  What makes them that color? Is it chalk? A soft pliable stuff—like bark, but with most unbark-like colors and patternings—covers them.
How do they catch their food? Have they strayed from their tribe? From their height and breadth they appear to have lived several summers, which makes their skill-lessness and awkward, lumbering movements even more mystifying.  They seem unused to squatting, climbing, tossing spears, or climbing rocks or trees.  They don’t seem to know the first thing about locating water or building a fire.  But their incompetence is immaterial.  They clearly are in need of aid.  As his fellow creatures, he will help them.

The darkie’s nakedness still bothers Mary.  He would never be allowed in school.  He probably can’t conjugate a single French verb.  He probably can’t spell his name.  He probably doesn’t know a single times table.

She supposes she should do something nice for him, though, seeing as he has led them to water and supplied them with meat.

She recalls the missionaries’ stories of sacrifice upon behalf of heathen Africans.  She, too, can act nobly.  She can clothe the darkie.

The Aboriginal does not know what to make of the gift.  It is soft and pliable, like the stuff covering the strangers.  The three openings are edged with a stretchy substance.  The boy shows him how to step his legs through the large opening and then through the two smaller ones.  The Aboriginal pulls the soft pliable stuff up over his thighs.  The stuff covers his manhood.  The stretchy substance snaps against his flat belly.

Peter chortles.  He points and hops about.  He has never seen anything so silly.  The darkie is wearing Mary’s lace panties.

The strangers are laughing.  The younger one jumps about, pointing.  The boy’s dance must be an extension of the gift ritual.  Now it is the Aboriginal’s turn.  He obliges with a dance about hunting and death.  The dance is vigorous and demanding, climaxing in somersaults and victory rolls.  The stretchy substance breaks.  The bark-like thing falls to his feet.

The laughter subsides.

He wonders why the girl is looking at him with such hate.  As if he is her enemy.  Then he remembers: It is the look one gives death.  The girl must see death in him.  He is to die.  But first he will re-double his efforts and see that the boy and girl reach the Valley-of Waters-under-the-earth.

The boy sneezes.  Soon the nasal eruptions are steady and on-going.  The Aboriginal has never heard such a long stream of sneezes.  The common cold is a nuisance among the strangers, but unknown, and deadly, for the Aboriginal.

The strangers are about to bestow their second gift.

In a day’s time, the Aboriginal will be sneezing.

 

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