(Editor’s note: This review comes from Steven Nester, host of Poets of the Tabloid Murder, a weekly Internet radio show heard on the Public Radio Exchange [PRX]. Nester is also a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Rap Sheet, Mystery Scene and Firsts Magazine.)
Rush Oh! (Little, Brown), a first novel by Australian filmmaker Shirley Barrett, is also the cry alerting whalers to launch their longboats and let fly “the sting of iron” as migrating whales pass close off the south coast of Australia at the turn of the 20th century. It’s an arduous life, but not a completely hopeless one for the motherless Mary Davidson, a bright, optimistic woman of 19, charged with rearing her five younger siblings—brothers and sisters both—while also tending to her “whale master” father, George “Fearless” Davidson, and his crew in this episodic coming-of-age story.
Mary possesses the spunk and pluck you’d find in the heroine of a 19th-century British novel of manners, and there is wit enough to get this story told with humanity and humor even while the odds are stacked against her. The New South Wales town of Eden, once considered for the site of the country’s capital, is now a sleepy whaling station that relies upon providence for its fortunes. Mary yearns for a husband and life of her own, and while most of the choices among the whalers are quite ill-suited (“Whalers are ill-mannered as a rule and boast enormous appetites”), all of the characters in these pages are memorable.
The seasoned and well-named hand, Salty, asks a minister-turned-whaler for a prayer during one fraught expedition, as the whale boat teeters on the brink of capsizing. Upon hearing the minister begin his death-be-not-dreadful fare, Salty retorts, “Not that prayer, father!” Mary’s younger sister Louisa floats like a “will-o-the-wisp,” entrancing her father’s crew, much to his consternation, while the indispensable Mary serves them the evening “slop.” Voted Eden’s “Most Prepossessing,” Louisa is the type to whom success in love should come easily, but who often picks the road with the most impediments.
Even a pod of killer whales in Rush Oh! is well-drawn, and is a part of the ship’s close-knit community, honoring a “gentleman’s agreement” with the whalers to help shepherd their quarry to the tryworks (blubber-rendering facilities) at Twofold Bay in exchange for a portion of the catch. The crew’s favorite orca, the charismatic Tom, demonstrates that “In spite of his distinguished years, his demeanor was ever that of a cheeky schoolboy.”
Mary fully expects to be fated to a life of spinsterhood; instead, she finds hope when a mysterious newcomer, John Beck, appears and signs on as a hand. He is a Methodist preacher who lost his calling, with a “smile that was unlike that of any minister Methodist or otherwise.” Mary is obviously interested, but feels inadequate to the challenge of beguiling a mate.
“Having lost my mother at an early age, I had no feminine example in matters concerning intercourse between the sexes.”
Nevertheless, Mary is game enough. The patient yet enigmatic Beck helps her to uncover her latent skill in “bantering,” but virtually declares himself unavailable for temporal things such as romance, quoting Melville and stating that he’s in search of the “ungraspable phantom of life.”
These south-coast whalers are a dying breed as change prevails. Kerosene and factory ships are putting Davidson and his whale-oil-seeking crew out of business, and young Mary takes her life in stride (“as a whaling family we were familiar with disappointment”). While the world is transformed, she makes peace with her life and remains dedicated to her family. ◊