At one point when I was reading Rush Oh!*, Shirley Barrett’s debut novel about the 1908 whaling season in New South Wales, Australia, I found myself wondering what it would have been like if the men of the Pequod had popped home for supper every night.
Naturally, whalers are ill-mannered as a rule and boast enormous appetites—that is to be expected. What is less to be expected, however, is their extreme finickiness as regarding their “slops.” It seemed that each one of them suffered from some manner of digestive impairment which required the most fastidious tending. Bastable could not tolerate any form of marsupial, so kangaroo and wallaby were out of the question.
Nineteen-year-old Mary Davidson, Rush Oh!‘s narrator, goes on to note that other men in her father’s whaling crew object to oysters, rabbit (fresh and canned), stewed ibis, and anything under-salted.
I loved this novel—it’s quite funny, though as we learn, whaling is no laughing matter. Mary’s father, George Davidson (nicknamed “Fearless,” for good reason; he’s based on a real-life whaler of the same name) is in charge of two whaling boats that hunt whales in Twofold Bay—with the assistance of pod of orcas. These whales, called “the Killers” are led by Tom (a real whale), a mischievous and highly intelligent fellow, held in the whalers’ esteem and even, at times, affection.
During the whaling season (our summer, Australia’s winter), Mary is in charge of looking after her younger siblings (including a preteen pipe-smoker and Louisa, whose obstinacy is at least one one cause of her rivalry with Mary), tending the house, and feeding the whalemen, an arduous task since the season is not going well and their supplies are running quite low. When a handsome Methodist preacher joins the crew, Mary finds herself in a new boatload of trouble, so to speak.
For a novel that deals quite a bit with men “having to go out in all weather and row back and forth across the bay in endless pursuit of enraged leviathans,” Rush Oh! reminded me, oddly enough, not just of Moby Dick, but of The Country of the Pointed Firs (which I mentioned two weeks ago) and Anne of Green Gables. Rush Oh! is Mary’s memoir, and her voice sounds to me like the independent-minded writer who narrates scenes from coastal Maine life in The Country of the Pointed Firs, while the scrapes Mary gets into, the amusing encounters with town characters and creatures, and the episodic nature of the book are reminiscent of L.M. Montgomery’s beloved classic and its first few sequels. Ms. Barrett draws heavily on archival material, which gives the book’s already vivid setting a delightful sense of local color.
While I loved this book’s approach to history and humor, its more serious moments also deserve mention. Take this passage:
We looked about us at the empty sea. A strange atmosphere of melancholy stillness came over us as we waited, and it brought to mind the feeling as we had sat in church at my mother’s funeral, waiting for the service to commence. The organist had played “Abide with Me,” and I suppose he had been instructed to keep playing till the congregation settled, for I remember feeling that he would never stop, and at one point, when we thought he had finally finished and he started afresh, Harry had got the giggles and had had to be spoken to. Yet as long as that mournful dirge continued and we sat in the presence of my mother (for she lay in her coffin at the front of the church), it felt to me as if the family were suspended together (for the last time) somewhere between the earthly world and heaven.
Mary Davidson, with her quirks, quick mind, and terrific descriptive powers, is a character you’ll want to know better. Rush Oh! is out today in the U.S. from Little, Brown, and is recommended.
Postscript: If you’re a Moby-Dick fan, check out the Moby Dick Big Read, in which persons famous and not-famous each read a chapter of Melville’s tome (Benedict Cumberbatch. Need I say more?).
*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.