Thursday, 26 April 2012

BOOK REVIEW 

Beyond the Black Stump by Nevil Shute

This book review is offered as part of Friday’s Forgotten Books meme over at noted writer Patti Abbott’s blog Pattinase. Don’t forget to check out the wide range of reviews at her blog.

“You don't mean that your uncle swapped your mother for an old Mauser pistol?”

That is exactly what Stanton Laird, the young American geologist, asks red-haired Mollie Regan incredulously.

Stanton, who comes from the small quiet town of Hazel, Oregon, in distant America, has been sent by his company to the Australian outback — known as the Black Stump — to hunt for oil.

The “black stump” is an Australian term that refers to “an imaginary point beyond which the country is considered remote or uncivilised.”

He gets a huge culture shock no sooner he meets up with Mollie’s family, the Regans, a large and wealthy Irish family of farmers whose ranch, Laragh Station, is spread over a million acres in a remote and inhospitable part of Western Australia, known as the Lunatic.


As Stanton grows close to the Regans, he falls in love with Mollie and discovers she is illegitimate, one of a dozen-odd children who consist of real and half-caste brothers and sisters, sired by her father Pat and his younger brother, Tom, and two women, her own white mother and an aborigine. There are no divorces and remarriages in the legal sense as the men have never really been married to the women. They live together as one big family, the many siblings close to each other. 

The absence of social mores is more than made up for by the Regans healthy view of life and generous attitude toward others. They are a helpful and friendly clan and in spite of the initial apprehension of having Stanton and his gentlemanly crew explore oil on their land (on lease from the government), they welcome him and his men into their midst. The Regans, in turn, are fascinated by the professional manner in which the Americans set up camp and rig as well as the many gadgets and machinery, precision instruments, electric ice cream freezer, and glossy magazines they bring with them and share with the Regans.

The glossies provide Mollie with her first exposure to America, a modern and civilised world she dreams about and starts to yearn for.

Over a period of time, when the oil exploration attempt fails to yield results, Stanton's company tells him to pack up and return home. By now, he and Mollie are very much in love and the two decide to marry but the girl's mother, the wise and formidable Mrs. Regan, advises her daughter to put of marriage till she has lived with the Lairds in Hazel and adjusted to the American way of life. In the end it proves to be a very wise suggestion.

This is where the real story, tragic in many ways, begins. Mollie accompanies Stanton to Hazel, Oregon, where she is welcomed warmly by his parents, a kindly couple. She lives with the Lairds, helps with the chores around the house, goes about town, and grows fond of her prospective in-laws who are proud of their values and integrity. Mollie finds this a trifle unsettling considering her own upbringing.

One day, Mollie, who is portrayed as sensitive and intelligent, decides to come clean: she confronts Mrs. Laird, affectionately called "Mom" by all, and discloses everything about her past and where she comes from. The revelation sends shock waves through the Laird household, especially Mom’s sister Aunt Claudia who has a loose tongue. 

"If we get married, Stan, your people must know everything about me," a determined Mollie tells Stanton, who has long accepted her for what she is.

Mollie wants his parents and the small and conservative Frontier town of Hazel to accept her past and present as well but she is also aware that, in their hearts, the god-fearing and church-going townspeople won't, even if they pretend to; not when her own father and brother were prominent members of the IRA who fought against the British government before fleeing to Australia — it's just one of many instances of the non-conformist Regan clan that Hazel may find unpalatable.

"It'ld hurt your mother much more to learn I'm illegitimate after we're married than if she learns it now," she tells Stanton.

"It wouldn't work," Mollie concludes. "There's too much between us..."

In the end Mollie Regan, who dreamt of a new life in America, breaks her engagement and returns to the Lunatic, hopefully to David Cope, a struggling English immigrant who rears sheep on his three-hundred-thousand acre farm called Lucinda Station, not far from the Regans spread. He has been hopelessly in love with her much before Stanton arrived.

The story behind the story
Beyond the Black Stump, written in Nevil Shute’s trademark easy and laidback style, is primarily about race relations though the author handles the subject of racism with utmost sensitivity. In his opinion, people are the same wherever you go, only their lives vary according to greater or lesser degree. For instance, Mollie Regan, who is unashamed of her background, yearns to be accepted for who she is, especially when those who might not have accepted her in Hazel had ancestors who did exactly what her folks in the Lunatic did.

She compares the Lunatic to the Frontier town of Hazel a hundred years ago when “your people married Indian girls when there weren’t any white women, just like us… If you could meet one of those people now, if one of them could come to Hazel, you wouldn’t want to have him in your house, or introduce him to your friends. And if it was a girl you wouldn’t want to marry her.” So why is my family being singled out, she wants to know.

I particularly liked the part where young Mollie Regan says, “I’m a kind of Rip van Winkle, Stan, that’s come here from the Hazel of a hundred years ago, out of the past.”

Mollie comes across as more liberal and broadminded than the Lairds, for instance, when she learns of Stanton’s secret past: as a reckless youth he and best friend Chuck Sheraton had raced with their girls resulting in an accident that killed one of them. The other was found to be pregnant with either Stanton’s or Chuck’s baby. The local community ordered Chuck to marry the girl and all was forgotten and forgiven but the boy grew up to look like Stanton. When the geologist confides his bitter past to Mollie, she laughs out loud and takes it in her stride, because she, herself, is illegitimate as nearly all her siblings are. His own mother is in denial.

The author
Beyond the Black Stump (1956) is one of ten novels about Australia written by prolific British writer Nevil Shute Norway (1899-1960). In fact, he wrote this book while carrying out research for another novel, On the Beach (1957), which is also about Australia. 

© Nevil Shute Norway Foundation
Shute, who was an aeronautical engineer and took part in both the world wars, spent weeks in Western Australia and lived with a family in Oregon to research material for both these novels.

“For the first time in my life I saw how people live in an English-speaking country outside England,” he is believed to have said at the time. The overseas trips firmed up his resolve to migrate to Australia with his family.

Nevil Shute wrote 24 novels and an autobiography.




Next Friday's Forgotten Book: The Payoff by Don Smith




8 comments:

  1. Terrific review Prashant and well done on your first FFB too! Shute is the master of the post-war well-written novel - my personal favourites include what is still probably he best-known work, A TOWN LIKE ALICE, a war story that turns into an epic about modern Australia, and the less well-remembered NO HIGHWAY, which manages to combines suspense and aeronautical engineering with a smidgen of the supernatural with all his trademark empathy

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  2. Sergio, I appreciate your kind words. I hope I can sustain FFB every week. I look forward to it. I used to read Nevil Shute in my college days and happened to pick up BEYOND THE BLACK STUMP recently. I might have read both the novels you mentioned though A TOWN LIKE ALICE was definitely one of his better books. It was made into a movie starring Peter Finch. I have been scouting for his other novels, so far with no luck.

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  3. Great review and welcome to the club!

    I have several books around by Shute that I really should move near the top of my To Be Read list.

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  4. Not so familiar with Shute's other work. ON THE BEACH has been a long time favorite though. Must find this one now

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  5. Excellent review. The novel sounds like its packed with ideas. Thanks for finding all the covers. I read Shute in a former life; ON THE BEACH for sure and probably A TOWN LIKE ALICE. There's a scene in my memory of a couple on an ocean-going sailing boat that goes down in a storm. Don't know which novel it comes from.

    I once went through a spell of reading Aussie novelists. Xavier Herbert's CAPRICORNIA and Miles Franklin's MY BRILLIANT CAREER.

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  6. Jerry, thanks for writing and the appreciation. Shute has a clean narrative style with each sub-plot in its proper place. He has written about the Australian outback without going into too much description of the vast and barren land. Shute's books are hard to come by in Bombay (now Mumbai) but I'm hoping my luck will turn.

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  7. Randy, thanks for your comments. Nevil Shute and his contemporary A.J. Cronin, the Scottish physician, were two of my favourite writers in my youth. Sadly, like so many other authors of that era, they are forgotten today. I might have read ON THE BEACH but I'd like to read it nonetheless since he wrote it just a year after BEYOND THE BLACK STUMP.

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  8. Ron, thanks very much. The novel is certainly "packed with ideas," especially in the context of race and culture, the conventional and non-conventional, which Shute handles deftly and without sounding provocative. In fact, racism and failed love appear to be recurring themes in many of his novels. I don't remember the scene you mentioned either but I'm intrigued enough to find out more. I have never heard of Xavier Herbert and Miles Franklin but I'll keep the two Aussie writers in mind the next time I visit a bookstore, new or old, which is about four times a week.

    As for the various covers, I stole the idea from Sergio and his incisive posts on books and films over at www.bloodymurder.wordpress.com.

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