I came to this book in a roundabout way. I had been reading a collection of short stories by Patrick White (The Burnt Ones) after reading a review by Lisa Hill on ANZ LitLovers LitBlog. It was a book that I’d had for a long time, but had only read one of the stories – Miss Slattery and her Demon Lover. After reading half of the stories I needed a break. It had been some time since I’d read anything by White. I enjoyed his razor-sharp observations but the fates of some of the characters were grim. The meddlesome do-gooder in A Cheery Soul was the final straw. It was time to read something else for a while.

I remembered another collection of unread short stories by Australian writer Alan Marshall. Whilst finding this book I found a copy of I Can Jump Puddles which I had read as a teenager. This is the first of an autobiographical trilogy based on Marshall’s life. It focuses on his challenge to overcome obstacles after contracting infantile paralysis. I started to flick through the book and it didn’t take much to draw me in.

The tone is set from the opening paragraph, with a promise of the warmth and insight that is to follow:

When my mother lay in the small front room of the weather-board house in which we lived, awaiting the arrival of the midwife to deliver me, she could see tall gums tossing in the wind, and a green hill, and cloud shadows racing across the paddocks, and she said to my father, ‘It will be a son; it is a man’s day.’

The reality of rural life is shown in many different ways, such as makeshift houses with the clever use of bark to collect rainwater. The very basic living conditions are described without judgement:

The other boy was about five. He was wearing long cotton stockings, but his garters had broken and the stockings hung round the tops of his boots like shackles. Braces made of rope supported his patched trousers, and his buttonless shirt only had one arm. His hair looked as if it had never been brushed. It stood straight out from his head like the hair on the back of a frightened dog.

One of Marshall’s endearing qualities as a child is his sense of wonder. He takes on faith whatever he is told, especially from his father who isn’t afraid of spinning a yarn for comedic effect. During a week away with a goods wagon, Marshall meets a woman who tells him that she won’t make old bones as ‘her organs were all out of place’. When her husband enters the kitchen and gives her a boisterous slap on the back, Marshall is concerned for her well-being.

The jarring jolt of other people’s perceptions of Marshall’s physical limitations are clearly expressed without judgement. Moments of self-conscious awareness are acknowledged then passed by. This is the essence of the strength of character that shines through, even in passing moments of despair.

Mateship is demonstrated in various ways too, especially with his friend Joe.

On these hunting excursions Joe adapted his pace to suit mine. When plovers rose with warning cries from clumps of tussock, he would not rush ahead to search for their nest; he would walk side by side with me. He never robbed me of the pleasure of discovery.

There are many moments of joy in the book. His family is a source of support and the strong ties with his parents are particularly evident. His admiration for his father drives much of his physical quests to be able to ride and live a life like his friends. One of the sweetest moments is when his father brings him an unexpected gift during a hospital visit:

I wrapped my arms around its warm, snuggling softness and held it to me, and my need passed from me in a breath. I felt a surge of pure happiness and, looking into my father’s eyes, I passed it on to him, for he smiled at me.

This book remains an enduring children’s classic for many reasons. Life lessons, family and friendship, determination – these all shine through. It offers insights into a way of life at the beginning of the twentieth century; a time that is long gone but important for understanding aspects of the Australian character.

It is also the story of the emergence of a writer: Marshall’s engagement in the world and people around him is genuinely curious. This curiosity is a ticket of sorts to freedom in that it helps to overcome some of the barriers and petty prejudices that he encounters. This example involves Marshall and a bullock team driver:

He looked round to see if he had forgotten anything then picked up his six-foot handled whip from the ground. He glanced at me to see if I were in the way. Some of the pleasure I felt in watching him must have been reflected in my face, for he lowered the butt of the whip to the ground and said, ‘You like bullocks, do you?’

This is a great read for people of all ages, and it has been translated into many languages.

Marshall’s writing legacy continues with his books and short stories. He had a long and varied writing career, and at one point he wrote a lonely hearts column in a womens magazine. There is also a writing award named in Marshall’s honour: the Nillumbik Prize for Contemporary Writing Alan Marshall Short Story Award. This award was established in 1985 ‘to honour the work and life of Australian literary icon and former Eltham resident Alan Marshall’.

I look forward to reading some of Marshall’s short stories, and have enjoyed revisiting his writing.

Have you rediscovered an old book lately?

[Photo: horses on Norfolk Island]