The Man from Snowy River and While the Billy Boils

The Man from Snowy River, Banjo Paterson, 1890

  • Australia, #2
  • Kindle, free from amazon
  • Read September 2014
  • Rating: 3/5
  • Recommended for: cowboys, children, and lovers of folksy humor

While the Billy Boils, Henry Lawson, 1896

  • Australia, #4
  • Kindle, free from amazon
  • Read September 2014
  • Rating: 4.5/5
  • Recommended for: Lovers of literature who don’t mind too much whether their stories come with a plot

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California 2005

I watched The Man from Snowy River a LOT when I was a child. Here’s what I didn’t care about (and in fact hardly remember, having had to cobble it together from a wikipedia synopsis): gold prospecting, the love story, Jim’s financial difficulties, Jessica being threatened with being sent to (gasp) women’s college, brotherly strife between two secondary characters (seriously, this movie had a lot of subplots, which I guess is crucial when you’re basing your main plot on a 100-line poem about rounding up horses). Here’s what I cared about: HORSES! And so I think I might have been better off just reading Paterson’s poems in the first place. They’re full of horses. The man was obsessed with horses.

But of course, so were the people that Paterson was writing about. This goes for Lawson too, and between them they formed my introduction to Australian bush life at the end of the nineteenth century. These works are colorful, romantic depictions of swagmen and drovers–itinerant laborers and cowboys–noble bums and evil overseers and dashing outlaws. Paterson tends toward the comic and the sentimental, written in very rhythmic verse (the tone and cadence of his poetry reminds me of Casey at the Bat or The Cremation of Sam McGee, which were childhood favorites of mine); Lawson is capable of humor as well, but draws his characters with a finer and more sympathetic brush. Both authors regard modernity and urban life with deep suspicion and horror, preferring the simplicity and hardship of the bush. Both create characters that recur in their stories and poems and that manage to be at once individual, idiosyncratic personas, and archetypes of bush society. Lawson, though, is more subtle; his characters are more complex, and he tends toward understated drama, with language that falls somewhere between Bukowski and Hemingway.

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California 2005

While the Billy Boils is full of beautiful stories and sketches but it doesn’t quite work as a collection. There is a sketch describing a train trip across the Australian outback, the monotony of the long miles and faceless towns only somewhat relieved chance meetings with colorful strangers. The book reads something like that; each sketch beautiful and true, every character interesting, yet read all together there is a sameness about it that leaves the reader a little bit bored. That being said, I highly recommend the book. But, as with Australian Legendary Tales, I wouldn’t recommend reading it all at once. I think the best way would be to read a chunk of five or six stories and sketches (they’re short), then go off and read something else for a week or two, before returning refreshed to pick up Lawson again.

Links:

The Man From Snowy River, Banjo Paterson

Conroy’s Gap, Banjo Paterson

On the Edge of a Plain, Henry Lawson

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