Walkabout, by James Vance Marshall

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“It was silent and dark, and the children were afraid.” This the opening line of James Vance Marshall’s Walkabout, but isn’t it also the first line of all of our lives?

Walkabout, first published in 1959, is a petite book with a classic premise: two white children from Charleston, South Carolina are traveling when their plane crashes in the Australian outback. The only survivors, they set out to return to civilization, when they encounter a young Aboriginal boy who teaches them how to survive in the wild. A list of books with this essential set-up would take up the entire word count of this review, but suffice to say that Walkabout echoes Lord of the Flies, Robinson Crusoe, and A High Wind in Jamaica for starters. All books where people (often children) attempt to brave the world they originally, many moons ago, came from, a world they are now utterly lost in.

The two siblings are Mary, a teenage girl who hides her fear behind stern prudence, and her younger brother Peter, an amiable child who provides comic relief throughout the heavy tale. It’s clear early on that in order to survive they’re going to need saving. “Coddled in babyhood, psycho-analysed in childhood, nourished on predigested patent foods, provided with continuous push-button entertainment, the basic realities of life were something they’d never had to face.” Luckily for them the aboriginal boy is a god-send (perhaps literally?) who takes on the task of their survival. Despite not a single word of language in common, the aboriginal boy teaches Peter how to fish (see Bible) and provides the siblings with endless tips from where to find water to how to roast a wallaby.

On the first day of their meeting, the aboriginal boy inspects the two, sheerly out of curiosity. “He ended up with a detailed inspection of Peter’s sandals. Then he turned to Mary. It was the moment the girl had been dreading. Yet she didn’t draw back. She wanted to; God alone knew how she wanted to. Her nerves were strung taut. The idea of being manhandled by a naked black boy appalled her: struck at the root of one of the basic principles of her civilized code. It was terrifying; revolting; obscene. Back in Charleston it would have got the darkie lynched.” Of course, the unclothed boy is mostly curious as to why she’s wearing such a silly dress, but Mary sees it quite differently. She is so afraid of his blackness, of his nakedness, that it clouds her perspective. In fact, her main obsession throughout the book, is keeping her dress close to her body, her thinly veiled protective sheath.

The aboriginal boy is a clear Christ figure from the outset: pure of heart, generous, someone who lives only to help others. When Peter and Mary meet the boy, he is in the middle of a walkabout, a rite of passage in which young men set out on a six-to-eight month journey through the desert alone, yet he abandons his mission because the children are in need of his help. “Unless he looked after them, they would die. That was certain.” Some lines from Walkabout seem as though they’re lifted right from a passage in the Bible. “It was his people’s way to accept individuals as they were: to help, not to criticize, the sick, the blind, and the maimed.”

Yet despite the fact that the boy provides Peter and Mary with security, food, shelter, and sacrifices his spiritual journey for them, it does not succeed in quelling Mary’s institutionalized racism and fear. For the real fear does not rest with whether or not they will survive physically, but whether or not they can deal with their spiritual and psychological crises. For “…then, quite suddenly the children were walking into their shadow.” And what shadow is that?  The dark, deep-seated fear that the presence of the aboriginal boy draws forth from the reserved virginal Mary.

One day, her suspicions causes her to give him a look that “could only mean one thing: that she had seen in his eyes an image: the image of the Spirit of Death.” Apparently within Marshall’s rendering of Aboriginal culture, autosuggestion of death is enough to kill someone. The aboriginal boy ends up dying from catching the white girl’s fear (or perhaps more realistically the white boy’s cold), and in the moment of his death, he lays his head on Mary’s lap, a Christian echo of the mother Mary cradling Jesus’ dead body. “It was the smile that broke Mary’s heart: that last forgiving smile. Before, she had seen as through a glass darkly, but now she saw face to face. And in that moment of truth all her inbred fears and inhibitions were sponged away, and she saw that the world which she had thought was split in two was one.”

It’s a deep reversal. Mary’s fear and ignorance is so potent that it kills the boy, and yet in the moment of his death, its his fearlessness and Christ-like forgiveness that transforms her. Oddly, the book’s death scene doesn’t have an air of deep grief. In fact, it seems to be tinged with transcendence. As we know from Christ’s tale, death is only a mirage; life is always resurrecting.

For a book that’s only 120 pages, small pages at that, it’s so densely layered with symbolism as if to verge on being overwrought. Yet the book is saved by its focused narrative path, interior character portraits, and lush descriptions of the outback. In fact, the language is so rich with flora and fauna (the author’s pseudonym is borrowed from an Australian nature writer he admired) that I felt myself almost plucking the fauna off the page for a quick sniff.  In such a short space it asks some of the most profound questions. What is behind language? Who are we when we can’t rely on that limited form of communication? What will save us from the never-ending wild?

There’s an idea that there is something that touches the languageless place within us, outside of symbolic language and the imaginary, something known in psychoanalytic thought as “the real”. “The real” cannot be spoken or written. It’s the neo-natal, primal place we have been forever severed from through our inescapable introduction to language, that cornerstone of “civilization”. The aboriginal boy represents that place for Mary and Peter, a place they have long since lost access to. Lacan’s statement “What does not come to light in the symbolic appears in the real” is revealed in the brief moments between the three: laughter, eye contact, the embrace of another. These are moments when the “real” cuts through the symbolic, moments of pure existence. Perhaps, even when we are lost in the wild, whether it be in nature or the endless wilderness of the psyche, when we encounter another, we can always speak with them, one way or another.

Anisse Gross is a writer, editor, artist and question asker living in San Francisco. Her work has been featured in The New Yorker, The Believer, Lucky Peach, Buzzfeed, Brooklyn Quarterly, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. She openly welcomes correspondence, friendship, surprises and paid work. More from this author →