In a A Long Way from Home, published by Penguin/Random House, Australian author Peter Carey takes readers on a road trip into the heart of darkness at the core of his country’s history. To be fair, the same darkness lurks at the centre of any colonized nation, the treatment of a land’s indigenous people.
Initially the book reads like any of Carey’s previous books. A story populated with the odd and strange characters who pop out of his head and land feet first in the Australian landscape. They have included everybody from folk out of the country’s history, the infamous Ned Kelly, to thieves, con men and dreamers. While slightly larger than life, these folk have represented a legitimate cross section of a rather particular population.
A Long Way From Home is populated by types we’ve come to expect from Carey – eccentrics and oddities. Those who escape being cartoons only through the deftness of the author’s characterizations and the realistic circumstances he creates for them. Irene and Titch Bobs, and their new neighbour, Willie Bachhuber, are cast from the same mould; off centre enough for them stand out in a crowd.
The Bobs have their hearts set on becoming an authorized Ford Motor Car dealer. In 1950s Australia Titch Bobs has already established himself as one of the best Ford salesmen in his part of the country. Both he and his wife are in fact obsessed with cars period – she loves to drive fast and furious and he wants to outshine his father (an over the top domineering bully of a man) by opening the best car dealership in Australia. Oh and both the Bobs check in at around 5 foot 3 inches – hence his nickname Titch.
Bauchhuber is a relative recluse. Suspended from his job as a teacher (he snapped one day and hung one of his especially annoying pupils out a window while holding him by his ankles) he now survives pretending to win big on a local quiz show. He receives a cheque each week but isn’t allowed to cash it in lieu of future big prizes when the show is picked up nationally. So he ekes out an existence and lives surrounded by books and magazines – specifically histories of Australia.
Unlike what he’s taught his students in school some of these are real histories and detail how indigenous people were displaced and driven from their land – either through slaughter or other means – in the name of progress and development. This is our first indication of the road the story might be heading down,
When the Bobs decide to enter into a cross Australia road rally known as The Redex Trial. Straight off the showroom cars – no modifications allowed – were driven through some of the roughest territory the country could throw at them.The one which survived the best and stayed closest to their personal timetable, would be declared the winner.
Somehow or other Bauchhuber is persuaded by the Bobs to become their navigator – to be the one to read topographical maps and warn them of creek-beds and other hazards which could tear out the car’s undercarriage. However, what starts as a road race ends up being something else altogether. For when they reach Southern Australia people start treating Bauchhuber differently. While to all appearances he’s white, it turns out he’s actually of mixed blood – half aboriginal half white. To the white’s in the South that makes him all black and less than human.
Soon Bauchhuber’s journey becomes something different. He sets off to discover who he is and his own history. What he finds is a story that is all too familiar now a days. As a child who could pass for white he was taken from his mother and family by the Welfare system and given to a white family so he could have a “decent” upbringing.
Back in the territory he was born in he comes to discover not only his own history but the true shameful history of Australia. He learns about how the men are pretty much slaves labour for white land owners. Working in fields and mines for pittance. Some women are unlucky enough to have to work as maids in the white houses. While the work is easier they become sexual toys for the master of the house and his male friends – hence mixed race children.
Carey is far too good a writer to set things out as baldly as I have above. Bauchhuber is on a long slow painful journey and we watch as he comes to understand who he is and where he was born. Because Carey has been so careful in his creation of all his characters we care about what Bauchhuber experiences and pay very close attention to what he sees and hears.
Unlike a factual historical account which can tell the same details, Carey has given history a face and made it personal. As the scales fall from Bauchhuber’s eyes, they also fall from the readers’s and we see and feel everything a little more closely.
It’s a painful transition for all of us to make, but a necessary one. Without being strident or overtly political Carey points out we’re all going to have come to terms with the fact our colonized countries are founded on genocide.
From Australia to North America to Africa to South East Asia indigenous peoples have been subjugated and killed just because they’re considered less than human or in the way. In a A Long Way From Home Carey has slyly taken what appears to be another humorous novel and turned it into something else, before the reader can even notice, and addresses this issue brilliantly.
It’s not often such an intelligent and well written book comes along, but this is a great one about a difficult subject. If you still wonder, “what do they want?”, than you should read this book. You might learn something.