Oh how I loved this book when I was eleven years old. It spoke to me in a way no other work of fantasy could because it was such an unashamed blend of Australian folklore and European mythology. The blurb read:
“Once upon a time, beyond the Tin Shed and the other side of the Black Stump, there lived an old man, Crooked Mick, and a boy, Peter. One day, Peter left his home on his white pony, Moonlight, on a search through the Land of Clutching Grass, over mountains and through the Watchful Forest, for the last surviving Beautiful Princess.”
I own a copy of the original hardcover but it has long since lost its slip cover. But the image of teenage Peter riding with the magical kangaroo, Greyfur, by his side is fixed in my memory, as is the illustration from inside the book in which Greyfur whips an elephant out of her pouch. She was a kangaroo of many talents.
Alan Marshall was one of Australia’s great 20th century writers. He is mostly remembered for the memoir he wrote of his childhood in rural Australia, I can jump puddles. He was crippled by polio as a child but though it limited him physically, he had boundless energy and a fierce committment to his writing. I read most of his work when I was a teenager and enjoyed his clean, direct prose.
Perhaps there are aspects of Whispering in the Wind that would sit less easily with contemporary readers. Marshall’s vision of a mythological Australia is populated by anglo-celtic settlers – a very mid-twentieth century take on our cultural make-up. But the book is a fantastic romp full of magic, humour and fable, witches, giants and bunyips. Peter is a perfect hero and the Beautiful Princess is a much more modern girl than your conventional B.P.
Whispering in the Wind is out of print but I periodically go searching for it in second-hand bookshops so that I can find copies for younger friends – usually without much success. It’s one thing that makes me particularly excited about the advent of e-books. If e-books can successfully rescue novels like this from obscurity, it will be a great day for Australian literature.