Theo, my stepson, brought home his booklist for Year 12 a couple of days ago. He’s doing Literature, rather than English, and I was disappointed to see what a predictable and over-used bunch of texts the school had set for their most passionate readers – all British bar one slender contemporary Australian novel. Ironically, the ESL and English texts looked much more interesting.
One of the themes for VCE English is ‘The Imaginative Landscape’. It set me thinking about how powerfully Australian landscapes infiltrate our literature, and sad that so many fantastic Australian classics go out of print and that so few of them are on offer for Australian secondary students to study.
Growing up in suburban Melbourne, I never read much that was set in my corner of the world but there were some books that had an enduring impact on my understanding of Australian landscapes. Like Hesba Brinsmead‘s ‘Pastures of the Blue Crane’. Even though I read this book in the early seventies, I never forgot the descriptions of the rolling hills, the wide beaches and pale pink pastures of long grass that 16-year-old Ryl discovered when she went to claim her inheritance in northern NSW near the border of Queensland.
Thinking about the book made me search it out from my shelves. It was actually shocking to re-read. Set in the 1960s, it details the racism of the era with painful bluntness. It is a book so much of its time that I realised it documents history, not just a story of a girl and a landscape. And even that landscape has changed. I was an adult before I visited Queensland and northern NSW. Each time I revisit, I find the landscape changed, the earlier version that I hold in my memory and imagination inevitably transformed by the impact of thousands of new houses and their inhabitants. But those pastures of long, pale pink grass where the blue crane wandered are still firmly fixed in my sense of imaginative Australian landscapes. I wish more books like this could be used in schools to create that powerful sense of place that connects us to our landscapes and each other.