Leave to flee bad parents
WHEN I was nine years old and living in Tasmania, my infant sister had to spend some time in Royal Hobart Hospital. We visited her every day, but the crowd around her bedside was dense, and I found it hard to be noticed.
Bored, I turned to the bed next to her. Occupying it was a little boy, aged perhaps six or seven. Wan and listless, he lay there with no one to talk to. In those days visiting hours were enforced by stern nurses. For only one hour a day were visitors permitted near the children, so the isolation of this boy was very obvious.
I was quite obsessed with little toy cars, and I started playing with some of my cars on his bedspread, involving him in the stories I created. He seemed to enjoy this, but it wasn’t for a week or so that one of the nurses told my mother his story.
He came from a remote settlement on the west coast of Tasmania, and no one in his family could afford the long trip to Hobart to visit him. He had been in the hospital for more than two months. I was rather gratified when the nurse told my mother that my visits had transformed him, and that all day long he lay in bed waiting eagerly for our game with the cars. It made me even more enthusiastic about playing with him, and I’m afraid that I neglected my sister completely.
That was 1959. Stories about the hardship and isolation experienced by families in bush communities were commonplace in Tasmania then, and no doubt in other states of Australia as well.
These were the people Nan Chauncy wrote about. The battlers, the hermits, the fringe dwellers, the nonentities. Many had hardly been to school; many were illiterate. Badge, the child-hero of Chauncy’s Tiger in the Bush, has never seen canned food, never seen a camera, never seen electric light. When a visitor extends his hand, Badge stares at it, bewildered. No one has ever offered to shake his hand before, and he doesn’t know what to do.
No one else in the post-war world wrote about these people. Perhaps no well-known Australian writer since Banjo Paterson or Henry Lawson had taken much interest in them. But Chauncy, the privately educated daughter of a professional family from Middlesex, England, who emigrated to Tasmania with her family when financial troubles beset them, somehow developed an admiration, a respect and affection for them that permeated most of her books. She was clearly affected by the bonds that held their families together and the loving relationships they often developed.
An ardent conservationist long before it was fashionable, she recognised that these bush people loved, in an unsentimental way, the Tasmanian landscape and the native creatures that inhabited it.
People like Badge and his family were not educated in the conventional sense of the word, but Chauncy showed them to have an extensive knowledge of their environment and outstanding bush skills.
In They Found a Cave, Chauncy’s first novel, we are introduced to a family that seemingly mirrors Chauncy’s own — well-educated immigrants from England. With names such as Nigel, Brickenden and Anthony, the children seem like aliens in the rough-and-tumble world of the Tasmanian bush. Sent from England to stay with their aunt when World War II broke out, they expect that they will soon be going to boarding school, but in the meantime they flourish in the free atmosphere of farm life. We can imagine the young Chauncy being equally exhilarated by the contrast between Tasmania and the wellordered world of Middlesex.
However, the success of They Found a Cave rests not on the shoulders of the young travellers who are adjusting to a very different lifestyl, but on the remarkable Tasmanian boy aptly nicknamed Tas.
Chauncy admired about the uncivilised, unschooled, knowledgeable and enterprising Tasmanians with whom she must have mingled when the family moved to the quaintly named Bagdad, a tiny rural community north of Hobart. Tas has ‘‘ never had a chance’’ at formal education, but he has spirit, initiative, bush skills and farm skills. He is a born leader.
‘‘ It seemed impossible to climb higher, but always Tas pointed out a way . . .’’
Tas is marked out as special for another reason, however. There is something quite extraordinary about him; an aspect of his life that is almost unknown in children’s books before the publication of They Found a Cave. It is this: Tas has a mother and stepfather who are simply awful. They are bullies, liars and thieves. They have no redeeming qualities. Not even Charles Dickens dared give his fictitious children such horrible parents. One has to skip ahead to Roald Dahl’s Matilda to find parents equally repellent, but the Wormwoods are slapstick figures, whereas Chauncy’s Pinners are credible in their viciousness.
And even more remarkably, Chauncy gives children, via They Found a Cave, tacit permission to leave such parents. Given that the book was written in a conservative era — a
Nan Chauncy in 1959, feeding an orphaned wombat