Leave to flee bad par­ents

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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.

Tas per­son­i­fies

ev­ery­thing

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

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