Whaler’s daugh­ter re­calls glory and gore

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - ‘‘I won­der if Eu­nice Martin will wear her Eleanor Lim­precht Rush Oh! By Shirley Bar­rett Pic­a­dor, 358pp, $32.99

Be­tween 1840 and 1930 the most ex­tra­or­di­nary thing was hap­pen­ing off the NSW south coast town of Eden. A pod of killer whales co-op­er­ated with a lo­cal whal­ing fam­ily to cap­ture and kill baleen whales, and the or­cas were paid in a por­tion of the car­cass.

The baleens were rounded up on their mi­gra­tion to and from Antarc­tica by the killer whales, which acted like sheep dogs to herd their quarry into Twofold Bay. One of the killer whales would then go to the point at Kiah In­let where the David­son fam­ily lived and op­er­ated try­works, and alert them to the whales’ pres­ence by slap­ping a tail against the wa­ter. The whalers would take up the call of “Rush oh!” and hurry to their boats.

Once the baleen was cap­tured and slaugh­tered the killer whales were given a turn to feed from it — only ever eat­ing the larger whale’s lips and tongue — be­fore the whalers towed the car­cass to shore. This rare ex­am­ple of mu­tu­al­ism be­tween hu­mans and an­i­mals has been writ­ten about pre­vi­ously in Killers in Eden by zo­ol­o­gist Danielle Clode and the novel Killers of Eden by Tom Mead. But Shirley Bar­rett’s Rush Oh! is another type of tale.

A screen­writer and di­rec­tor, Bar­rett is best known for her 1996 film Love Ser­e­nade, which won the Cam­era d’Or at Cannes. Of­ten the key to a good story is find­ing the way to tell it — and Bar­rett does this by writ­ing from the per­spec­tive of Mary David­son, the fic­tion­alised daugh­ter of the fa­mous whaler Ge­orge David­son.

Rush Oh! pur­ports to be Mary’s memoir, the sort one be­gins in mid­dle age to re­call the mem­o­ries drift­ing fur­ther ev­ery year. In this case her mem­o­ries are in­ter­spersed with sketches and news­pa­per cut­tings. At the cen­tre of Mary’s memoir is the char­ac­ter of John Beck, a hand­some young man who ar­rives at the be­gin­ning of whal­ing sea­son and claims to have been a Methodist min­is­ter. Mary is im­me­di­ately smit­ten, and John does lit­tle to de­ter her af­fec­tion.

Since she has known noth­ing but whal­ing, it takes Mary see­ing it from an out­sider’s per­spec­tive to re­alise the bru­tal­ity of her fa­ther’s pro­fes­sion, and John pro­vides some of this per­spec­tive, clearly shaken af­ter his first time killing a whale. “There’s a great deal of blood in these whales,” he tells Mary.

There is also a great deal of hu­mour in this novel, be­cause Mary is, re­fresh­ingly, a plain and of­ten obliv­i­ous young woman grudg­ing of any­one who draws or dresses bet­ter than she does. One of six sib­lings whose mother died when she was 13, she is the eldest girl and ex­pected to cook for the whalers and look af­ter the house for her fa­ther.

On one oc­ca­sion she is with her sis­ter Louisa in the store look­ing wist­fully at fab­ric they will not be able to af­ford, as they haven’t even got enough money for the sup­plies they are to buy. A dis­cus­sion of the up­com­ing ball en­sues:

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