Brian Alderson discusses Ivan Southall’s story of survival and possible salvation, To the Wild Sky
Not all that long ago
a lady acquaintance, much involved with children’s books, mentioned that she had been invited to Australia to visit the Museum at Dromkeen and generally chew the rag. ‘Can you get news on the fate of Ivan Southall?’ I asked, to which the reply came: ‘Who’s he?’
Well, I know he died a dozen years ago,
but wondered how his reputation fared in his native land in this new century, and I wonder now if he is as forgotten there as he is here. For he was a writer of somewhat controversial eminence in the ‘golden 60s and 70s’ of the last century (the first Australian to win the Carnegie Medal) and a unique specialist in disaster: floods, bush fires, and, in the inexplicable Finn’s Folly, a caste of troubled characters, including one severely mentally disabled child, who engage in a Totentanz where, on a foggy night, a car crashes into an overturned lorry full of drums of cyanide.
To the Wild Sky
is among the variants of Southall catastrophe, a bleak reading of the child survival theme that we encountered in Walkabout (BfK 243 ) where a plane crash deposited two American children in the middle of an Australian desert. On this occasion the participants are six local schoolfriends, one of whom has invited the others to what looks like being an ostentatious birthday party on his parents’ sheep farm three hundred miles up west of the River Darling.
We meet them serially
as they join the taxi that is to take them to the airstrip for the flight north: Gerald, the birthday child, Bruce and Jan, twins, Colin and his younger brother, Mark, too ‘wild and thoughtless’ for the occasion, and the beautiful Carol. The little plane they fly in belongs to Gerald’s father, who has let him sit at the controls occasionally, but it only has five passenger seats so Colin, in his best suit, has to sit on the floor. The pilot, Jim, is an employee of the family, not relishing having to fly a plane full of kids.
It’s only to be expected
that Jan and Colin should be sick (he in his best suit) only a few minutes into the flight and, since Southall is telling the story, that soon after, a hundred miles or so on, Jim should suffer an instant and fatal heart attack. What hope there is for the passengers thus rests on Gerald, clambering into the pilot’s seat and attempting to use his very slender knowledge to keep the plane aloft. Southall (who had been a decorated pilot during the War) gives a thrilling insight into both the technology of what confronts Gerald and his own thinking as he traverses a desperate learning curve on how to steer, let alone land the machine. For much of the time decisions based on a view of the landscape have been impossible because of low cloud and eventually, with fuel getting low and night falling, he brings the plane down in the sea on the littoral of what turns out to be an uninhabited island.
It is here
that, where the ignorant children of Walkabout are saved by their encounter with the Aborigine boy, the children of the bourgeois Australian suburbs have to try to figure out themselves where they are and what may be necessary for their survival . They spend a night of exhausted sleep after the trauma of the flight and the landing, but the next day any sort of rational planning is dominated by the realisation that no one knows their pilot had died or where they might be so that their future rests with themselves alone. (An investigation along the beach and the pooling of snippets of knowledge leads them to determine that, because of a powerful tail-wind in the flight, they have ended up on the island of Molineaux in the Gulf of Carpentaria, a wilderness if ever there was one.)
At the same time
there is much bickering over the need to bury poor Jim and to escape the island (idiotically by building a raft). It seems to escape them, as it doesn’t escape the reader, that the immediate need is to establish a source of fresh water and a mode of foraging for daily breakfast and dinner for six. The American children of Walkabout came by a hard-won resilience and learned to live off the land and eventually make their way to what may be a return to the life they knew. Here though the learning has yet to be done and Southall’s account is culpable of implying a doomed future for his largely incompetent castaways who do not have time to do it.
as you turn the last pages he offers glimpses of a possible salvation. As evening falls on the island a flight of ducks passes inland, confirming the presence of fresh water. Girl Guide Jan, proponent of the foolish raft idea, finally succeeds in the famous scouting procedure to making a fire by ‘rubbing two sticks together’, And golden-haired Carol, who has guarded within herself the knowledge that her great-grandmother was a black Aboriginal, calls upon what fragment of native instinct is within her to find sustenance in the fruits of the earth. A possibility – but Southall leaves his readers to bet on its likelihood.
Brian Alderson is founder of the Children’s Books History Society and a former Children’s Books Editor for The Times. His latest book The 100 Best Children’s Books, Galileo Publishing, 978-1903385982, £14.99 hbk, is out now.
To The Wild Sky by Ivan Southall is available Text Publishing, 978-1922147868, £8.99 pbk.
as you turn the last pages he offers glimpses of a possible salvation. As evening falls on the island a flight of ducks passes inland, confirming the presence of fresh water. Girl Guide Jan, proponent of the foolish raft idea, finally succeeds in the famous scouting procedure of making a fire by ‘rubbing two sticks together’. And golden-haired Carol, who has guarded within herself the knowledge that her great-grandmother was a black Aboriginal, calls upon what fragment of native instinct is within her to find sustenance in the fruits of the earth. A possibility – but Southall leaves his readers to bet on its likelihood.
 Voice from today: “Vy din’t vey takes veir i-fones wiv vem?”