by Ion L Idriess
This collection of stories with a rather off-putting cover was my chosen classic for Classic Club Spin #25. Ion L. Idriess was purportedly Australia’s most popular author at the time this book was published in 1934. My 6th edition (with the pictured cover) was published in 1944. He was certainly prolific, with more than 50 books published between 1927 and 1969. His travelling life was the basis of all of his books, and the back of the dust cover gives the following description: (He) “obtained honours in chemistry and a certificate in assaying at the Broken Hill School of Mines. He has worked in the Assay Office of the Broken Hill Pty Mine; has been an adventurer, seaman, station hand, drover, track finder, wharf labourer, opal miner, and has served in the Great War (Gallipoli, Sinai and Palestine) with the 5th Australian Light Horse. Has wandered in Northern Queensland, Western Austalia, North Australia, the Gulf Country and the Centre, the Torres Strait islands, the Kimberleys, and Papua. Has cruised the Barrier Reef seeking trochus shell, and with a mate was abandoned for seven months on barren Howick Island. Has wandered with native tribes in Cape York Peninsula studying the people, prospecting for gold, tin, and wolfram, seeking sandalwood and collecting material for books.”
In his Author’s Note to this book, Idriess tells us that “The stories in this volume record happenings or incidents in men’s lives which interested me during years of wandering among the bushmen and natives of Cape York Peninsula; the pearlers, trochus and beche-de-mer getters of the Coral Sea; the native islanders of Torres Strait; the ‘beachcombers’ of the Great Barrier Reef; and along the Arafura Sea towards the west. With two exceptions, all are transcripts of fact or largely based on fact, unusual though an occasional one may seem”.
This is useful information, because most of the 28 stories read as fictional short stories and are hardly believable. They give a fascinating insight into life (and death) in remote places in tropical northern Australia around 100 years ago. Idriess is a great writer, using vivid description and humour to reflect an experience of the brutality, tragedy, hilarity and general adventurousness of life off the beaten track. The language/vocabulary used to describe indigenous people in Australia, the Torres Strait Islands and New Guinea would not be acceptable today, but it is clear that Idriess respected and enjoyed his interactions with these characters, so although reading these descriptions is very off-putting, they need to be considered as acceptable for that time.
Overall, this is a highly entertaining and fascinating collection of stories.