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We of the Never Never - Mrs Aeneas Gunn.|
Where do you start to describe a book like "We of the Never Never", firstly it's an autobiographical novel, the incidents happened in a part of Australia known as the "Never Never" which is roughly the part of the Northern Territory from Katherine to the South Australian border and between Western Australia and Queensland, it's a vast area with fairly sparse vegetation and in the northern area torrential rains each wet season. It's called the "never never" because once you've been there you'll either never never want to leave or you'll never never want to return.
The story is set in 1902, the year that Jeannie Gunn and her husband Aeneas arrived at the Elsey cattle station which was near the Roper River, about 300km south of modern Darwin. The authoress' writing style is simple, clean and lucid, and the readers are left with a clear understanding of life on the edge during 1902~3.
The story opens up with a quite funny account of things that were said about her and her husband via the overland telegraph from Adelaide to Darwin, and the debate over what sort of wife the boss had married along with ways to stop her from going to the station. Back then cattle station life was very harsh and the men didn't want the liability of a woman around, to say nothing of the social problems it would cause with having to be polite and not getting drunk etc.
Once they arrived at the station proper (one room) she discovered the true joys of living in the bush, endless mosquitoes, flies so thick they sat like carpet on your body, heat and then more heat. Water shortages, running out of essential items like tea and there being no shop except for nearly a weeks journey away at the local pub at The Katherine. Food and supplies were brought in once a year by wagon from the rail which ended about halfway between Darwin and The Katherine.
Most of the book centres around "educating the missus", that is teaching her the ways of the bush and how to survive in the Never Never. The cast of characters in the book is quite small but each is lovingly drawn and very detailed and the characters resolve in to wonderfully complex characters who have their own weaknesses and strengths, good and bad sides. The Sanguine Scot, "The Dandy" a stockman who liked his clothes cleaned and ironed and who was fastidious about personal hyegine, to Ah Cheon, the Chinese station cook, and the poor Ken Lee another Chinese cook who died from illness during the Chinese New Year in 1903 while travelling from Darwin to Daly waters to take up the post of station cook.
Some sections of the book are quite funny, the description of Cheon chasing chickens and some of his Chinglish expressions are truly a treat and offer great insight in to the man and the fact that he was highly talented and a long long way from home. Another famous character was The Fizzer, the mailman, he delivered the mail every 6 weeks on a mail run that stretched the better part of 1600km, and he was punctual to the hour! Sadly like many in this book he died a few years later in a flood while crossing a river delivering the mail. Several of the other stockmen died of thirst in the desert while the carpenter died a few meters from water!
The book ends in 1903 when her husband died from Malarial dysentery. She returned to Melbourne and wrote the book which was first published in 1908.
For me this book was quite an eye opener, many older Australians had read the book yet I managed to never read it until my early 30s. I'd been to the old Elsey station, and seen the graves of many of the characters in the book and this prompted me to read the book and I will admit reading it was quite emotional as many years a go I lost a couple of friends who perished in the outback. It also prompted me to do some research about who the graves all wound up in the same place, and that was quite a story too. After the research I was left with one big question, what happened to Ah Cheon? I know he went back to China and he was in touch with Jeannie Gunn until around 1931 and then he too stopped corresponding, one can only assume he died or was invalided, but what of his children and family? I wish I knew what happened and are any of his descendant still alive today?
Ah Cheon, 1922.