Barbara Wood, The Dreaming: A Novel of Australia (Random House, 1991)

I came across this gem of a novel the old-fashioned way, while casually scanning the fiction shelves at my favorite local used bookstore. With its almost impossibly vivid neo-Aboriginal design, the dust jacket drew my attention. Although I'd never heard of the author, the idea of a story set in the Australian outback during the late nineteenth century definitely appealed to me. I got around to reading it earlier this summer, during one of those hot spells that always drive me to look for a good adventure yarn without a lot of serious undertones or nonlinear plot devices.

The Dreaming is a well-crafted tale, populated with believable and interesting characters, nicely grounded in the history of Australia and full of fascinating references to Aboriginal culture. The story revolves around a mystery. A young woman, Joanna Drury, arrives in Melbourne in 1871, shortly after her parents' tragic deaths in India. Before her mother Emily died, she told Joanna that the family was under a curse that originated with her parents, John and Naomi Makepeace. The Makepeaces had spent time living with an Aboriginal clan, then disappeared without a trace. Four year-old Emily arrived in England carrying a satchel full of her father's coded field notes and a small, strange stuffed animal and grew up in her aunt's care. The adult Emily kept a journal, which she gave to Joanna before she died, admonishing her daughter to make the journey to Australia and find out how to lift the curse.

By the time she arrives in Australia, Joanna has already begun to experience the recurring dreams that troubled her mother and eventually precipitated her death. A chance meeting in Melbourne leads Joanna to travel to a sheep station a few days' journey west of Melbourne.  There she befriends a young half-Aboriginal woman, Sarah, who helps her interpret her family history from an Aboriginal perspective. The curse becomes a poison-song and the writings from her mother and grandfather become parts of Joanna's songline.

Throughout The Dreaming, the concept of the songline appears with a number of distinct but not inconsistent meanings. When Sarah first explains it to Joanna, she refers to it as both a physical path identifiable by landmarks (typically rock formations in the almost lunar Australian outback) and as a personal journey through time, particularly one that connects the individual with her ancestors and her offspring. Raised in a literate culture, Joanna applies the songline concept to her grandfather's field notes -- as well as to her mother's journal and her own -- for the words are like songs that connect the past to the present and future. As I read Wood's more Aboriginal-mystical passages, I kept thinking of the scene at the end of Mad Max Beyond  Thunderdome when the children have returned to the city and tell the story of how they got there.

Wood does a splendid job of elaborating the central plot with details appropriate to the setting and the period. These include memorable descriptions of Australia's terrain, climate, flora and fauna. She dwells with especially loving detail on a billabong near the sheep station, which Sarah explains to Joanna is sacred to the Kangaroo clan. Later she offers a stirring depiction of a flash flood that turns another part of the same sleepy river into a torrent that sweeps away sheep and men and wagons.

As Wood portrays it, Australia during the late nineteenth century was still experiencing many of the same growing pains that beset the American West during that period. Sarah grew up at a mission, where she acquired only a partial knowledge of her Aboriginal mother's culture. An older Aboriginal male character, Ezekiel, survives by working as a hand on the sheep stations.
The British colonists reproduce the lifestyles they left behind, the wealthier landowners building large, elegant manor houses staffed by servants and surrounded by gardens of plants from England, buying clothes from the Continent, and entertaining themselves with dress balls and kangaroo hunts and archery competitions. Their wealth is dependent on the quality and volume of wool gathered each year from their sheep and on the market for that wool in England and Europe and America. Thus a persistent drought or an infestation of parasites can -- and does -- plunge them into debt and despair.

The Dreaming spans a period of about fifteen years, divided into four sections that each focus on a period of about a year. This narrative technique enables Wood to move the central plot along at a pace that is both leisurely and economical, revealing clues about Joanna's mystery to the reader no faster than they are revealed to her. For the most part, this approach is quite effective. Occasionally, Wood provides a bit more back story on a previous section than is necessary. This tendency to reiterate information reminded me of those nineteenth century novels originally published in serial form.

Although it's out of print, I found numerous copies of The Dreaming in both hard cover and mass paperback at reasonable prices on the Advanced Book Exchange's Web site. It's definitely worth pursuing!

[Donna Bird]