T G H Strehlow, Journey to Horseshoe Bend (©1969, Giramondo 2015)
The name Strehlow may not be quite well enough known to feature in a pub quiz question about whitefellas in Central Australia, but it comes close. Wikipedia describes Carl Strehlow (1871–1922) as a ‘linguist, anthropologist, genealogist, collector of natural history specimens, missionary and translator’ who ‘served on two Lutheran missions in inland Australia from May 1892 to October 1922, a total of thirty years’. T G H (Ted) Strehlow (1908–1978), his son, spent his childhood on the Hermannsburg Mission and achieved fame as an anthropologist and linguist, especially for his Songs of Central Australia, ‘a monumental study of the ceremonial poetry of the Arrernte’ (Wikipedia again).
Journey to Horseshoe Bend is Ted Strehlow’s account of the last days of his father’s life, when Ted was fourteen years old. Written four decades after the event, and now reissued by Giramondo more than four decades after first publication, it’s an extraordinary time machine of a book, consisting of at least four distinct strands:
• The main narrative: In October 1922 Carl Strehlow, Lutheran pastor of Hermannsburg Mission in Central Australia, is extremely ill, and the only chance to get desperately needed medical attention is to take him by horse and buggy to the nearest settlement that can be reached by a doctor in a car. He has dropsy (that is, most of his body is painfully swollen with retained fluid) and suffers terribly from the jolting journey in the intense summer heat. It’s no spoiler to say that he reaches the settlement of Horseshoe Bend, but dies before a doctor can reach him, and the burial ceremony is described in painful detail. His wife Frieda travels with him, and Hezekiel, an Arrernte man, drives the buggy. Their son Theo – referred to in the third person throughout – travels separately on a cruder, even joltier wagon driven by the Arrernte man Titus.
• Arrernte stories: As the vehicles move through country, we are told the stories (here called ‘myths’) of the ancestral beings who created its features, and some of the pre-settlement history of internecine conflict. It seems unlikely that the fourteen year old Theo would have known all these stories, but he had grown up among Arrernte people (here called ‘Aranda’ or ‘dark people’) and though he was never initiated he had a deep sense of belonging to the Arrernte and to that country. Certainly the respectful matter of factness of his storytelling has an insider feel to it.
• Settler history and anthropology: As the small party travels down the Finke River, they are given hospitality by a number of settlers along the way. Strehlow gives a brief history of each stopping-place, and casts a dispassionate anthropologist’s eye over them, particularly their sexual mores. At least, his tone is dispassionate: it’s hard to imagine that anyone could describe without a quiver of indignation moments like the one where a new white wife arrives and insists that the children who have been borne to her new husband by an Arrernte woman should no longer have his name. Some pages aim to reproduce the language of the settler patriarch of Horseshoe Bend, and even though its full-blown colonialism is certainly not endorsed by the book, a trigger warning for its liberal use of the N word wouldn’t be out of place.
• The elder Strehlow’s spiritual struggle: There’s quite a bit of Biblical exegesis, particularly of the Book of Job and Christ’s anguished cry, ‘Thy will be done’, and some bitter reflections on the contrast between institutional religion and the religion of the spirit. Although, as Philip Jones comments in his excellent afterword, Strehlow’s bitter blaming of the Lutheran authorities for his father’s suffering may well be a projection of his own feelings towards his university employers, all the same there’s some profound meditation here.
• The younger Strehlow’s coming of age story: Theo leaves his childhood home for the first time, and his father’s death marks a decisive turning point – he had expected to go to Germany to finish his education, but now he decides he belongs in Australia. In other ways too, the ordeal changes his sense of himself in the world: for the first time he meets with people who are neither Arrernte nor devout European Christian: his journey to Horseshoe Bend is his first encounter with ‘the outside world’. Though the terrible ordeal of the elder Strehlow is made painfully tangible, we are not made privy to the emotional upheaval it must have caused his son. When we are told what is going on in Theo’s mind, it is mostly his response to the country and then in the final pages his decision to stay in Australia.
I don’t suppose anyone would claim that Journey to Horseshoe Bend is a great literary work. Philip Jones’s Afterword describes in some detail how Strehlow resisted his editors’ suggestions on many fronts: the dialogue is generally wooden, the religious reflections repetitive, the recriminations shrill. But I have to say that it has changed – deepened, expanded, transformed – my sense of what it is to be a settler Australian.
I am grateful to Giramondo for my complimentary copy.
[Added later: Lisa Hill has an excellent review of this book at ANZ LItLover’s LitBlog]
And now, because it’s November:
November Verse 2:
(riffing on Journey to Horseshoe Bend pages 262–265)
Lill had three sons and a daughter.
She was the wife of Gus the boss
of Horseshoe Bend. Well, kinda, sorta.
A wife would not have borne the loss
of stolen fair-skinned daughter Millie.
Her sons would have been heirs – that's Jimmy,
Bert and Sonny, stockman all;
her wife-pride would have had no fall.
But then a girl bride joined the station,
said, 'Lill's sons can't have your name,
so give them hers.' She had no shame.
A decade later, commendation:
'I'd not have coped with life up here
without Lill's help. She's such a dear.'