I enjoy it when novels clue me into fascinating new facts about the past. Shirley Barrett’s novel “Rush Oh!” takes place in the rural township of Eden in Australia. From a future point, Mary recounts the story of whaling season in the year 1908 so that her nephew can have a feeling for this defunct way of life. Her father George Davidson is a local hero as he leads whaling expeditions along the coast whenever they are spotted during their migration. What’s so interesting is that Barrett bases her story on a real arrangement where teams of men worked in conjunction with a group of local Killer whales. The Killer whales corralled blue, humpback or right whales into the bay so that the whalers could harpoon them. The Killer whales got to feast on the meat and the whalers took the rest of the carcass to use the blubber and bones. It’s a curious pact between men and beasts for a common cause. Barrett has brought to life a story about this rare arrangement which is filled with adventure and romance.
Mary is the eldest daughter of the Davidson family. She writes about the year 1908 because it was a time when the family’s fortunes began to turn since whales had become scarce. It’s also personally significant for her as that is when a strange former minister named John Beck comes to join the whale party and steals her heart. Having lost her mother many years ago it falls to her to organize the household and look after her younger brothers and sisters. Although I found the tales of the hunts for whales and details about the time period really engaging, something about Mary’s narration irritated me. She has what feels like a faux naivety and innocence that clashes with the brutal world around her. Her social awkwardness comes across as enduring and she has moments where she shows herself to be strong and capable. However, overall I found her mourning for her lost mother and romantic stirrings for John to be unconvincing.
It’s interesting how Mary turns the narrative into a kind of scrapbook including drawings she made of the whales and people involved as well as articles from the local newspaper. This combined with descriptions of the meagre food they ate and the arduous hunts for whales really brought the story to life. It's fascinating how the primary Killer whale Tom becomes a character himself with a distinct personality. There are also several excellent comic scenes in the novel including when Beck tries to deliver a sermon to whalers who won’t stop interrupting him or a gruesome tale of Uncle Aleck who submerges himself in a whale carcass as a cure for his rheumatism. But the narrative comes across as inconsistent when it follows the thoughts and feelings of men on the whaling expeditions which Mary wasn’t a part of and couldn’t have had any real knowledge of. She admits in certain scenes that “To be honest, I am not entirely sure if these were their exact words – I am reconstructing this conversation from an account given to me later by John Beck.” This a cumbersome way of getting around the fact that Barrett can’t show as much of the tale as she’d probably like to because the story is stuck in Mary’s perspective.
I couldn’t help comparing this novel to another book I read recently named “Elemental” which shares some striking parallels. “Elemental” is also the first person account of a woman recording her life’s story of working by the sea during the early 20th century. She’s recording this for a family member and the second half even takes place in Australia. Yet, there is tenderness and charm in the voice of “Elemental”’s narrator which I felt was lacking in Mary’s account in “Rush Oh!” I did enjoy the historical period and setting for this novel, but I wish Shirley Barrett had found another way or created a different character to get into the story.