Bloody Good Aussie Book – The Sundowners

The Sundowners

Ok, so time for a bit of a book review. I realise this is where most people go “boooring” and flick back to looking at videos of cats. Well don’t. Instead sit back, shut up and get a bit of bloody culture into ya! Wow, that escalated quickly.

Anyway, The Sundowners by Jon Cleary was first released in 1952. That’s right, way back before your interwebs and iFaces and ‘electronic’ books. Seriously what the hell is an electronic book, or ‘ebook’? It’s not a book, it’s a TV with words on it. But I digress. The Sundowners is the story of the Carmody family, Paddy, Ida and their fourteen year old son Sean. It’s set in country Australia between the wars and follows the family, and a tag-along by the name of Venneker, as they travel through the bush, droving sheep, in the shearing sheds, in the pubs and in the horse racing game.

Jon Cleary manages to bring the full beauty of the bush into the tale with vivid descriptions of the landscape, the events and the wonderous vernacular of the old Australia. Funny how you don’t hear too many people being referred to as an “Old Coot” these days. So much better than many of the Americanisms that have found their way into our way of speech since those days, especially the types that refer to performing carnal deeds upon someone’s mother.

The term ‘Sundowners’ refers to the itinerant travelers of the outback, in that where ever they are at sun down, that’s their home for the night. Paddy Carmody is one such man, never wanting to be tied down to one place, and so Ida and Sean are constantly on the move with him, despite wanting nothing more than to settle into a place of their own. Regardless of their desire, Ida and Sean stay loyal to Paddy as he leads them ever onwards.

Long before the women’s liberation movement kicked on, Cleary manages to set Ida, the main female character, as a strong, independent-thinking woman who won’t meekly submit to what the men tell her. This is best illustrated when the Carmody’s join a shearing team, and rather than be left behind Ida insists that she joins the team as the cook. Despite the protests of some of the men Ida wins and on a couple of occasions even gives the Boss an earful. Even Paddy is regularly put in his place by his strong, but ever-loving wife. To steal a phrase from today ‘you go, girlfriend’!

Then there’s Sean, a fourteen year old lad on the brink of manhood. He worships his father, but as the story goes on he comes into his own and forms his own opinions which are not always in line with Paddy’s. And as happens with all teenage boys, Sean becomes aware of the lure of the female of the species and his awkwardness around the more ‘worldly’ Marge Bateman will probably bring back uncomfortable memories for a lot of blokes. But Marge’s ‘worldliness’ only comes from books and it is soon shown that she is just as awkward as Sean. Nevertheless Sean’s journey as he crosses the threshold from boy to man is brilliantly conveyed, although that crossing does not involve anything untoward with Marge, this was written in the 50’s after all.

But the supporting characters are the ones who make the story come to life. From the loud and happy Mrs Firth, proprietor of the Cawndilla pub, to the shearers, to the lonely young wife of the station owner, Cleary captures many of the personalities of ‘typical Australians’ from that period. The two old blokes at the Bulinga pub, one commentating on a fight between Paddy and Venneker while the other constantly questions where the beer is, while complaining about his short-sightedness is wonderful. And they show up again at the end of the story, kind of like a couple of drunken book ends. Beautiful.

The main thing that makes this book such a good read is the humour, the sort of self-effacing humour you’d expect from Australia as it was (before everyone got so bloody oversensitive and started getting offended by everything). I won’t give it all way, but just as an example in one scene there is a blue (a fight to the un-Aussie lot out there) between two teams of shearers. Afterwards the team is discussing the event and one bloke points out that his mate kept getting knocked down by one of the others. Rather than take umbridge at the implication that he couldn’t fight his way out of a wet paper bag he just states “yeah, I was up and down like dunny seat”. Enough said I reckon.

Anyway, it may be an old story but it still has an appeal, especially to those of us who still hold out hope that the best of the Old Australia will somehow mix with the best of the New Australia. And as evidence that it is a great story, even the Seppos (Americans) decided to turn into into a movie with Robert Mitchum (apparently he was a bit of a hottie back then), which is something I’m pretty sure didn’t happen with too many Aussie stories back then.

It’s a great read about great people in a great country. Get onto it.