As I prepared for a week on a houseboat with my family of five, I found myself unable to let go of my ‘desk’. I packed it in miniature: two notebooks with works-in-progress, a folder of articles related to my work, three books from my current reading list, as well as recent editions of The Atlantic Monthly and The New Yorker. I even brought along my laptop, knowing full well that the electricity, space, and privacy required to write were all unlikely.
Two hours out of the marina, dusk fell at the moment we chugged into a mud bank and came to a standstill. There was hope though. The tide was rising. Surely we would float off, we all agreed optimistically. We made dinner and played board games and went to bed early. My husband woke me at 2.00 am.
Nothing. The comforting sound of water slapping against the hull had ceased. We were perched on mudflats two hundred metres in all directions. Oops.
The morning tide was higher and we broke free. After strong coffee and in good spirits, we headed off towards clearer waters. Then, the motor failed. We spent the day drifting, waiting for the mechanics, playing monopoly and backgammon, joking about our ‘holiday’. Through it all, although I never unzipped the backpack with my books and notebooks, I was comforted by the fact that it was with me.
Eventually, it was determined that the motor could not be fixed. The mechanics towed us back to the marina, returned our money, and sent us home. Back in Brisbane, we brought all the bags in from the car.
“Don’t unpack. We’re leaving in the morning.”
After some calls, my husband had found a replacement vacation: The Hyatt-Regency in Coolum, in luxurious accommodation that was the complete opposite to our broken-down little houseboat in the Gold Coast’s Broadwater. Unfortunately, the backpack with my work didn’t make it into the car that second time, and I arrived in our luxury house without anything to read.
I wasn’t panic stricken or anything. We were close enough to civilization for me to find a book or two. Intellectually, I knew that I could always buy a notebook to write in. But I did have a flustered moment or two. Not having my bag with me recalled other times in my life—traveling in Thailand and Egypt, for example—when I’d read everything I brought with me, and I was at the mercy of the books others had left behind in the guest houses I stayed in. There was always a rickety shelf in the lobby with books you could borrow or swap. The Clan of the Cave Bear, Bonfire of the Vanities, something always by Agatha Christie, Danielle Steele, Tom Robbins—these were the things you’d find. There would be a Penguin or two, which I’d always scramble for. They were usually something I’d read already—Jane Eyre or The Picture of Dorian Gray—but always worth a second (or third!) read.
At the beach house in Coolum, with an evening stretching out in front of me with nothing to read, I began fossicking for the books others left behind. This is what I found: four gossip magazines—an OK! from November and another from February, plus two New Ideas, both from 2008; Mistress of the Game by Sidney Sheldon; Dead Man Running, an insider’s story of one of the world’s most feared motorcycle gangs; Please Explain by Karl Kruszelnicki; Storm Tactics, a handbook for survival in extreme conditions; a book by Jackie Collins; Nip ‘n’ Tuck by Kathy Lette; and A Sudden Country by Karen Fisher, someone I’d never heard of.
I immediately rejected the Sheldon and the Collins. They would only make me cranky about the publishing industry and the undemanding reading public. I wasn’t too keen on the motorcycle story either. Even though it was non-fiction, I didn’t expect the writing to be captivating enough to hold my attention through the distractions of a family holiday. Considering our recent experience on the houseboat, I put Storm Tactics aside to have a look at. Dr. Karl always has something interesting to say, but a quick glance revealed that his book was directed to a younger audience. That left Lette and the newcomer, Fisher.
Nip ‘n’ Tuck is the perfect holiday reading—funny, shallow, satirical, perpetuating stereotypes—one of those ‘rollicking’ reads everyone refers to as a book for the beach. This was my opportunity. I would probably never encounter this book again. But I also took down the Fisher book. From the cover, it looked to be a western, not really my thing, but it was a finalist for the Pen/Faulkner Award, and this made me curious.
It was the surprise of the week. I read the opening paragraphs and continued on to chapter two and three and four, mesmerized. Over the next few days, I stopped for meals and playtime with my family, but part of me remained in the vivid world Fisher creates. A Sudden Country is set along the Oregon Trail in 1847, the fourth year in which hundreds of families crossed the Missouri River and left the United States for the Oregon Territory.
The story centres around the genteel Lucy Mitchell, who sets out reluctantly with her impassioned, idealistic husband Israel and their five children. The well-stocked wagons that departed from Iowa are steadily depleted of supplies. Like many, Lucy foolishly neglects to ration in the early months, and they face weeks of harsh deprivation as the journey progresses. “Remember apples?” one of the children asks another.
Through the journey west, the pioneers are similarly stripped of ideals, materialism, their former selves. In one scene, faced with a treacherous river crossing, the wagons must be lightened. No one hesitates. With seasoned pragmatism, they dump the Belgian carpets, the carved dining set, the incidental tables, hutches, settees, crystal chandeliers, and the most treasured items of all: the books. The children amuse themselves by playing house. They spread the rugs and arrange the furniture into open-air rooms. Looking back as her wagon crosses the river, Lucy sees the artefacts of her old life grow smaller and smaller and finally disappear, left to snakes and grizzlies, wind and sand.
This is a gorgeous love story told in poetic, dreamlike language. It’s also a tale of grit and survival, impeccably researched. That Fisher combines such a delicate style with such detailed historical facts shows her artistry as a writer. I grew more and more curious about her.
I’ve since learned a few things. She’s directly descended from Lucy Mitchell, the real life figure on whom she bases her female protagonist. She’s worked as a wrangler, teacher, farmer and carpenter, all of which is evident in the depth and detail of her storytelling. A few years ago, Fisher stumbled across some documents—a couple of letters, a child’s account of the crossing—which sent her on her own journey of discovery.
When asked about her writing experience in an interview, Fisher, who’s had no formal training, cites the books she loves as her most pronounced influence. She names Michael Ondaatje, Cormac McCarthy, Charles Frazier and Carol Shields as the writers she most admires. Their influence is present in Fisher’s shimmering prose and the underlying emotion of her characters. Most interesting to me, however, is Fisher’s claim to be particularly indebted to Patrick White. The moment I read this, I could see the ways in which White has influenced how she depicts the consciousness and self-consciousness of her characters. It makes me hanker for works by Australian writers who use White as a model and for new sweeping novels about the early days of this country.
I finished A Sudden Country the day before my holiday was over. During a swim in the ocean and over a long afternoon walk, I let the mood of this moving story hang over me. Later when I packed up, I was tempted to tuck the book in my suitcase. Then, I thought of the next guests. I imagined that the very next week, another person will arrive, pick up this book from the pile, wonder about the little-known author, read the opening pages, and experience the delightful surprise of being transported to another world entirely.
PS I don’t think I will ever end up reading Nip ‘n’ Tuck, but with happy surprises like A Sudden Country on the shelf, I don’t mind.