1908. Eden, New South Wales. The Davidson’s are a whaling family heading into whaling season following a disappointing previous year. If the talk of whales is already putting you off, let me introduce you to the eldest Davidson daughter, nineteen-year-old, Mary. Mary sketches scenes of the whales which are included as illustrations in the novel. This one received a Highly Commended in the Eden Show:
All in all, it is quite a dramatic representation, and a great favourite with the children. Some considered it ought to have been awarded first prize; however, for reasons of their own which remain mysterious, the judges deemed otherwise. Admittedly there were some small inaccuracies…It was rumoured the judges may have found the painting too gruesome – if this was the case, then I consider it curious, as I know one of these judges was to be seen on the cliff tops cheering heartily whenever such a scene unfolded in real life. In truth, I suspect the real reason Stern All, Boys! was deemed unworthy of a prize is that the subject matter was considered unsuitable for a young lady.
As the novel begins, Mary tells us about the ‘kitchen superstitions’ her and her sisters are ‘slave to’, including ‘If, after sweeping a room, the broom was left in a corner, then the sweeper would shortly meet her true love’. As Mary sees a visitor outside of the house, she stops sweeping the bedrooms, unintentionally leaves the broom in the corner of the room, and goes to speak to him.
He is John Beck, former Methodist minister, and he’s looking for work. With no experience in whaling whatsoever, John Beck finds himself employed for George Davidson is desperate.
While Mary and John Beck fall in love, Mary relates the story of the season. Much of the book concerns the whales, the whaling and the whalers. George and his team are unusual in that the bay from which their whaling is carried out is home to a group of Killer whales who help the whalers with their business. The Killers, led by Tom (for all of them have been named), alert the whalers whenever they’ve herded a whale into the bay. The deal is that once the whale is killed, the Killers take the carcass underwater and feast on its tongue and lips, allowing the remains to rise twenty-four hours later for the whalers to render its blubber into oil.
Mary’s role is to run the household, including organising the younger children.
What a burden it is to be the firstborn daughter when your mother has died! It was not as if I was unused to work – I did almost all the cooking and all the washing (with some assistance from Louisa, admittedly) and cleaned the house and darned their clothes; I even taught the little ones their lessons as best I could. But to cook for the whalers seemed to push me to the very limit of my forbearance. As I say, it was not even the fact of extra mouths to feed – it was the lack of appreciation for my efforts. Not enough salt? Then here, sir – have the entire container, upended over your fat head.
The tension in Rush Oh! rises from a number of areas: the appearance of John Beck; the anticipation as the whalers wait for Tom’s signal; the attempts to kill the whales herded into the bay; whether there will be enough whales for the Davidson’s to afford to live. However, it’s the narrative voice of Mary – old enough to take responsibility for the household and a burgeoning feminist, but still young enough to be naïve in some scenarios – that really makes this book.
Rush Oh! is a gem.
Thanks to Virago for the review copy.