I was thrilled to be invited by Port Macquarie Children’s and Youth Services Librarian, Virginia Cox, to co-host a celebration of Children’s Book Week 2015: Books Light Up Our World. It was a ‘family’ event with participants aged 4 to 90 sharing how books had illuminated their lives. The usual suspects were there including the girl with her head stuck in a book, the girl who was inspired to be a librarian, and then worked for the next sixty years as one, the young man who read a book that sent him off round the world. Precious books were shared: those cherished since childhood, others passed down from one generation to the next. Pippi Longstocking announced her arrival – we need more strong girls! No one was going to argue with that assertion. My contributions to the evening were a folktale and a retelling of one of my father’s stories. I have written his story here in relation to one of my favourite books.
Elyne Mitchell was the author of The Siver Brumby series which she began writing in 1958. She lived about sixty kilometres from us on Towong Hill, near the Murray River. I loved her stories about the Thowra the Silver Brumby, not only because I loved horses but because the stories were set in the country I lived in, the Snowy Mountains. They shone a light on my life.
We had brumbies on our farm because my father and his mates were stockmen, and they spent a lot of time in the high country droving cattle and chasing brumbies. Each year they would bring a mob of wild horses down from the mountains to be buckjumpers for the Tumbarumba rodeo. This story harks back to a time he was camped in one of the huts in the Snowy Mountains in the 1950’s droving cattle.
It was his turn to cook up a feed and stoke the fire. Jimmy’d been grateful for the chance to stay inside all day, out of the cold. Even if he was lonely. It started sleeting a few few hours back, and any minute they’d all come trooping through the door cursing the weather and crowding round the fireplace.
It was his second year with Bluey, Jacky, Tom and Old Bill. They’d brought the mob up to the high country at the end of September and been camped in the hut near on a fortnight. He nearly didn’t come, but thought this time it would be different. It wasn’t. The same thing happened every night since they got here and he was fed up. But not tonight.
He put the camp oven on the hearth while he set about building up the fire. Half an hour later he sat in the chair and stared at the flames leaping from the logs. The door opened and the drovers entered.
‘Strewth Jimmy, you’ve got a rip roarer of a fire going,’ said Bluey.
The men took off their coats and hats and drew close to the fireplace. Jimmy put the plates on the table and ladled out the stew on each one.
‘If I wasn’t already married, I think I’d marry you, Jimmy,’ joked Jacky.
All the men laughed then concentrated on clearing their plates, while Jimmy boiled the billy to make the tea.
‘I tell you what,’ said Old Bill,’I got a full belly, and I aint never been so warm. Now I reckon I’ll have a bit of a read and I’ll be a happy man.’
‘I reckon I’ll join ya,’ said Tom, and went over to the camp bed in the corner.
He pulled back the rugs and turned to Jimmy.
‘You seen me book Jim?’ he asked.
‘I can’t find mine either,’ said Old Bill, as he dug around the sugar bag he carried his private things in.
The other two men went to look for their books and turned to the others.
‘Gone,’ they both said in unison.
All four men looked at Jimmy.
‘What have you done with our books Jimmy?’ asked Old Bill.
‘I burned them,’ said Jimmy.
The men stared at the fireplace as the realisation of what had fuelled the fire sunk in.
‘What the blazes did you do that for Jimmy?’ asked Old Bill, shaking his head.
‘I can’t read, so now none of youse can neither,’ Jimmy replied. Youse bastards are gonna have to talk to me instead.’
In 1953, the American author, Ray Bradbury, wrote Farenheit 451 a novel about book burning. Fahrenheit 451 was named to represent the temperature at which paper ignites. It’s a story about a future American society where books are banned and firefighters burn any that are found. At the time it was written the author was concerned about censorship and the suppression of books and the works of particular writers in the United States.
Public book burning has occurred throughout history at many times and in many countries. The reasons encompass vandalism, anti-intellectualism, censorship and bigotry. When undertaken by totalitarian regimes or militias, book burning, often on a large scale, can only be seen as an act of terror, often accompanied by other targeted and systematic violence against particular groups of people.
The motivation of an illiterate individual to burn a book, such as that in my father’s story, is in stark contrast to the ideology of punishment promulgated by political and military enforcers. While books may be seen as ‘the enemy’ in both accounts, the actions of the young man in The Fire are those of a lonely human being whose inability to read creates dependency and despair. The book burning is a desperate act driven by feelings of powerlessness.
I feel sadness for the 776 million people, two thirds of whom are women and girls who are unable to read, because I know the joy books have brought to my life and I want everyone to experience the wonders of the written word. I also feel angry because literacy is a Human Right that they are denied.
Books can illuminate truth, they can shed light on ideas, be a beacon in the darkness and a guiding light for all humanity. For these very reasons, books can also be viewed as powerful and dangerous. Those people who want to keep others in the dark are threatened by universal literacy, free public libraries and the widespread publication and promotion of literature.
Books have always been my friends, chiefly because they are a repository for stories that speak to me. But many stories cannot be held in the confines of a book cover. Since the invention of writing, folktales, told and retold have jumped on and off the page and many have never set foot in a book. Wild stories leaping from tongue to ear, nestling in the hearts and memories of the listeners, painting images on their mind’s canvas. For this reason I am a teller of tales before I employ the craft of writing them. So let me finish with a traditional tale to light up your life.
Filling the Barn
A father once set a competition for his three children. Each child was given a sum of money to buy whatever they could to fill the barn. Whoever filled the barn to the fullest would be the winner. On the appointed evening all the people from the village were invited to witness the results of the competition. As the sun sunk slowly below the horizon, the first child brought in tapestries and carpets and succeeded in covering the barn’s floor and walls. The second child brought in tables and chairs and couches and scattered them over the floor. But where was the third child?
The father invited the villagers into the barn and they settled themselves on cushions and chairs and couches and waited for the third child’s entrance. As darkness descended there were murmurs of discontent among the people. They wanted to see the artistry of the tapestries, the patterns on the carpet, the grain of the wood in the chairs and realised that if the third child didn’t come soon they would all trip over each other on their way out. It was so dark. Finally the door opened and the third child entered the barn carrying two burning torches, and singing a song. The light of the torches illuminated the tapestries and reflected the smiles on the faces of the villagers. They listened with rapture to the song praising the beauty of human invention and endeavour. When she had finished her song, the father clapped his hands together and turned to this children and smiled. First child, you have filled the barn with works of beauty for us to enjoy, second child, you have brought the means for us to comfortably enjoy our lives and third child, you have filled the barn with light, and light is knowledge, and you have filled the barn with song and song is joy. Together, knowledge and joy make wisdom. And when the children’s mother brought in great pots of spicy stew and bread for everyone to eat, not only was the barn full, but so were the hearts and bellies of everyone there.
Photograph by Roman W. Schatz