“Rush OH!”, bellows George Davidson, rallying his motley crew of whalers who must charge to their posts and give chase to a magnificent beast. Living in Eden, New South Wales, Australia at the turn of the 20th century, Davidson comes from a long line of whalers who have been successful for generations, but 1908 turns out to be one of the harshest years on record. Mary Davidson, George’s oldest child, recounts the story of that fateful year, which stands as the point at which their family business began to unravel and Mary’s life is forever altered. Through Mary’s remembrances, the reader is treated to some savory lingo and unsavory insight into the whaling business.
Since her mother died, Mary has tended to her five siblings and served as helpmeet to her father’s rough-and-tumble crew. Despite her cleverness and industriousness, she seems destined for these roles, for she believes herself to be homely and is too conscientious to shirk her familial responsibilities. Mary has grown up in a time and place that has little value for women like her; her grandfather “would so frequently mutter the word ‘harlots’ in our near vicinity that for a long time we believed it was the Gaelic word for ‘girls.'” With self-deprecating charm, Mary tells us that:
“I myself value qualities such as kindness and consideration for others above mere symmetry of form; however, it seems I am out of step with public taste in this regard.”
Having grown up on the peripheries of the whaling world, Mary is both intimately aware of and yet oddly naive to the ins and outs of this cruel craft. In the fateful year of 1908, Mary gets her first peek behind the curtain.
“For although I understood in principle the technicalities of whaling – the harpooning, the chase to exhaustion, the necessity of a swift and vigorous lancing – I had never conceived, never understood, never imagined for one moment the horror of it all.”
Mary’s disdain is, in my opinion, belated and short-lived. I found myself recoiling at the brutality and hubris of whaling, an industry built solely on the exploitation of nature to support human vanity. Clearly my inner anthropologist still struggles to check cultural biases, and this struggle impeded my ability to empathize with Shirley Barrett’s characters. Despite the absence of a strong connection with her characters, however, I did find that Barrett deftly handled her historical era, creating a story that felt fresh but not anachronistic. Her development of plot and character were expertly executed, and the story kept my interest from tip to tail.