“as Australian as a yellow box tree” – The Canberra Times, 1962
Gubba is preparing to celebrate its centenary and its history as a goldrush town. But there are two factions in Gubba – the wealthy ‘woolocracy’ with their social pretensions and the ordinary townsfolk who are just after the peaceful life.
Pretty young Eden Dutton gets caught up in the feud – her brother wants to make the town a centre for tourism and ‘picnic races’ – but her heart seems to be fighting for the opposite side. Young prospector Greg Millard isn’t her family’s idea of the right type of bloke, but the Hon. Ralph Tenterden certainly is.
And then a surprise discovery brings a change when it was least expected and upsets all the townspeople’s plans.
(Allen & Unwin publishers synopsis)
I really wanted to love this book. It had all the right ingredients: small-town Australia, an eclectic mix of quirky characters, a romance, gum trees and farms and swimming in rivers all to the backdrop of 1960’s social upheaval. Unfortunately, it nearly became a DNF, twice – once for boredom, then for distaste. However, each time, a day or so later, I felt compelled to continue and now that I’ve finished I feel a strange, fond nostalgia for it.
The story starts off well. We meet a few characters and they are portrayed vividly, with humour and that recognisable ‘Aussie’ pioneer, salt-of-the-earth spirit. Cusack’s writing is lovely. The haze of dust, the smell of the wool-shed, the thrill of a moonlight dance. Her descriptions of the old farms, houses, the town and the bush are wonderfully evocative.
However, no sooner does the story take off that it slows down again as we meet a bunch more characters and their backstories…multiple backstories for some of them. It seems Cusack wants us to meet every Gubban and know their life stories inside and out. It went on a bit.
Then the young, beautiful, bright hope of the social set, Eden arrived and it became interesting again. The pace picked up, the dialogue sparkled and things began to happen. Such as THE party. It was the 60’s afterall so I shouldn’t have been shocked, but there were a couple of scenes Cusack wrote that didn’t sit well with me. That was the second DNF.
I picked it up again as I really did want to know what happened in the end and I was rewarded with a delightful, very funny and surprising final fifty pages.
Upon its release, a reviewer in The Canberra Times “praised its setting while being a little less impressed with its overall worth as a novel” and I would entirely agree with this. I rarely review books I don’t love, but there is so little out there about this book that I didn’t want it unmentioned it all. It certainly isn’t without merit and if you’re interested in 20th century rural Australia then it’s worth a read.
Dymphna Cusack (1902 – 1981) was a prolific writer, outspoken social reformer, republican and prominent anti-nuclear activist. She travelled extensively whilst suffering ill health for most of her adult life, being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis three years before her death. She firmly believed that ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’ and used her writing to promote her beliefs, often courting controversy. She collaborated with Miles Franklin on ‘Pioneers on Parade’ in 1939 and her most well-known piece of work ‘Come in Spinner’ in 1951 with Florence James.
I found my 2nd edition, dust-jacketed copy of Picnic Races in a second-hand bookstore, but if you’re not so lucky new copies can be purchased here.