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This book is a valuable reissue of a landmark Australian work, first published in 1969 and written by a man with a chip on his shoulder as heavy as a ghost gum. Its melancholic burden is to let its author, the linguist and collector Theodor George Henry Strehlow, tell the tragic story of his German father, the scholarly Lutheran pastor Carl Strehlow of the Hermannsburg Mission in Central Australia. After 28 years of complicated Christian endeavour, the pastor fell gravely ill in 1922, and, largely as a result of the alleged neglect and perniciousness of his Lutheran colleagues down south, failed to get to the medical help that might have saved him.
Suffering from pleurisy and swollen with dropsy, the great ingkata, or ceremonial chief, as he was known by a devoted Aboriginal congregation, was hauled onto a buggy with his wife, and carted down the Finke River en route to Adelaide, in agony at each bump. After eight days in the heat, he reached the hotel at Horseshoe Bend, where he died, crying out, “God doesn’t help.” He was buried there in the burning red earth at the edge of the Simpson Desert, his coffin knocked up from gum saplings and old whisky cases.
The narrative, with its Cecil B DeMille biblical dimension, is intrinsically moving, and would be more so without Strehlow’s righteous sense of grievance. He was 14 at the time, as fluent in Aranda as he was in German, and he travelled all the way behind his parents on a dray – escorted by Aboriginal friends from the mission, but suffering as the lonely soul he always felt himself to be. He refers to himself in the third person, Theo, and the journey left him plagued by romantic agonies and a childish sense of entitlement.
Romance is indeed the rich, darkening thing about this strange book that is as colonial as it is incipiently postcolonial. It glosses the mission’s subjects, referred to as “dark folk”, and recounts, often in purple prose, killings on both sides of the frontier: black on black before the whites came, and the slaughters that served pastoral purposes. All the while it invokes the mythic sites, as the journey traverses the Aboriginal country Strehlow came to know so well from making what was his real classic, Songs of Central Australia, which was finished 13 years before this book but not published until 1971.
Journey to Horseshoe Bend is lit with creation stories: it’s the first Australian book to so vividly and extensively weave such a narrative, thus animating the whole with a double sense of the eternal – what we might make of a God that fails, even as we travel among the legendary spirits of the land’s first owners.
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