A need for steed
Celebrated Silver Brumby author Elyne Mitchell at Towong Hill homestead.
THE SILVER BRUMBY CENTENARY EDITION
By Elyne Mitchell
ELYNE MITCHELL: A DAUGHTER REMEMBERS
By Honor Auchinleck
ON THE TRAIL OF THE SILVER BRUMBY
By Elyne Mitchell
I DIDN'T discover Elyne Mitchell's Silver Brumby books until I arrived in Australia in my early 20s, but when I did I fell hard. I devoured the books, enchanted by the stories of Thowra, the magnificent silver stallion and his family, friends and foes, and by the vivid descriptions of the landscape and the flora and fauna of the Snowy Mountains.
Next year is the centenary of Mitchell's birth, and HarperCollins has produced a three-book package to commemorate the occasion. There are four Silver Brumby titles in one; an exquisite hardback, On the Trail of the Silver Brumby, a photographic record of the Snowy Mountains; and the first biography of Elyne Mitchell, written by one of her daughters, Honor Auchinleck.
You can't judge a book by its cover, or so they say, but in this case you certainly can, because the elegantly cool silver, blue and white covers are exquisitely designed and true indicators of the content of all the books, in which the Snowy Mountains play a starring role.
The Silver Brumby Centenary Edition is the most straightforward, but it, too, has special touches, including a long biographical note on Mitchell, photographs, drawings by Mitchell's eldest daughter, Indi, and a map. The collection includes four of the 13-book series, published across a staggering six decades - from The Silver Brumby in 1958 to Wild Echoes Ringing in 2003.
Re-reading the four, I am struck by how Mitchell gives the horses a voice without overly anthropomorphising their characters. She knew horses. She knew how they spoke to one another in the language of ''horse''.
Curiously, even though at the same time she was writing there were many English writers having huge success with talking animals - think C. S. Lewis and the Narnia books, or Tolkien, of course - it was the ''talking'' horses and animals that Australians were initially reluctant to embrace. Not that it mattered, since children everywhere took her stories of the wild brumbies and the mountains into their hearts, and The Silver Brumby alone sold more than 1 million copies worldwide.
Her stories are deeply embedded in the national psyche of Australia. Here is the strong, formidable countrywoman who survives disasters (and there were many - including the death of one of her children), who can run a homestead, breed and train horses, and still be an adventurer, champion skier and explorer. After her son Harry's death in a car accident, Mitchell said of her life in the country: ''It is a marvellous life, terribly hard sometimes, but marvellous.''
Auchinleck's biography of her mother is a feat of diplomacy. She proves herself as a writer, but also balances the almost impossible task of being the subject's daughter and a detached observer with great skill and empathy. Because it wasn't easy being the somewhat self-obsessed Mitchell's daughter, that's for sure.
The third book, On the Trail of the Silver Brumby, is full of gems. It knits together a wonderful tapestry of photographs - many by Mitchell's grandson James Auchinleck; the best of Mitchell's non-fiction writing, including her advocacy for environmentalism and conservation, snippets of poems and stories, and a history of the mountains, as well as brumby photographs matched with quotes from Mitchell's books.
If there is one truism in publishing and writing, it is that writers should write about what they love, and certainly Mitchell did that.
Take the first words of The Silver Brumby. The reader is thrown headfirst into the story, and into the Snowy Mountains, Mitchell's constant inspiration for her writing: ''Once there was a dark, stormy night in spring, when, deep down in their holes, the wombats knew not to come out, when the possums stayed quiet in their hollow limbs, when the great, black, flying phalangers that live in the mountain forests never stirred. On this night, Bel Bel, the cream brumby mare, gave birth to a colt foal, pale like herself, or paler, in that wild, black storm.''
I love that paragraph, for so many reasons. To begin with, it uses those magnificent words - ''a dark, stormy night'' - words not exactly approved of by the literary academy, and yet they set the scene so perfectly. It's almost a painting, so clearly has Mitchell drawn on her deep knowledge of the environment in which the book was set.
Mitchell wrote 24 novels during her lifetime, and nine non-fiction books, many of which presaged the importance of environmentalism. And in an almost postmodern twist, she wrote the novel of the screenplay of the film based on the poem The Man from Snowy River.
People seem to be divided into two types - those whom life lives, and those who live life. Mitchell was definitely in the latter category - from an early age she took the chances she was given and transformed them into outstanding achievements. A somewhat lonely child, she wrote constantly, and introduced to life in the country on a farm at Mount Macedon, she fell in love with horses and the bush. Those three touchstones remained with her for the rest of her life.
She was a woman of quite extraordinary athletic ability and determination. Mitchell was born in Melbourne, but even in the city, horses were already a constant presence. She rode with her father, General Harry Chauvel, of Beersheba fame, both in South Yarra, where the family lived, and on the beach at Point Lonsdale. It was perhaps no surprise that at age 20 she fell in love with a young man who had country flowing in his veins. Tom Mitchell, a lawyer, educated at both Harvard and Cambridge, came from a family who had been one of the first to settle in the Upper Murray on a Towong Hill farm.
In her husband, Mitchell discovered someone as athletic, determined and as hard-working as herself.
Tom Mitchell was the Australian and New Zealand downhill skiing champion, and not unnaturally taught Elyne to ski. Skiing and becoming a champion are two different things but Elyne managed to do both, becoming the Canadian downhill champion in 1938.
All her life, Mitchell espoused the virtues of early rising, exercise and hard work. She frequently rose at 4am to write, and during the war years managed the estate on her own while Tom was away.
The last time Mitchell was on a horse was when she was lifted onto her last palomino pony, Thowra - named after her beloved Silver Brumby - shortly before her death at the age of 88. Only three months later, Thowra led the funeral procession to the cemetery.
Ironically, and somewhat sadly with the ever-increasing push to remove cattle and brumbies from the mountains, Mitchell's way of life is fast disappearing.
But the haunting power of the stories she leaves behind will be enjoyed for generations to come, and while there are horse lovers and readers, the legend of the Silver Brumby will live on.