The essay can slip under the radar of the average reader, possibly dismissed as an academic task requiring footnotes and bibliography. Which is understandable but disappointing, given the span of the essay's reach, roaming across many aspects of the human condition, from light-hearted commentary on everyday experience to cultural appraisal and social summary. The notion of the essay as a personal reflection is suggested by the French expression "to attempt", and was affirmed in the 16th century by Michel de Montaigne, who, having read much, wandered widely, and pondered deeply, retired to his vineyard to clarify his thoughts, and preserve them by filling a few notebooks. This gave rise to his to reputation as an early essayist.
My love of the essay as a popular literary form was enlivened by Charmian Clift's collected prose in the 1960s, which - from self-deprecating modesty - she preferred to call "pieces", despite their idiosyncratic ability to express wisdom on topical issues in a delightfully conversational tone that somehow managed to escape classification. I was therefore pleased to note that Rick Morten's introduction to Growing Up in Country Australia is willing to make no bones about offering this eclectic collection of rural memories as essays.
Morton is a writer and journalist who grew up in outback Queensland, and his 2021 memoir, My Year of Living Vulnerably, movingly revealed a sadly late diagnosis of complex post-traumatic stress disorder. Growing up in Country Australia contains 40 essays, including Morton's introduction, in which he refers to the "ineffable" quality of themes such as "loneliness or belonging, sustenance or degradation; or even the particular politics of the country school bus". His own memory is of a school-age gig, folding the local newspaper. "It was the best job, even at $6 an hour, and I never wanted to be anywhere else."
One of the attractions of a book like this is knowing that you don't have to read it in page sequence from cover to cover. You can dip in anywhere. My chosen priority option was to check the list of contributors and head for whichever CV I found enticing. Or those of whom I was already aware, such as well-known ABC TV identity, Annabel Crabb, who tells us: "Growing up on a farm teaches you some fairly brutal lessons about life's realities". In Crabb's case, the fact that her father would occasionally do his own butchery helped explain her "30-year stint of vegetarianism". She also describes mouse plagues and the unique scent of drought-hardened earth after rain. There is, she says, a lovely word for it - petrichor, from the Greek for stone and fluid.
I recognised another ABC name from the title of his contribution: "Q&A with Tony Armstrong", which perhaps stretches the essay's definition with a good-natured chat as Morton and the ABC TV Breakfast News sports reporter exchange witty reflections on school buses, regional footy and BMX bikes. Elsewhere, I was drawn by the way Michael Winkler was haunted by spooky memories of a country school classmate, whose nondescript personality had made him so ordinary that he was "forever overlooked, even when he was right in front of you". And I enjoyed Fiona White's account of her beloved pony, Nimbus, surviving a journey from his New Zealand home to outback Australia, and Canberra GP Joo-Inn Chew's story of escaping summer heat as a child in the family dam, diving right to "the glorious cool depths" where it is "still and cold and dark enough to bring on a delicious fearful shiver".
And there is dark stuff here as well, as Edie Mitsuda, whose brief contributor's note simply describes her as "a young woman born and raised on Wilinyu/Nhanagardi Country, WA", skilfully evokes a brooding sense of menace on a high school bus, perhaps founded by the "feral kinds of doubt plaguing us". Surprisingly, Mitsuda has no writing credits listed, but the quality of her prose here suggests she soon will. In contrast, I also liked Samantha Leung's charming memory of her water polo-enhanced childhood in Geraldton, 400 kms north of Perth, and considered the windiest place in WA. (I hope someone is planning to install windfarms). This is one of many essays highlighting the significance of sport in country Australia.
This is the ideal bedside-table browsing book, ready to be flipped open at any page, allowing the curtain to come down on pre-sleep reading after one, two, or perhaps, three essays at a single session, with a comfortable feeling of narrative closure. Growing up in Country Australia explores thoughtful, sad and comic aspects of our island continent home, with its tyranny of distance and bush-hardened spirit in the face of droughts, fires, and floods. There are many themes common to all these essays, but none more so than the often hard-to-pin-down laconic Australian resilience. With its air of, not so much resignation, but perhaps something like philosophic acceptance; circumstantially as well as existentially. Highly recommended.
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.